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Allan designs and plants flowering gardens in Montreal, Zone 5 [USDA Zone 4] .

See website, design work and favorite flowering plants at  gardengurumontreal.ca

Consultation and coaching for do-it-yourselfers is provided. Occasional emailed questions are welcome and answered free of charge. Oui, je parle francais.

See my work on Pinterest at Garden Guru Montreal

Sunday
Jan062013

How to Solve Growing Problems in the Garden Before They Begin

Why Plant That When You Can Grow This? 255 Extraordinary Alternatives to Everyday Problem Plants, Andrew Keys, Timber Press.

In our quest to recreate luscious landscapes we have visited, or studied in a book or magazine, we sometimes find our personal gardens filled with plants that make us unhappy due to their disappointing appearance or performance.

Our growing zone may be too hot or cold, the soil on our land too wet or arid, and the sun might be to searing or absent altogether.

Even when the conditions are perfect, surprises still occur. Too much rain or too humid a summer will result in mildew. Pests that we did not expect to attack our plants often arrive out of nowhere.

Some perennials will propagate themselves aggressively, others require more nutrients or irrigation than we can provide. Sometimes we become overwhelmed when we realize that a plant requires more maintenance than we are perpared to undertake.

Our frustration with plants that disappoint is exacerbated by our growing need for predictability and reliability. Many of us have a compromised life style that does not allow the luxury of time to fuss and fiddle over plants.

The solution:- Read this book!

In it, the author suggests we adjust our expectations. Instead of recreating someone else’s landscape, he recommends that we interpret it by using more reliable, less invasive, and easier-to-care-for plants.

Mr. Keys, as his title precisely states, presents 255 user-friendly plants for our consideration. While readers in colder climates are expected to skip over those that are inappropriate for their growing conditions, there remain enough choices for all gardeners, regardless where they are located.

Readers will discover

  •  replacement plants for twenty trees that might be problematic,
  •  substitutions for twenty-five shrubs with specific growing problems,
  •  alternatives for seven vines that may give the gardeners a headache,
  •  options for twenty-two perennials that are challenging to grow or maintain,
  •  better choices for the twelve grasses and ground covers a gardener should avoid.       

To facilitate the reader’s ability to deal with these horticultural issues, Mr. Keys has supplied the names of web sites for supplementary, elaborative information, as well as a list of recommended readings, mail order plant sources for American and Canadian gardeners, and an easy-to-consult conversion table for gardeners who are stymied by either metric or Imperial measurements of plants.

This publication is another in a series of useful garden manuals. Those of us who lead busy live are always happy to be alerted to potential horticultural problem. It is reassuring to know that we can solve them before they become full-blown headaches.

                           

Tuesday
Jan012013

Government in the Garden

An exciting attraction for food lovers, who spend their summer vacation in the Adirondacks of Upstate New York, is the opportunity to buy fresh produce from local cultivators. Here, farmers grow fruits and vegetables in a sustainable manner and raise chickens that roam free. This production, offered weekly at Farmers Markets throughout the area, tastes better than the selection found in supermarkets. In the recent past, this food was also perceived to be healthier.

When interest in organically raised animals and produce peaked, the farmer-merchants were in an advantageous position to embrace this new trend in eating. Supposedly, all they had to do was to change the quality of the nutrients they fed both plants and livestock and avoid using harmful pesticides.

It was exciting and convenient for vacationing consumers to shop from local farmers. Now, not only was it possible to purchase tastier food, freshly harvested that same day, but also it was food grown in a sustainable, responsible manner, with a low carbon footprint because it was sourced nearby.

However, something changed this past summer. When we arrived at the market on the first day of our vacation, we were disapointed to see that the signs designating the stalls as organic were no longer posted.  That's when we began asking questions.

One chicken farmer told us that the price of organic feed had increased to a level that made it prohibitive for her to run a farm profitably. She assured us that she was using the next best alternative; a quality feed several grades higher than conventional.

A second farmer reported that she was unable to declare her food organic without paying for a permit and that she found the cost of government-certified organic labeling too costly.

The last stall owner we spoke to was dismayed by the constantly changing government guidelines. It had become too expensive to adapt his farm to newer regulations every season.

In the end, all the cultivators assured us that they had found alternative, eco-friendly and healthy solutions that were less costly and bureaucratic. They did remind us that unregulated organic practices still remains an option for those gardeners who choose to grow food for personal consumption.

Ironically, the debate on this topic is slowly coming full circle. Using organic pesticide that requires repeated applications is proving to be more harmful than using factory-produced pesticides that are effective with just one application. Furthermore, there is a growing realization among scientists that there is no empirical evidence to confirm that eating organic is healthier than eating conventionally grown food. There is, however, a consensus that the advantage to eating organic is that food tastes better. For some people, that is a sufficient reason to consume it, and to pay a premium for that choice.

