Month: March 2012

Sproing!

Now it’s spring, both by the calendar and in reality. We’ve had several days this week with high temperatures in the double digits (just barely, though, unlike the mysterious East, where summer arrived early). With daylight lasting longer as well, it’s time to get back into the garden.

So far, all I’ve done is wander around the place taking note of things that will need to be done eventually and picking up wind-pruned birch twigs and Ailanthus branches. Pruning — I’ve also done some of that myself, notably whacking hollies down to a reasonable height and shortening the lollipop photinia by two feet to prevent it from getting too friendly with the power line from street to house. But that’s all. There are still some of last year’s dead perennial stalks around, even as the plants prepare to start growing anew. And I haven’t even planted tomato seeds inside yet, something I usually do in mid-March. It’s  just as well that this spring looks like being cool and damp.

Today an unexpected project came up — removing parts of an old white lilac that developed a westward lean after recent windstorms, exerting pressure on the metal pole that anchors the far end of my clothesline. A section of the shrub now looms over a neighbour’s garage. I managed to extract several sections of the plant, liberating the clothesline pole and with luck reducing the possibility of further collapse for a while.

Slumping Lilac in Need of Removal

I have noticed this tendency of old lilacs to keel over. Usually there are enough new shoots to keep the plant going, but this habit is something to keep in mind if your garden has a mature lilac bush.

As if this garden needs more challenges, it has acquired a new one, in the form of the buck with the injured leg that turned up a few weeks ago. This week he was back, snacking on hyacinth blooms and tulip buds. Only the flowers of the hyacinths were eaten, but some of the tulips were reduced to half-inch stubs, so I wonder if they will survive. I can’t think of anything to do about this guy, since he can cruise the neighbourhood early and late, chomping plants while their owners are asleep or away at work. And he does add a certain excitement to the garden; I never know if I’ll see him out there.

Peering Over the Fence

So back to the endless list of Things To Do — turn the mess of the ex-vegetable patch into a “herb garden,” distribute the old compost and “manage” the new compost, edge all the beds, start tomato plants, hoik out dandelions, cut the grass. And keep an eye on that buck.

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Dry Shade Revisited

Since I started this blog, nearly two years ago, by far the most popular posts have been the two on tough plants for dry shade, especially in spring when people start planning their garden activities for the coming season. It seems that there are many gardeners struggling with dry shade, trying to find plants that tolerate dry shade conditions and look good.

I’ll bet this is a common scenario: someone buys a house and lot and decides to make a garden. But the lot harbours at least one, and possibly several, large trees. Even if the effort of digging up the rooty soil under the trees to make planting beds doesn’t discourage the prospective gardener, the eventual failure of most of what is planted will do the trick. Unless the gardener is willing and able to do tree removal, that may be the end of their garden.

Or it may be a more insidious situation, like my own. When I began gardening here in 1992, the two large Norway maples on the western edge of my lot had been lopped by the previous owner of the place. Ugly though this treatment was, it meant that the back yard got a fair amount of sunlight. The first year or two, I was able to grow cucumbers and even corn in my minute vegetable patch, not to mention tomatoes and pole beans.

Ten years later, the maples had regrown and moreover had sent out a mat of roots into the vegetable patch (not to mention the perennial beds that are closer to their trunks). Shade was way more prevalent. Cucumbers? Forget it. (I gave up on corn once I realized how many raccoons lived in the area). The tomatoes did less well every year, until by 2009 I had resorted to growing them in big pots parked in whatever sunny spots remained.

In the perennial beds, it soon became clear which plants could tolerate shade and root competition and which could not. Delphiniums and lilies, even the tough Asiatics, dwindled away over several years. Blue poppies gave up immediately when roots re-invaded their carefully prepared bed. This spring, things don’t look good for a tree peony that did relatively well for years. About the time I gave up on tomatoes in the vegetable patch it started to weaken and may now be in its final gasps.

Shade is a problem for sure, but it’s more than that. There’s also the matter of what’s happening underground. Roots, in other words. Most of a tree’s feeding roots are in the topmost one or two feet of soil, right there with the roots of herbaceous perennials and small shrubs. They compete with the smaller plants for water and nutrients, but they may also do something else — a phenomenon known as allelopathy, which is a process by which a plant produces biochemicals which affect the growth of nearby plants. Norway maples are suspected of negative allelopathy, especially in places where they are an introduced species. So is the Tree of Heaven, under which I planted my doomed blue poppies in the fall of 2000. They bloomed beautifully the following spring, but died soon after.

