We are in the business of answers. Much of our time is spent fielding questions from Canadians who want to maximize their success in the garden and the condo balcony.
This is a great time of year for planting and we want to provide answers to some of your most asked gardening questions. Here goes:
Can I use my existing soil to plant in?
Where your garden is concerned, the answer is yes, but not “as is”. The soil in your yard may be heavy clay, made up of small, silt-like particles that are bound so tightly together that they do not allow water to pass through and are nutrient-poor. Add generous quantities of finished compost, composted cattle manure or mushroom compost. “Generous” means at least 20 kg per square meter of soil surface. Add the compost to the surface of the soil – we don’t “turn soil over” anymore. By leaving the compost on the surface, earthworms and microbes will do the work of pulling it into the root zone for you. If you have dense clay, add a 20 kg bag of “builder” sand to open it up and provide good drainage.
If you are planning on replanting your containers, remove all the existing container mix and spread it over your garden soil or give it away to someone with a garden. It is good but not good enough to reuse year over year. Replace with quality, fresh container mix.
When shopping for plants for my garden, how do I know what to buy?
No. 1, buy only what you like. But make sure that it matches the sun/shade exposure in your yard/balcony. Planting a shade loving plant in bright sunshine never works and vice versa.
No. 2, a healthy plant has green leaves, not yellow, is well watered at the time of purchase, not dry, and if it is a flowering plant buy it in flower bud, not full bloom. This will ensure that you get the maximum benefit of its performance in your garden.
Are raised beds a good idea?
They are an excellent idea for the urban gardener. A raised bed can produce more flowers and a larger harvest than at ground level as you have complete control over the quality of soil you use. A raised bed drains well (but needs more regular watering than ground-level beds) and encourages better root growth. It warms more quickly in the spring, allowing you to get a jump on sowing and planting by a week or two, depending on its’ exposure to sunshine (the more the better).
I am limited for space as I live in a townhouse. How can I make the most of it?
Consider the vertical space against walls and fences. There are many vines that climb, some are twining perennial vines like clematis and Virginia creeper, while others are self-clinging like euonymus Winter Creeper and Boston Ivy. There are many food plants that climb, also, including runner beans, perennial Kiwi Vine, nasturtiums (edible flowers), snow peas and cucumbers. Always plant food plants in as much sunshine as possible.
I want to grow herbs. What is the secret to success?
Most herbs love hot, dry locations as they originate in the Mediterranean area where the sun is high and hot. Basil, a native of India, is the exception. While it requires lots of sun, it is tender and leafy, requiring more water than most other herbs. We plant it in a separate container for this reason.
Do I need to add fertilizer to my gardens?
While containers can benefit from monthly fertilizing throughout the season, your garden should have sufficient microbial life breaking down organic matter, such as mulch and compost, to provide your plants with the nutrients to thrive. Synthetic fertilizers are very energy-intensive to produce, so you are doing twice the favour to mother earth by just feeding the ground generously with good compost. Organic fertilizers, useful for container gardening, often contain many of the same ingredients found in compost.
Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, author, broadcaster, tree advocate and Member of the Order of Canada. His son Ben is a fourth-generation urban gardener and graduate of University of Guelph and Dalhousie University in Halifax. Follow them at markcullen.com, @markcullengardening, and on Facebook.