sheared grass 1

Spring Cleaning Ornamental Grasses

The basic rule of ornamental grass maintenance is to leave them standing over winter and don’t mess with them until they are actively growing in early to late spring. They don’t require much care, but will benefit from some annual grooming and spring is the time to do it. Most of the grooming involves cutting back, and when and how to cut back depends on the type of grass you have.

The first ones to cut back are the cool season, deciduous grasses, and these can be cut back to about 3 inches after temperatures rise above freezing. In Victoria gardens this usually means mid-March, when the new growth is just starting to show.

Cool season perennial grasses include Calamagrostis, Carex elata Bowles Golden, Deschampsia, Elymus, Millium, Molinia and Cortaderia.

Hakonacloa Sprouting

Hakonacloa Sprouting

 HakonechloaImperata ‘Red Baron’ and Chasmanthium are deciduous grasses that start to grow in early spring at which time all the old foliage can be cleaned up.

Cutting back of warm season grasses is not done until late spring, after any threat of frost has passed and before the new growth starts to show. Don’t wait too long to do this to avoid cutting the tips of the new growth with the old. Leaving the old foliage up too long can also delay the crown’s warming and growth by several weeks. All those lovely grasses that provided much appreciated buff-coloured winter structure in the garden need to be cut back to about 6 inches from the ground.

Sheared Grass

Sheared Grass

These grasses will gradually start to grow back in from their “hedgehog” look and then really take off with summer heat. A more rounded cut rather than straight across can give a more natural look when growing back in.

Warm season grasses needing this late spring hair cut include Miscanthus, Muhlenbergia, Pennisetums, Panicums, Spartina and Arundo.

There are a few grasses that remain evergreen in our climate. For the most part the only grooming they need is combing. Carex, Fescue, Helictotrichon (Blue Oat) and Stipa usually refresh from a simple comb through with fingers or rake to remove the dead buff foliage which easily separates from the new growth in spring (this can be repeated in summer). Insert re-growing stipa

Some evergreen grasses start to look shabby after a few years or harsh winter and may actually require cutting back. The recommended time to do this is in late spring when the grasses are actively growing. And never cut too low to the base; always leave about one third of the foliage in place.

Anemanthele lessoniana (formerly Stipa arundinacea) (pictured here) seems to need a gentle hand and should be cut back to no lower than 6 inches. Broader leafed Carex ‘Ice Dance’ can be cut back to the ground and kept moist to refresh.

Handy tools for this job include gloves, a bungie cord for bundling, a tarp for gathering and a good saw or shears. A little spring grooming prepares your ornamental grasses for another wonderful show.

kale mulched for winter scaled

Protecting Your Winter Vegetable Garden

Most of the vegetables suitable for the winter garden are perfectly hardy, but minor protective measures will ensure a greater harvest, better quality leaves, and cleaner produce.  I’ve grown kale, leeks, chard and purple sprouting broccoli in a raised bed with no protection over the winter other than leaves covering the soil.

The soil needs more protection than the plants, ironically.  If we have a mild, wet winter, constant rain will leech nutrients away, compact the soil, and enable weeds to take hold.  If we have a cold winter with freezing and thawing, the soil needs an insulating buffer, because if it freezes, water can’t be absorbed by the plants, and the freeze/thaw cycle causes heaving of the soil with subsequent damage to the fine root hairs.

Kale mulched for winter

The best soil mulch is a 4-6” layer of autumn leaves, which insulates, protects and feeds the soil as it’s broken down first by worms, and later by microbes.  The breaking down process takes place faster if the leaves are chopped up first, but even if left whole, they will work.  In really cold weather, a further mulch of fluffy conifer branches or larger leaves may be used to cover the plants entirely. The shoulders of root veggies will benefit from a covering when the temperature plummets.

Covering with a plastic sheet is very effective in cold and rain; it raises the temperature while also protecting from drying winds. A covering such as this needn’t be attached to a frame, it can just be draped over the bed and held down with rocks.  Some people make a support with pipe hoops, or a tunnel of wire mesh which keeps the plastic from weighing down the plants if rain or snow accumulates on top.   On warmer days, you can leave the plastic sheet on to trap the warmth, or remove it for ventilation.

