A paper for those of us a little older…
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The Northern Gardener by Joan M Baril

joan

 

February 2017

Gramma’s Grow-Op
For over twenty years I grew plants under lights in my basement during the winter. Once the equipment was bought, the cost was minimal.
I used 48 inch florescent shoplights with square ends and fixed up with a regular plug-in. I used one cool and one warm (or full spectrum) tube. I set the light on a table with two bricks at each end to lift it up. As the plants grew I added another brick. At one time, I had over twenty lights set up on tables and even under tables. My grandchildren called it “Gramma’s grow op.”
I grew mainly annuals, herbs and a few perennials such as columbine and arabis. Easiest to grow were geraniums, cosmos (sea shell mix), impatiens (elfins), marigolds, petunia, million bells, nicotania, lobelia, lavatera (silver cup), sweet pea, canary vine, sweet William, dianthus, ageratum, bachelor buttons. But, be warned. Each plant has its own requirements. Follow the instructions as best you can. Keep the empty seed package handy.
What you need. A warm work place that can get dirty. A worktable and a second table to set the lights on, extension cord, electrical outlet and available water.
Promix or seed starter mix. Do not use potting mix, potting soil, pure vermiculite or peat moss. Some mixes add fertilizer but I preferred adding a tiny pinch of starter fertilizer to the watering container.
A big plastic bin to mix the Promix and lukewarm water. (If you have a cat be sure to replace the lid afterwards!)
A plastic tray without holes about 29X54X6 cm deep. This is the bottom tray. A lattice tray used for carrying nursery plants will work if put into a green plastic garbage bag.
A planting tray with holes to fit inside the bottom tray. A lattice tray in a tightly fitted plastic garbage bag works too. Poke in many holes.
Paks are the small square cells about 11/2 inch square and 2 inches deep with a small drainage hole. About 32 to 48 paks will fit into a planting tray.
A clear plastic shallow dome lid. You probably have to buy this. Plastic items are sold separately in Martin’s and other nurseries. Ask friends to save trays and packs. Take everything. Fix broken ones with duct tape.
An indelible Sharpie. Labels such as popsicle sticks, strips cut from plastic picnic cups or old venetian blind slats.
Seeds. The number per package varies. Three bucks buys 250 bachelor button seeds or 75 cosmos seeds. But Wave petunias run $10 for 20 seeds.
Plant starter fertilizer. An electric fan.
Calculate your planting date using the package information. You aim to plant outside about May 24. The following is based on my 2011 diary describing the sequence for seashell cosmos.
April 8, 2011. I set the planting tray inside the bottom tray and fill with wetted Promix. I draw three lines lengthwise down the Promix and set in the seeds, a quarter inch deep as instructed, patting the mix over. Cosmos seeds are easy to handle. I cover with the clear plastic dome.
April 12. Shoots showing!
April 17. Each plant has four or five leaves. I remove the dome and set the flat about an inch under the light. The tubes will not burn the plants. I give the plants 16 hours of light a day. When the soil is dry to the touch, I water carefully between the rows. Soggy soil is a killer. Good drainage is key. I set up an indoor fan for a few hours each day to strengthen the stems and decrease humidity, another killer. As the plants grow, I raise the light using bricks but keep the plants close to the lights.
April 23.The plants are getting crowded. Using the handle of a spoon to lift them, I transplant then into the packs filled with moist Promix. Lovely brushy roots. I get three trays of packs. They go under the lights, tops close to the tubes. I continue watering sparingly, raising the light if necessary and using the indoor fan.
May 15. I carry the flats out to my back shed. The plants are brushy and 4 to 6 inches high. Depending on the weather, I harden them outside for a few hours well sheltered from rain and wind. A sharp wind can kill baby plants. The weather is so mild I decide to leave them outside in a sheltered spot.
May 26. I plant them in the garden. They grew tall, flowered in July and the lovely pink and white flowers continued into October.