There is almost no mention of allelopathy in most gardening books, even those that have sections on shade gardening. From my rather superficial internet research on the topic, I see that much of what has been written is academic papers in forestry and agriculture, or to do with the interactions between introduced trees and native understory plants. A few bloggers have written about it as well, for example, this post by Curtis Adams. There is definitely scope for investigation of this subject as it pertains to ornamental gardening.

When I first discovered allelopathy, I had an Aha! moment. Yes, those tree roots are indeed evil, poisoning my delphiniums as well as bullying them. But in the end it comes down to this — either I get the maples cut down, or stop gardening under them, or do as well as I can with conditions as they are. Which I’ve known for years.

Another option, of course, is to move. Drastic, perhaps, but if I ever purchase another patch of land with the intention of gardening upon it, that patch will be tree-free. In the meantime, this year’s massacre of maple seedlings has begun.

Happy Plants in Dry Shade

A Toronto Interlude

Last weekend, instead of writing a blog post or making garden plans, I flew to Toronto for a short visit. The winter there has been abnormally warm, but I didn’t see much evidence of that. On Monday, March 5 it was -14C, which felt like -20 with the wind chill. And the landscape definitely had the brown look I recalled from late winter in Saskatchewan.

Ernest Thompson Seton Park

In the City of Heavy Doors (more below), weather can be ignored. There is too much to see and do. In the 3.5 days of my visit, I experienced two Lieder recitals, a church service, the CN Tower, the Art Gallery of Ontario, downtown, the CBC building and museum, the University of Toronto campus and the transit system. And some memorable meals and conversations.

On Sunday afternoon, I went to a recital of songs by Brahms and Schumann performed by tenor Ian Bostridge and pianist Julius Drake. I discovered the songs of Franz Schubert through two CDs by these artists issued in 1998 and 2001, entitled Lieder and Lieder Volume II (both on EMI). For me, these recordings are like caskets of exquisite jewels, to which I return regularly. Sunday’s performance was notable for its intensity. The selection of songs perfectly represented the combination of ecstasy and anxiety that is German Romanticism. A review is available here.

Monday was a good day for visiting the CN Tower, sunny and clear (but cold). For someone who had never been to southern Ontario before, it was a great way to get an idea of the landscape. I recommend the topmost viewing platform in the Sky Pod, with its pushed out windows. Downtown looks like an intricate 3D mosaic from there, with shadows adding to the effect as the sun descends.

Downtown Toronto from the CN Tower

Head offices of the big Canadian banks can be seen from here, a sight to stir up various emotions, depending on how you feel about those banks.

Then there is the famous glass floor, just below the main Look Out Level. One is assured that the glass will support the weight of 14 large hippos (emphasis mine). I took a quick walk over the glass floor, muttering “14 large hippos,” and this picture:

My feet, and the ground 1,000 feet below

The friend I was visiting is a longtime resident of Toronto and expert in getting around the city. As we dodged from the subway and in and out of various buildings, I privately started to think of Toronto as the City of Heavy Doors, I suppose to keep the weather out — cold in winter and hot in summer. Some had signs directing one to pull or push hard, so I couldn’t be the only one to notice this. To get away from the cold en route to the CN Tower, we walked through the Toronto Convention Centre, where a convention of the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada was under way. It’s been a long time since I saw so many men in suits all in one place. There was also a really big bird…

Birdwatching at the Toronto Conference Centre

Going from place to place, we relied  almost entirely on the transit system, a combination of buses, subway and trolleys that seems to work amazingly well and is used by Torontonians of all stripes. And yes, there are mice living among the rails of the subway. I saw one while waiting for the westbound train on my way to the airport on Tuesday afternoon — a tiny black creature scampering around. Someone ought to study them; I’ll bet they’re evolving into a separate species of urban mouse.

So I was quite impressed by what we Westerners sometimes call The Centre of the Universe. Another visit is in order.

Back in Victoria, I was welcomed by a visitor to my garden on Wednesday morning:

Buck with injured foreleg

Despite the leg problem, he jumped the fence into a neighbour’s yard and spent part of the day there. Now I take a look around for him every time I go out, at once hoping that he’s gone and that he’s still around. I hope his leg gets better too. I think he nibbled on some emerging daylily foliage, but that’s all. There isn’t much in the way of delectable foliage around as yet, but a big guy like this could do serious damage once plants start to grow in spring.