What about a greenhouse? This of course is the ultimate protection, and crops grown in an unheated greenhouse will have unblemished leaves, no slug damage, and the warmth of sunny days brings on spurts of growth unseen outside. Just remember to water occasionally, and in a very cold snap, a blanket or tarp will keep the plants warmer.  On sunny days you may have to open the doors to moderate the wide swings of temperature from day to night, and to provide ventilation.

What about slugs? Slugs don’t go south for winter, but continue to share our harvests, unfortunately. Safers Slug bait is safe for pets and other animals, and is worth using sparingly all season long in a mild winter.

Climbing cutworms can do serious damage in the early spring; their presence looks like slug attacks, but there will be no slime trail. They come out at night to eat, so either go out with a flashlight, or check for the characteristic C-shaped, ugly-looking caterpillar curled up in the leaf litter. Their pupae look like mahogany bullets, something to eliminate whenever you see them.

So enjoy your winter garden, and with these few precautions your harvest will be bountiful and rich.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I will remind you all of Linda Gilkeson’s fine book Year Round Harvest: Winter Gardening on the Coast, available via her website.





kale leaf with aphids

Tending Your Winter Vegetables In October

Mid October has finally brought the first rains of the season, as we say goodbye to the lovely, long late summer.  Has there ever been a fall as gorgeous as this one?

The extended fall has unfortunately enabled those evil white cabbage moths to produce yet another generation of their voracious offspring.  Even today, I found several of the green hairless caterpillars munching on the leaves of my Lacinato Kale. Oddly enough, the Red Russian Kale seems unscathed.

Kale leaf with aphids

I was away for 10 days!

Aphids as well have had another chance in this warmth. Their veggie of choice appears to be the Purple Kale.  If it’s not possible to blast them off with the hose, a good squishing does the job.

Kale leaf with aphids

Keep inspecting both sides of the young leaves; while insects aren’t generally a problem for winter gardening, the young plants in a warm fall will fall prey to these very hungry munchers if you aren’t vigilant.

At this time of year, there is no point adding compost or granular organic fertilizer, as the microorganisms that convert these organics into usable food for the plants are dormant. It’s a better idea to feed frequently with liquid organics, alternating weekly with fish and seaweed dilutions while the plants are still small.

The whole point is to get your winter vegetables off to a good strong start before the cold weather really sets in; ideally they should be almost full size by Halloween.  Don’t worry if yours are smaller than this, they’ll just produce a little later in the spring

Any of the taller winter vegetables, such as Purple Sprouting Broccoli or Brussels Sprouts will benefit from staking; these are quite top heavy and subject to wind lash.

Gather up fall leaves and mulch the veggies well, covering the soil with about 4” of loosely piled organic matter. When the storms of November toss piles of seaweed onto the beach, I like to bring some of this nutrient-laden bounty home, and add to the leaf mulch on my vegetable beds.

By the way, next time you are at the nursery, stop by our working greenhouse by the driveway, and see the staff veggie garden all tucked in for the winter, and enjoy seeing it mature over the coming months.  Swiss Chard, Kale, Spinach, Green Onions, Mache and Purple Sprouting Broccoli—what a feast!

Fall Butchart Gardens

Fall is the New Spring

Do you remember when springs were warm, and fall was a time of crisp air and the smell of burning leaves? Times have changed!  Spring is now cold and wet, with temperatures not climbing until well into June. Fall (which, in many minds starts after Labour Day!) has been longer and warmer, with dry air and a slower more beautiful burnishing of foliage.

Here on the west coast, autumn is a great time to plant shrubs, perennials, and most trees.  Even as air temperatures cool at the end of summer, soil temperatures remain warm.. Root growth continues until the soil goes below 5 degrees C (40 degrees F), and in our part of the country it is well into November or December before this happens. Fall plantings  begin to establish themselves and are ready for new growth in spring.

When digging the warm dry soil at this time of year, it’s a good idea to fill the planting hole with water, let it drain, then place the soaked root ball into the hole, ensuring a moist root run. If the soil is really dry, turn it over few times and soak the whole area with the hose.  As the Head Gardener of your plot of land, you don’t have to worry about watering, as fall plantings have the benefit of regular rainfall for about 6 months.  Plus, they don’t have to contend with heat and drought until they have put some roots down.