January 2017
Five Gardening Disasters Plus One Triumph

1. It was every gardener’s dream, a pile of rotting cow manure. I was out in Kaministiquia with my shovel and truck, happily taking my share of the pile and later spreading it around the garden beds. It felt old, crumbly and suitably rotten but not rotten enough for the crab grass seeds that infest the Kam area. Since then it has been war every spring, digging out the unending roots of the world’s meanest grass.
2. A friend phoned. She heard I was going away for a few months that winter. Would I like a house sitter? Her cabin in the bush was very cold in February and March. I knew she had an old lazy dog and I love dogs. We set up the heated back porch for it. I drove off. She had not mentioned the six grown puppies the dog had had a year previous. I got the story later from the neighbours. My house-sitter kept the seven dogs in the porch and in the back yard where they destroyed my garden, especially the shrubs which they ate down to nubs. At that time, I used styro rose cones to protect my roses and so, when I returned, the garden was covered with thousands of tiny styro foam pieces. I do not mention the ripped screens in the porch, the chewed window sills or the layer of dog poop which appeared when the snow melted. Many perennials had disappeared or turned up in odd places. Sympathetic friends pitched in and brought me plants. I am still grateful. But, even now, every so often, I come across a bit of Styrofoam.
3. One corner of my garden slanted downhill. That fall, I ordered a small load of top soil from a local nursery and a gardener friend helped me spread it lightly through the lily and hosta area and down past the apple tree towards the back lane. The stuff seemed a bit sandy but I was assured it was premium. It killed almost everything including twenty or so Asiatic lily plants. The hostas re-emerged with small twisted leaves and only recovered two years on. The peonies, delphiniums and Siberian iris survived. I spent many days on my knees scraping up the stuff, putting it in buckets and wheeling it to the truck to dump on my property in the bush. Not the best of summers.
4. I love lilacs. I envisioned a row of them down the side of the garden. I bought French lilacs and the tall pink and purple Prescotts. I added a mountain ash at the far end. All thrived but by the second summer, I realized I had made a major mistake. I had planted them down the south side of the garden and, as they grew, they took up all the sun, throwing the beds behind them into shade and giving me the challenge of finding shade-loving perennials.
5. Lily of the valley is a shade lover and so I put it in the far corner. Pretty? Yes. Spreads on tough snake-like roots? Also yes. Every spring, with shovel and curses, I have to tame it back to its corner,
6. Lastly, a triumph. When I lived in the country, I had a large vegetable garden. But in town, my back yard was too small. However, my neighbours were going to Europe for the summer. They had just removed the sod from a corner of their sunny back yard. Would I like to use the spot? Yes! Unfortunately, the soil was grey, hard, and full of rocks and gravel. I did not have the time or strength to remove it or the money for topsoil but I did have a good compost going. I remembered that the Mohawk Indians planted on mounds, with corn in the centre and large-leaved plants such as zucchini and squash all around. The idea was the leaves of the creeping plants would eventually smother the weeds between the mounds. Worth a try. I did not dig into the sub-soil but used the compost to make the mounds. I planted three corn to a mound, thinned to the strongest later. The mounds, about three feet in diameter, happily nourished the corn and zucchini, pumpkins, cucumbers and two varieties of squash. I used some old weed barrier held down with boards to discourage the weeds around the mounds. The creeping leafy vegetables eventually created a solid carpet of green. The neighbours returned at the end of the summer. They had a good time in Europe but, alas, never went back; so that was my first and last Mohawk garden.
Dear gardeners. Any disasters? Send me your worst experience and I’ll put them into a column. Joan at jbaril@tbaytel.net. Use the word disaster in the subject line.
December 2016
Christmas Gifts for the Gardener
What to get for the gardener? This is not as easy as it seems. You have to know your gardener and their vision for their garden. Ornaments such as statues or wall plaques are particularly fraught. The adorable ceramic angel with the religious verse or the cement vampire may bring cries of joy. Or maybe not. Your gift may end up as shards at the bottom of a garden pot. Something to wear? Another pitfall. Gardeners wear ratty old clothes, floppy shoes, and ugly hats. Gardening is tough, dirty work and gardeners loves their comfortable old duds that make it easy to kneel, sit, stand.
Here are a few better ideas collected from friends.
Garden gloves. Possibly your gardener already has garden gloves or a basket of filthy mismatched gloves but I would not worry about this. Gloves and small garden tools get lost in the garden all the time. New ones are always welcome. It is possible to put down a glove, lift a seed packet, turn your head for the glove, only to find it has disappeared. Some blame those mischievous garden elves. Later, the missing glove will turn up in the compost. Gloves should be waterproof or partly waterproof. On Thunder Bay mornings, the garden is soaked in dew. Cotton gloves do not work.
Secateurs, trowels, or other garden tools. Spend as much as you can. Many garden tools are so flimsy they bend if you lean on them. They are more toy than tool. Better to buy one good garden trowel than to buy the cheap sets. Most gardeners love new or unusual tools. Someone gave me a garden bandit, a short-handled loop weeder that scoops weeds out of the soil. Even though it does not work for those mean weeds with long tap roots, it is excellent for your average weeds: fast, efficient and easy on the wrists and hands. You can also get a long-handled garden bandit.
House plants. Many stores are now selling amaryllis and paper whites. Some come with a bag of potting mix and planting pot. A nice gift for children. Or you could plant them now and they will be in full bloom by Christmas. I am told that the traditional red poinsettias are no longer in fashion. Personally, I do not believe in the concept of fashion when applied to plants. Nothing is more lovely that a large blazing crimson poinsettia. Other great plants are miniature roses and Christmas cactus.