However, for most of the world’s population, paying for certified organic remains an expensive and debatable alternative. Even supporting local non-organic farmers comes at a high price because the cost of their harvest is often much higher than supermarket food. However, when I am on vacation, I am happy to source freshly harvested, tasty food, locally grown by farmers I trust. It enhances the rural, outdoor experience and in some way helps us city folk reconnect with nature.

Sunday
Dec092012

Designing the Layered Garden at Brandywine Cottage; a book review.

The Layered Garden, David L. Culp, photographs by Rob Cardillo, Timber Press.

A layered garden refers to a design process that maximizes beauty within each planted space; it also describes a garden that supplies visual interest through - out the seasons. The objective of the publisher was to demonstrate how a beautiful garden - Brandywine Cottage – situated in southeastern Pennsylvania, USA, - achieved that result.

It was accomplished by:- combining complementary plants that either grow and bloom together or follow each other in succession . Then, it continues to …encompass the development of each bed and how the beds relate to each other and the garden as a whole.

Image: Timber PressThe essence of a layered garden, therefore, is to understand and take advantage of each plant’s growing habit as it evolves through the seasons. One plant may provide a variety of different textures, colors, and effects at different times of the year. At each interval of growth, it will evoke a different sensory experience.

Furthermore, to get the most interest from any garden, all the layers need to be considered from the ground level to the middle level of shrubs, and small trees up to the canopy trees.

Image: Timber PressLayering allows the gardener to utilize as many plants as they have, in attractive and exciting ways. The result is a garden that highlights an individual plant while integrating the entire collection of plants into one cohesive design. In addition, the garden at Brandywine Cottage has been deliberately planted so that different areas of this 2-acre garden peak at different times.

Image property of www.davidlculp.comAlong with a keen eye, the author’s patience, optimism, and pro-active attitude were important factors in the execution of his garden. While describing its evolution, he encourages readers to be bold so that they focus on the possibilities of plants rather than upon their inherent limitations.

Readers will discover what Mr. Culp has learned; that one of the most exciting aspects of a layered garden is the suspenseful gradual revelation of the composition – the way that each part provides multiple layers of interest, sometimes working together with other plants and sometimes playing off each other.

Image property of www.davidlculp.comBoth the author and the photographer have worked from their hearts to create a warm and welcoming experience. Once inside the book, the reader will be embraced with design inspiration, plantsmanship, and practical information all emanating from one location - Brandywine Cottage, an iconic American-style landscape.

If you thought it impossible to capture effectively the essence of a beautiful garden in words and pictures, think again. This successful publication is both charming and inspirational.

                         

Tuesday
Dec042012

Dianthus Anonymous; a Pungent, Pink Perennial

When Frances moved into her new home 60 years ago, a neighbor presented her with a cutting of a short, pink-flowering perennial. The plant had no name. It remained anonymous until years later when a cutting of it was passed down to me and I recognized it as a member of the dianthus family. I still do not know its specific name.

When her daughter Suzanne purchased a home, Frances gave her a clump of that same plant with the advice that it was hardy and reliable. Years later, when my wife and I purchase our home, Suzanne, in turn,  gave us a cutting of that same plant. Over time, when the clump in my garden grew to maturity, I too would begin to hand out cuttings to all my friends and neighbors. The perennial was truly rugged and very well suited to our climate here in USDA Zone 4.

Prior to receiving that gift, I had not been very successful growing this family of plants. As a teenager, I had ordered dianthus many times from mail-order catalogues but the strains that I received could not  survive the Montreal winters of the 1960’s. However, this anonymous dianthus, passed down from generation to generation and from one friend to another, would prove to be very hardy.

Without thinking, I chose a very challenging sunny location for my cutting.  I placed it in a prominent spot in a rock garden where the earth was really too well drained, Combined with the searing heat of the sun, the dense dry clay earth created a desert-like environment. Up until then, all that survived there had been vigorous weeds and insinuous wild flowers. How was I to know that dianthus is a drought loving plant and that I had made a wise decision?

In those days, I watered my garden nightly and nourished it with generous amounts of manufactured fertilizer. The dianthus seemed to have enjoyed all that pampering; by the end of summer, it had grown from a messy, scrawny, leggy cutting into a lush cloud-shaped carpet of silver-blue pinnate foliage. The dense mat it created became a weed-free oasis surrounded by a sea of wild flowers eager to invade but unable to do so.

The following summer, that low-growing mound of pastel blue foliage produced a crop of baby-pink dianthus flowers, from which emanated a pungent, spicy aroma that intoxicated my brain. The sensory effect was euphoric. Previously, only the aroma of dwarf Korean lilacs had given me a similar sensation.