We all know the hazards of walking on wet soil, compacting it and annoying those hard working earthworms, so save the worms and be kind to the soil by doing as much as possible in the autumn when the soil is drier. The leaf litter in the spring often harbors hibernating bumble bees and other treasured pollinators, so the longer you can postpone the disturbance of soil in the early months of the year, the happier the bees will be.

Agastache ‘Blue Fortune’

Dividing perennials is best done in fall, but ornamental grasses should wait until spring, when active growth has started.   Late fall and early winter are great times to move deciduous shrubs and trees as well as many evergreens.  Marginally hardy plants should NOT be moved in the fall.   Be sure to stake larger plants to protect them from wind rock that can damage emerging roots.

So far, all the reasons given for fall planting have focused on the plants, but let’s give gardeners our due, and recognize that perhaps fall is a better time for us as well!

In the warm days of fall, the ground is dry and the air calm. It rarely rains.  We don’t need boots and rain gear.  A quiet afternoon in September or October, shovel in hand, sounds pretty close to Paradise, does it not? OK, we miss the aroma of burning leaves, but enjoy them as mulch instead, as we top dress the newly planted beds.

Happy autumn to one and all, may we have several more weeks of sunshine as we move into the new spring, called fall. 

cotinus during v1

Spring Haircuts For Shrubs: Pruning To Avoid ‘Bad Hair Days’

I look back with horror on how I used to prune my shrubs. Akin to a “bowl cut” for hair, basically I just trimmed off the ends of branches to keep shrubs the size and shape I wanted, resulting in a “witches broom”, a scary hairstyle indeed. Alternatively, I didn’t prune at all, favouring the wild and wooly look.  It’s embarrassing to think of the Buddleia that I had to support with  a complicated rigging of stakes and twine. Then I took a 4-session pruning class with Patty Brown, at the Horticulture Center, and my gardening life changed. Always ask yourself ‘Why do I want to prune this plant?’ Here are three of the main reasons. Training—To direct the growth in a direction that you choose. Cut to a bud which faces in the direction you want the branch to go. Maintenance To enhance the health of the plant. Removing dead, diseased, or damaged wood (the famous DDD); removing branches that cross, rub, or otherwise impinge on the space of their fellow limbs; increase air circulation. RejuvenationThis is often drastic and requires experience. Don’t attempt to do this all in one year; the process may take several years, with some rejuvenation pruning done each year on an old, decrepit and suffering plant. Sometimes better to buy a new one.

The joke in the class was that we had to prune all of our deciduous shrubs on March 1 at 2pm; a rule meant to be broken, but a guideline to follow. The rationale is that the sap is about to flow, bringing food and energy gushing to the freshly cut branches, stimulating new growth.   Pruning in the dead of winter when it’s cold and wet can invite rot on the cut surfaces, so March 1st gives the best of both worlds; the plant is dormant but growth is about to begin for the new season.

To prevent loss of the current year’s bloom, follow the adage “If it blooms before June, you don’t have to prune.”  Well, you do have to prune, but not now.  Wait until after flowering to prune your spring bloomers. We learned that there are only two main types of pruning; heading back, and thinning. That witches broom I mentioned is from heading back incorrectly.

This hydrangea will be both headed back, (cut to a fat bud on the bare stem) and thinned as well (by cutting out one quarter of the oldest branches to the ground).

Heading back is to shorten branches, direct growth, or maintain size, but is also used to keep some shrubs tidy and full, as in shearing hedges or small-leafed evergreens such as boxwood, heather, etc.  Remember that at any cut point, new growth will erupt, so you must decide whether you want a burst of new green, or just a more controlled response.  I have a Rose Glow Berberis right beside a pathway, and if you’ve ever crossed swords with one of these, you’ll understand the value of heading back in a responsible way, to keep it within bounds but not encourage rampant re-growth. I always shorten the branches by cutting to a smaller side branch that is aimed away from the path.