A garden clock. I know that a garden should be a meditative place where the concept of time does not exist. Most of us do not have this luxury. We have to fit in the garden work when we can. An outdoor clock is a big help here. My clock, on the wall of the shed, has numbers big enough to read from a distance. To help my back, I divide my garden work into twenty minutes stints interspersed with rest, coffee, or an easier task using different muscles. My goal is to be able to walk the next day. So I keep an eye on that clock. Garden clocks come in all sizes, some with thermometers, barometers, fancy mounts and so on. Check the internet for unlimited ideas.
Bird feeders or baths. Birds are drawn to baths close to the ground, in the open but near vegetation. In our climate, bird feeders have to be well covered to keep out the snow. The exterior feed holder has to be shaded or covered also. For easy placement, you could add a decorative metal pole with a hook to hold the feeder. Or a bag of black sunflower seeds. Bird houses are tricky. Some are meant to be decorative only. But if you want a nesting bird next spring, you need a house designed for the specific birds that not only come to your garden but nest in birdhouses. Many birds don’t. And the placement of the nest is important. So a lot of research is needed.
For the undecided, the local nurseries offer not only excellent gifts but also the easy solution—gift cards.
A wire holder with fatty bird cake makes a low cost gift for the book club or the secret Santa draw.
Here is a cheap, simple, tried-and-true recipe for winter bird cookies. I buy the ingredients from the bargain stores. In a big pot melt equal parts lard and peanut butter. Add an equal amount of corn meal. Stir it up. Using a big spoon or metal cup, drop globs on cookie sheets covered with foil. Place in the freezer. When the cookies have hardened, remove and store in the freezer in a plastic bag. Two or three cookies fit into a wire holder. The chickadees and downy woodpeckers will thank you.
November 2016
Winter is a-Comin’ In
“Get your mind on winter time,” sings Bob Dylan and, at the end of October, Northern gardeners do just that. Perennial flower gardeners have a secret prayer. Please weather gods, give me snow, lots of snow, not wet or icy snow but soft downy stuff to cover my perennials, my shrubs, my roses, and my bulbs and so insulate them well. And also, weather gods, send no bitter ten below-zero cold before that snow gets here!
After I empty the pots of annuals, and empty and scrub the bird baths, I get down on my hands and knees, not to pray so much as to creep around the plants looking for weeds. For sure I’ll find them.
Then I move the bird feeders closer to the house so that I can see them from the windows. Two feeders hang on tall metal stakes with hooks on the ends. These get pulled up and moved closer. The third swings from a peg on the fence. With the feeders close to the back door, I do not have to put on my snowshoes to fill them up.
I move the bird food into the house too. It is important to make sure the seed is kept in covered metal containers or cans. Mice can nibble plastic containers overnight and then, happy to have found paradise, they may settle in for the winter.
At one time I despaired of finding covered metal containers until one Christmas I decided to purchase the large tins holding popcorn or candy available at dollar stores. These tins were the best buy I have ever found.
Next I plant any bulbs I forgot about. One November day, I used boiling water to soften the soil and then dug below the ice layer to plant three big packages of those wonderful small but indomitable bulbs: scilla, dwarf hyacinths and choinodoxa. All popped up obligingly in the spring.
Most of my perennials are Thunder Bay toughies, which have withstood many winters: peonies, phlox, pink bleeding heart, sedums, monarda, day lilies, delphiniums both tall and medium, monk’s hood, allium gigantium, lamium, Shasta daisy, arabis, species clematis, Siberian iris, a few bearded iris, hostas, Preston and French lilacs, Morden roses, Explorer roses, a Hansa rose, and a few other hardy roses such as Winnipeg Parks, Pink Grootendorst and the unknown rose which was labeled Harison Yellow when I bought it; but, which blooms a lovely pink.
Even though we are in Zone 3, I have had weak moments when I’ve bought Zone 4 plants. I even tried Austin and tea roses, carrying them through the winter with rose cones and mounded leaves. Once, after reading some southern Ontario garden magazine, I followed the instructions and dug a big hole and buried the tender roses. Yes, all survived but I could tell they were not happy. Spindly droopy things with few blooms straggled through the summer. Mostly they gave up after a third winter. And so did I.
Some Thunder Bay gardens are warmer than others. And within a garden are warmer spots perhaps protected from those north-west storms. I have a friend who has a lovely variegated daphne bush (zone 4) which blooms happily in a sunny corner. I bought mine when she bought hers. Mine succumbed the first winter; hers has bloomed for six years.
As for the garden beds, I leave them alone. With a few exceptions such as clematis, I do not prune the dead stalks. Contrary to accepted belief, this autumn scalping does not help the plants. However, I know some people must have a neat look until the snow covers all. I do not want a neat look. I clean up in the spring. In winter, the garden stays its jungle self.
Why do I do this?
First, the plant stalks hold the snow and a good snow cover is the north’s greatest gift to perennials. I seldom lose a perennial.
Secondly, the unscalped garden attracts the birds that eat the plant seeds plus the weeds seeds on the snow, on the patio or on bare patches of ground. They are much more efficient at weeding than I am. And, they provide a shot of winter joy when it’s too cold to go outside.
Thirdly, the dried stalks impart their own winter beauty to the garden. A straight palette of white is monotonous but to see a chickadee hanging off a sunflower head, to see siskins scarfing up the black-eyed Susan seeds, watch the finches and red pols checking out the stock, to observe a flock of cedar or bohemian waxwings working the crab apple trees, is a gift, the gift of a fourth garden season. Blue shadows dance on the snow during the short winter days, a reminder of spring to come. The mountain ash berries glow red under our bright blue winter skies.
There are enough chores to do in the fall. Let the garden clean up wait until spring.

