Toronto Star column – published April 4, rx 2015
Mark’s Top 5 Steps to the Best Garden Ever
Anyone who has ever read David Chilton’s great Canadian book The Wealthy Barber will know the secret to a financially secure retirement: work hard, save a little bit of money every week starting when you are young, don’t give up saving [ever] and sock it away somewhere reasonably safe where it will grow at a rate that outpaces inflation.
Producing the very best garden calls for a similar plan: Start while you are young enough [and can still bend over], work hard [especially early in the season], invest wisely and plan on never retiring [from the garden, that is].
What plan? This plan.
This is one of my now famous ‘fridge magnet’ columns. Read it, stick it to the fridge, and follow up with some action as time and favourable weather allows. The benefits that accrue will multiply faster than blue chip, dividend paying stocks. Though, evening scented stocks are a wonderful way to generate some excitement around the yard as the sun is setting on those warm summer evenings. Romance is a difficult thing to put a monetary value on, so I will quit with the investment analogy and get to it.
1. Save a TONNE of work this summer. Apply dormant spray to your fruit trees, roses, most flowering trees and shrubs just as soon as evening temperatures remain reliably above freezing. This may not be any time soon, but I give you fair warning so that there are no excuses. In a typical spring here in the GTA we get these temperatures by mid April. That is next week.
Dormant spray is a two-bottle arrangement that you buy in a box. One bottle contains a refined mineral oil called ‘dormant oil’. Its job is to smother overwintering insect egg casings and prevent the first generation of tent caterpillars from taking over your crab apple, same with aphids on your roses. You get the idea.
The second bottle is filled with lime sulphur. This is a natural disease suppressant. The active bacteria and spores that promote powdery mildew and sooty mould are discouraged by the smell of this stuff, as are house guests who drop by the same day that you apply it. For this reason I recommend that you spray it and go run some errands for a few hours. Find an excuse to leave the premises while your neighbour, who is washing his car on his driveway wonders if the soap in his bucket has gone bad. Lime sulphur smells like rotten eggs, but it works.
2. Prune. You could prune your prune tree [which is really an Italian plum], but few of us attempt to grow them here. Truth is this is a great time of year to prune most any fruiting trees, especially apples, peaches, apricots and nectarines. The idea is to open up their structure by removing a portion of the branches that grow in the interior of the tree. Let the sun shine on the fruit as it ripens and remove some of the top growth, allowing wind to whistle through. Sunshine and breezes encourage evenly ripened fruit and discourage the diseases and insects that the dormant spray didn’t reach.
Leave your pear tree unless it is unruly or getting in your way. They generally don’t like being pruned.
This is a good time of year to prune your cedar hedge and junipers, too. Shaping them now produces a soft, finished look in a month or two as new growth appears.
3. Fertilize your lawn. “What does fertilizer do for your lawn, anyway?” people like to ask. Well, think of a bear venturing out of a cave after a long winter nap. The first thing she is going to want is a square meal: after all, the winter robbed her of the nutrients she stored up in her belly last fall.
Your lawn stored up nutrients at its root zone last fall, which is why it explodes out of the soil like a rocket [a slow rocket] with the warming temperatures and increased rainfall of spring. Soon, however, it outgrows the available nutrients in the soil and bingo, weeds compete their way into the lawn and insects are tempted by its weakened state.
None of this happens, to the same extent, when a quality fertilizer is applied early in spring. A product with slow-release nitrogen provides a safe, lasting green as this is the one element that your lawn craves the most after a long winter. The addition of iron, at least one percent in the bag, is the key to a greener lawn. In the same way that iron provides your blood with its deep red colour, it keeps your lawn a deep shade of green. Be sure to use a quality lawn fertilizer that contains chelated iron, a type of iron that is available in a form that grass plants can readily absorb. There is a new form of iron on the market called ‘DDP’ which produces extraordinary results.
This is an excellent time of year to thicken your lawn by spreading fresh grass seed over thin areas. Put down 2 or 3 cm of lawn soil first, broadcast the seed evenly by hand, rake smooth, and step on it to get the seed in firm contact with the soil. Water regularly until germination occurs. And remember that the best quality grass seed does not germinate for 2 to 3 weeks: slow is good.
4. Soil enhancement. The nutrients in your garden and container soil were used up, to a large extent, by last year’s plants. This is the best time of year to replenish those nutrients by adding generous quantities of composted manure. For the first time we are able to buy Bio Max manure that is certified by the Compost Council of Canada with a ‘Compost Quality Assurance’ logo on the bag. This means that the compost is clean, naturally rich and provides peace of mind to the user.
April is the time to dig generous quantities of composted cattle or sheep manure into your garden beds. How much? I spread 20 kg over a sq. meter of soil and turn it under or ‘work it in’ with a cultivator or garden fork or leave it and let the earth worms pull it down.
It is impossible to overemphasize the benefits of adding finished compost to your garden soil. Evidence that this is a good idea, and one you cannot afford to miss, is as far away as the nearest farmer’s field, where they rotate their crops and enrich the soil each year.
5. Containers should have last year’s soil removed and placed on the garden. Scrape out the inside of each pot with a stiff brush to remove the soil that is caked on and replace with fresh container mix. Be sure to buy quality stuff. I like Pro Mix, CIL Potting Soil, and, of course, my own Mark’s Choice container mix. Just be sure that you use one of the quality mixes on the market as you do get what you pay for with this product.
Check out the plants that are available at your local garden retailer this time of year. It might surprise you to find greenhouse-fresh pansies, violas, ranunculus and garden herbs available for sale. They look good and can be planted in containers that are located in sheltered locations, like under an awning or near the front door.
There is much more that you can add to your ‘to-do’ list this time of year. Here are a few more valuable tips:
a. Get out your lawn mower, lubricate, clean it and sharpen the blades (if you didn’t do that in the fall).
b. Start tomatoes indoors. I will sow mine this weakened. All 200 of them.
c. Start tuberous begonias and dahlias now.
d. Sow cold-hardy vegetables from seed now. The late Lois Hole [previously the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta and a farmer] used to say to me, “Mark, whatever you do, be SURE to tell everybody to sow their carrots in April. The earlier the better!” There Lois, I have done it. Add to your list peas, onions, lettuce, spinach and all of the gassy vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower.
e. Rake your lawn to remove the winter debris
Finally, sit, enjoy the birds, feed them, water them, breath deeply and dream of the next eight glorious months in your Canadian garden. You’ve earned it.