Many of our favourite shrubs benefit from being totally cut back every year, in a technique called coppicing, which is a fancy word for cutting off all the branches just above ground level (a severe form of heading back). This encourages strong new growth, and bountiful bloom on the ones that flower on new wood such as Lavaterra, Buddleia, Leycesteria Formosa (Himalayan Honeysuckle), Hydrangea arborescens eg Annabelle,  Hydrangea paniculata eg Limelight.

Think of how much energy this Buddleia has wasted putting on these leaves. The pruning should have been done a few weeks ago.

All ready to start growing.

The very popular red-twigged dogwood, Cornus stolonifera, is another candidate for coppicing, as the new growth is always much redder and more vibrant. A newly coppiced Cornus will sprout new red growth quickly and make a much more stunning specimen in the following winter.

Thinning cuts are exactly that; meant to thin an overcrowded shrub by removing branches at their point of origin —either at the ground, from a larger branch, or from a Y-joint junction.  Entire shrubs can be gradually renewed by taking out one quarter of the oldest branches, to the ground, each year.

Broadleaf evergreens can also be pruned now unless flowering is an issue. This is usually done by heading back, ie. as in maintaining a hedge, or with thinning cuts to eliminate crowding.  The burst of new spring growth will cover up any stumps or stubs. Pruning at this time of year gives us the gardening fix that we so need, and only ‘good hair days’ for our shrubs.

Cotinus before coppicing

Cotinus being pruned

Coppiced cotinus.

hellebores needing cutting

Late Winter In The Garden; Hellebores And Epimediums

It’s very tempting to call this Early Spring, but let’s not risk jinxing it.  CBC even threatened possible snow for next weekend, so I’ll be careful what I say.  Was it my thought of starting some seeding that brought back the cold weather??

It’s still very wet and muddy out there, so there shouldn’t be a lot of stomping around on the soil yet. However, there are a few tasks that should be done before the warmth progresses much further.

If you read my blog last year at this time about cutting back ferns,  you’ll remember how important it is to cut evergreen plants back before the new growth emerges, lest you cut off the new with the old.

Epimediums are a particularly useful ground cover; they thrive in dry shade, deer find them unappetizing, and they are evergreen.  What’s not to love? The dainty leaves take on a burnished bronze in winter, then just before spring they need to be lopped off in preparation for new growth. The key is to cut it all back just before the delicate little flower stems reach up into the canopy of leaves. The emerging stems unfurl, not unlike the way fern fronds uncoil, from a crouching position to standing  tall; well about 8” tall, anyway.  This seems to happen all of a sudden, and if the leaves aren’t already cut back, it’s impossible to separate the two, resulting in flower buds lying sadly on the ground with last year’s leaves.

Epimedium With Bud

In the dark days of February the light isn’t conducive to great photo shoots in my garden, but here you can just see the first little brave bud starting its journey skyward, after the leaves had been shorn. Within a few days, many more buds will follow.

Is there any more welcome sight in winter than the charming faces of Hellebore blooms? Modern hybrids offer not only a vast assortment of colours from pink to yellow to purplish black to pure white, but the outward facing blooms on sturdy upright stems make these gems irresistible.  They are very drought tolerant once established, do well in shade as well as sun, and the deer don’t eat them.

They don’t like being divided, are a low maintenance perennial with few pests. The one thing you do need to do at this time of year however, is to cut off the ratty leaves when the plant is blooming, as this is when the new foliage is emerging.   The old leaves become leathery and lay on the ground at this time, making it easy to see what to cut.   Don’t put the hellebore leaves in your compost, as a precaution against the black spot fungus that hellebores often get on old foliage.

Hellebores Needing Cutting

The picture shows the big glossy leaves surrounding all the new growth. Cut off all the big leaves, as hard as this may be to do!

By keeping your perennials cut back at the right time of year, you are refreshing and renewing the life of your garden, and giving yourself the much needed boost of a little time in the garden at a very dark time of year.

How soon until we can safely call this Early Spring? One thing we can do without harm, I think, is get our seeding trays washed and check our supply of seeds from last year, buy some choice new ones…..…next week, seeding indoors. 

linda yard mulch2 web fmt

Amending Your Soil For Winter

We are all used to a blanket making us cozy and warm in the cold days of winter, but feeding us too? Well that’s what winter mulch can do for your garden; nourish the soil and protect it from rain and freezing temperatures.