Growing Tulips in the Land of Squirrels
They warned me. “Don’t plant tulips. The squirrels will dig them up. The deer will eat the blooms, nip them off the stalk.” Luckily, I live in the city centre and have no deer. But the clerk at the nursery was blunt about the squirrels. “No one plants tulips in Thunder Bay any more,” she said.
I’ve planted tulips for twenty years and never lost a bulb. Still, the squirrels using my bird feeders and baths seem more numerous all the time.
I followed the usual autumn routine but with modifications.
The first task: find the right bulbs, the Darwins. In my experience, Darwin tulips are best for Northern gardens. They are tall, around twenty inches, with large egg-shaped flowers. They bloom mid season, around the middle of May. They produce a faint scent and entice bees. The blooms last the longest of all the tulips. Unlike other types, Darwins often return year after year. They are toughies. I’ve seen the blooms encased in ice from a late storm and the leaves white with frost, after a light spray from the hose; they recovered.
The problem with Darwins is to find them. Nowadays the nurseries seldom label the bins. The clerks often know little. Even packaged tulips may provide skimpy information. Worse, bins of tulips are labeled by colour: pink tulips, red and so on. No type listed, no height given or time of bloom, whether early, mid-season or late.
The solution is to note the variety name, if you can get it, and Google.
Chose a non-windy spot. Tulips like sun but will grow in light shade. In dark shade, such as between houses, they produce leaves but no flowers. Most directions say to plant the bulbs to a depth double the length of the bulb. Ignore this. Get them in as deep as possible, even a foot down. Make the hole large and plant several in the hole. Tulips look best in clumps.
At the bottom of the hole, put some compost or soil and mix in a little bulb fertilizer. Cover with a layer of compost. Seat the bulbs firmly, points up, close together but not touching. Add a layer of soil and then cover with a mesh to deter digging squirrels. I put down a tough plastic mesh, the kind used for climbing plants. A friend uses chicken wire. The tulips will grow through the spaces. Fill up the hole and mark the spot.
Last year, I planted 300 bulbs. The first tulip nose appeared April 20 in a sunny bed. Those in light shade came a few days later. Around May 10 I stopped filling the bird feeders and baths. I reasoned the squirrels would miss their accustomed food and drink and depart. Sure enough, in two days, fewer squirrels.
By Victoria Day, all tulips were up and blooming.
Victory was short lived. On May 26, I found a flower on the ground. It had been neatly clipped from the stem. The next day I spied a black squirrel on the lawn, a pink tulip bloom between its paws. I swear he looked guilty.
Then, later, a line of pink petals across the grass signified another mutilated plant.
I was flummoxed. I decided to experiment. I spread mothballs around a few clumps. Around others, I sprayed Critter Ridder. (available at Canadian Tire and some of the nurseries). The last clusters got a dowsing spray of Safer’s Soap, which I use against aphids but I was sure would taste awful.
What happened? Nothing. I never had another tulip mutilation.
For four or five weeks, tulips own the garden and get the music going. Eventually, their lips curl back and they open wide to the air and, almost turning themselves inside out, release their petals one by one. The tall thin leaves fiddle for position, twist for light until they slowly brown and droop away.
Now comes the crucial part. You snap off the seed pod. The dying leaves must remain until you can lift them out with a light tug. The bulb stays in the ground.
I often splurge on lily-flowered tulips usually sold in packages. The elegant blooms appear in late May but, alas, they seldom return a second year.
Tulip Tarda (Tulipa Desystaem tarda) jump start the season. Short guys, about four inches tall and easy to grow in full sun or light shade, they arrive the first week in May. The star-shaped, golden white-tipped blooms are short-lived but, oh so welcome. No special care is needed. They spread but are not invasive. I planted mine twenty-six years ago in 1990, when I first started my garden, and they still thrive.
Joan M. Baril is a Thunder Bay native who gardened with her dad a a child and from then on, always had a garden wherever she lived. Her present garden is a twenty-six year old perennial jungle which constantly surprises her as all gardens do.