Inspired by this fantasy-like aromatic experience, I attacked the now-lush mound of dianthus in order to propagate it. I wanted to spread this source of pleasure throughout. After all, if one mound could be so powerful, surely several would be hypnotic.

Propagating dianthus was not an easy task because the makeup of the root ball is illusory. While the plant may spread in all directions, its roots are confined to a very spindly compact fortress at its center.

Suzanne had dug into the center of her plant to give me a viable cutting. I was more inclined to separate several strands of the plant from the root ball’s perimeter. Both methods result in the mother plant and its cuttings to appear ragged for a while, but it is worth the messiness to achieve a greater goal.

I also discovered that it is possible to remove strands of the plants with or without roots attached - it didn’t seem to matter. So rugged is this perennial that rootless pieces thrived and established themselves over time to produce lush plant mats even when placed into my dry, hot clay bed. As an added bonus, the spreading mats would eventually cascade over the boulders in the rock garden to create miniature waterfalls of plants, now silver blue and later baby pink.

After propagating, the front borders of my flowerbed shimmered with the silver blue trimming that is dianthus. I was delighted with the pungent aroma the plants produced in early summer. I was also pleased that the foliage did not turn brown in autumn; it held its blue-spruce color up until the first snowfall, when it disappeared – color intact - under a blanket of white.

The following season, when the warm spring sun melted the snow, the silver- blue foliage appeared to have been untouched by winter. It provided a pleasant surprise of color in the garden, when all else was still brown.

From many sources, I had learned that dianthus will rebloom during the summer if the first crop is dead headed. I tried to achieve that second flourish for many years until my body lost some of its flexibility. The flowers grow so close to the ground that some mature gardeners will find it challenging to engage in the heavy-duty crouching required for this task.

This is not a one-dead-head-at-a-time job either. The chore requires a hedge trimmer using one or several swoops to remove the miniature florets. A hand clipper will not do because there are too many tiny flowers to manicure.

However, in my experience, the second batch of blooms produced by the dead headed perennial was never as spectacular as the first. The bending and crouching required to produce the meager additional crop did not justified the hard work. Eventually, I gave up.

Long after I recived my first dianthus cutting, newer varieties began to appear on the market. Sadly, not one has proven to be as hardy or robust as the anonymous pink hand-me-down. In my growing zone, the newer botanical inventions tend to last only one or two seasons. There is something to be said for the good old reliable “heritage” perennials. They never disappoint.

Monday
Nov262012

How to Design a Garden for Health and Longevity; a book review.

Lifelong Landscape Design, Mary Palmer Dargen, Gibbs Smith.

When planning a residential landscape, the author of this well thought-out publication recommends we focus on the end-use for our garden. Her premise is that successful and effective outdoor living spaces are those that enrich our health and our longevity at each stage of our lives.

Suggestions to achieve maximum benefits from the land that surrounds our home have been shaped by the author’s 30-year career in landscape design and enhanced by over 200 beautiful photographic illustrations that blend perfectly with her text. The quality of her images is clear, clean, and inspiring.

Ms.Dargan submits that at each stage of life, as it is influenced by family, health, life-cycles, friends, and community, the purpose and usefulness of gardens change. Just as we continue to fine-tune our gardens as they grow and mature, similarly we need to make changes to our outdoor spaces to reflect our evolving needs as our families mature.

A young family will require outdoor spaces that allow children to play and have fun, while at the same time it offers opportunities for them to interact with nature.

Some homeowners need outdoor spaces for dining and entertainment, outdoor sports, or simply relaxing and experiences the fresh air. Here, nature serves as a refuge from the stresses of life as it supplies relaxation through a symphony of sensory stimulations affecting vision, hearing, smell, and touch.

Empty-nesters and retirees, looking forward to spending more time in their garden, will be pleased that the writer has given special attention to homeowners who are about to enter their golden years.

Readers will be introduced to the holistic design process of resting lightly upon the land, an approach that relies upon the principles of sustainability for site development. Recommendations are made for designing gardens that encourage social interaction and outdoor sports.

Ideas are offered for aesthetically integrated kitchen gardens, dynamic access pathways, peaceful enclosures, and for creating stress-reducing environments. Even the strategic location of pools, paths, decks, outdoor furniture and BBQ pits merit discussion here.

It is suggested that the friendships we build within our communities – especially when they are born out of a shared love of gardening and nature – help to improve the quality of our physical and emotional lives.

The essence of this publication, therefore, is that a successful landscape design creates an environment that allows us to connect with nature, family, and friends. Such an outdoor space encourages a healthy lifestyle through physical mobility and social interaction and provides a refuge to sustain both body and soul.

Anyone planning to landscape a residential site, or considering redoing an existing one, will surely benefit from the cornucopia of practical health-enhancing ideas found in this book.