It may seem mysterious, but really all you need to do is provide lots of organic matter to feed the millions of microorganisms that will convert nutrients to usable food for the plants.  These little organisms will slow down for the winter, but by putting the mulch down in the fall, it’s already broken down by spring when the warmth wakes the little critters up and they can get to work right away. Usually we also have to correct the pH here, as our winter rains tend to make the soil more acid. With the exception of strawberries and potatoes, most veggies need a higher pH so the addition of dolomite lime in the fall is a good thing to do.  Of course the ericaceous plants (acid-loving) such as rhododendrons, camellias, heathers, pieris, and conifers are happier without the lime.

The easiest, cheapest, and most effective form of organic amendment is right there in your yard already; falling leaves need only be raked and layered in the beds; ideally, mow them on the lawn and dump onto the garden beds, both ornamental and veggie, but even just dumping them on in a 6” layer is fine, as long as they are nice and fluffy and not likely to pack down. Oak leaves are especially wonderful for the acid-lovers.  The practice in our culture of placing autumn leaves in a pile or plastic bag for the municipality to gather and sell back to us as compost is bizarre. Do you ever see forests needing fertilizing? Of course not, the leaves fall, they decompose, and return their nutrients to the soil, which feeds the trees and the cycle is repeated.  While you’re at it with the leaves, bag some up and save for spring and summer, when the “brown” part of composting is in short supply. You’ll be happy to have these crispy crunchies to add to your mostly-green compost, and the microorganisms in your soil will thank you.

By leaving the leaves in your garden beds, not only do you feed the soil and suppress weeds, you provide a haven for beneficial insects.  The lovely bumble bee nests in fallen leaf litter in garden beds.  One of the many pleasures of spring is seeing the groggy bumbles stumbling around when first awakening from their winter naps, going from crocus and heather to sarcococca, feasting on nectar and pollen

Leaf Mulch On Vegetable Beds

Here is a photo of Linda Gilkeson’s veggie garden, freshly topped with autumn leaves. As the queen of vegetable gardening on the coast, Linda offers her wisdom and practical experience in her book Backyard Bounty.  I really don’t think there is a better Christmas gift for anyone on your list who wants to grow food; talk about a gift that will keep on giving!

Another form of organic wealth I like to feed my garden is seaweed. As I live near several beaches, I am able to visit the local shoreline after a big November storm, and gather the seaweed that has washed up on the beach, detached from any living ocean plants. I don’t bother to rinse the seaweed as we have a lot of rain, nor do I even chop it up, I just pile it onto the garden beds to decompose, it seems to melt right into the soil, providing many important benefits; increased hardiness, resistance to disease, and better fruit production for many favourite crops. (Local biologists recommend rinsing the seaweed at the beach to make sure you are leaving all living creatures behind. If you are using a lot of seaweed it is probably worth freshwater rinsing, the salt in the seaweed will deter slugs but also the beneficial earthworms .) You will never find a more valuable resource for your garden! In the absence of a nearby beach, or if you aren’t comfortable hauling buckets and buckets of slimy kelp in your car, we do sell bags of kelp meal, as well as a powdered form of seaweed that can be diluted and makes an almost endless supply of seaweed elixir to foliar feed or root drench.

If you’ve been following my blogs at all, you will know that I’m a strong believer in the wonders of straw as mulch too. Straw improves the tilth of the soil, and as it breaks down, it provides carbon for the nitrogen-carbon ratio that we seek for our composts.  Its texture keeps the soil open, allowing the rains to drain through but not pummel the soil throughout winter.  Make sure it’s straw that you buy, not hay which is inclined to be full of weed seeds.

The ultimate treat for gardens is of course compost, but the recommendation is to leave the compost covered and in the bin for winter, staying relatively dry and warm.  Save it for spring mulching, preserving the nutrients that would be washed away by the winter rains.  The same is true for fertilizers; wait until spring, whether you choose organic blends or synthetic additives.

Such a combination will ensure a happy and well-fed soil, awaiting the warmth of spring. Bring on the seed catalogues!