There are plenty of reasons this spring to pursue your approach to gardening with renewed purpose. Growing plants successfully is an immensely satisfying experience that refreshes the spirit again and again.
Optimism is in the air. Despite the low amount of snow cover this past winter, the relatively mild winter weather has resulted in good survival of perennial plants and shrubs. Indeed, gardeners are reporting some surprising discoveries. On April 21, Sharon Brokop took a walk through her St. Vital garden and had an aha moment when she noticed swelling leaf buds on the Tuff Stuff Ah-Ha hydrangea that she planted last summer. What made the discovery so remarkable is that Tuff Stuff Ah-Ha is a mountain hydrangea (Hydrangea serrata) classified as hardy to zone 5a.
Last fall, Brokop applied a layer of cedar mulch around her Tuff Stuff hydrangea. Planted on the south side of her garden, the area received only minimal snow cover and yet Tuff Stuff was one of the first of Brokop’s many hydrangea shrub varieties to show signs of fresh, new growth.
Tuff Stuff Ah-Ha is Proven Winner’s 2021 hydrangea of the year and is a beautiful hydrangea with water lily-like double florets that bloom pink or blue depending on the alkalinity or acidity of soil. A prolific re-bloomer, Tuff Stuff is an exceptional thriller in a container garden.
Joanna Hofer was also surprised when Euonymus fortunei Goldsplash Wintercreeper, a zone 5 dwarf shrub with green and yellow evergreen leaves made a reappearance in her rock garden. In my garden, Salvia argentea Silver King, a zone 5 plant that was started from seed by Lac du Bonnet gardener Kelley Liebzeit, overwintered in a harsh location along my driveway.
In our zone 3b climate, we can be reasonably successful in growing zone 4a plants if we provide the right growing conditions and add mulch for winter protection but success with overwintering zone 5 plants in our extreme climate typically remains elusive. Plants that are hardy to our zone 3b climate have the better advantage and currently they are growing in leaps and bounds. Gardens are off to a good start. How do we capitalize on the opportunity?
Well-drained soil with good fertility and aeration is key to growing healthy plants. Cathy Shaluk, owner of Shaluk’s Garden Solutions, recommends a simple soil test to determine a garden soil’s moisture penetration. Dig a spade into your soil about 15 cm deep and scoop soil into a wide mouth Mason canning jar. Try this in several different areas of your garden. Fill half of each jar with soil and the other half with water. Stir and let sit for a day or two. The thickness of the distinct colour bands that appear will give you an idea as to how much clay, silt and sand is in your soil. If you have mostly sticky clay that is nearly impossible to dig, adding compost will help to improve drainage and aeration, increase your soil’s water-holding capacity, and provide soil nutrients.
Take a gradual approach to improving your soil. Incorporating a large quantity of compost is neither necessary nor recommended. If you are composting for the first time and want to learn about composting basics, a great resource is www.greenactioncentre.ca.
One of the barriers to composting is the concern that wildlife will be attracted to compost piles or bins. Lea Coté, compost program coordinator, Green Action Centre, says it is important to ensure that no dairy, meat, bones or oils are added to compost bins. "If we avoid those, that will massively reduce the chance of pests and smells," says Coté. "Also, by always remembering to top "greens" with a good double layer of "browns", smells won’t happen and pests won’t be attracted." Examples of organic brown material include dry leaves, straw, dried grass clippings, dried weeds without seeds, and woodchips from untreated wood.
Examples of wet materials rich in nitrogen that constitute green materials suitable for adding to compost bins include vegetable and fruit scraps, coffee grounds, tea leaves, garden waste, fresh weeds without seeds, and fresh grass clippings.
Getting it right helps to ensure that pests such as raccoons or skunks won’t be attracted to your compost. Taz Stuart, director of operations at Poulin’s Pest Control, says that Winnipeg is seeing an increase in the number of calls from residents who are discovering raccoons and skunks in their backyards or neighbourhoods. In 2020, Poulin’s received 284 calls about skunks and 207 calls about raccoons. This year, from January to May, Poulin’s has already dealt with 62 skunks and 28 raccoons.
With less than optimum soil moisture levels in Winnipeg and parts of southern Manitoba this spring following a dry fall and winter, the recent rainfall was a welcome relief. It will take more than the 20 or so millimetres of light precipitation measured by local rain gauges, however, to ensure adequate soil moisture for rapidly growing plants, especially as our relatively cool spring transitions into a hot, dry summer.
As we move towards warmer weather and the very real possibility of a dry summer, smart watering techniques will make a difference to plants as well as to water bills. Shaluk recommends watering in the morning when soil is cool and water can seep to the roots before evaporation can occur. Keep soil evenly moist and avoid watering too frequently or too little. A deep watering will encourage deep root growth. Alternatively, frequent, shallow watering results in shallow roots. Soaker hoses reduce evaporation. Now is a great time to place them on the surface of your soil while plants are still small.
A low volume irrigation system such as the XF series dripline from Rain Bird applies water slowly, at low pressure, directly at or near the root zones of plant material. Compared to conventional, overhead spray irrigation, a low volume or drip irrigation system can greatly reduce water waste. But there are other distinct advantages: for one thing, healthier plants, because drip irrigation results in less risk of foliar disease, a problem exacerbated by overhead watering.
Aim to apply two inches of water per week during the heat of the summer. To measure the amount of supplemental irrigation, set out tin cans or glass jars and record how long it takes before the containers hold five cm of water. Shaluk places an empty tuna tin on the soil. "If the tin is full after watering the garden, then it is a sufficient amount," she says. "You can also do moisture checks with a moisture meter or use a wood dowel inserted two to three inches into your soil. If soil sticks to the dowel when it is removed, then the soil is moist."
A top-dressing of organic mulch applied to the surface of your soil helps to retain soil moisture and suppress weeds. Leaves collected the previous fall, double-shredded, and stored for the winter or aged, shredded natural bark chips (aka arborist wood chips) are ideal for top-dressing bare soil. As these organic mulches slowly break down, they release nutrients into the soil. Topdressing with organic mulches vastly improves the soil over time. The benefits are measurable and can readily be seen in your garden’s overall performance.