When folks have been in to the store and greenhouse these past two months, the talk is usually of weather. We are either happy it’s warm, unhappy it’s cold or disappointed it’s raining. The conversation turns, usually, to the Summer of 2016 and it’s crazy hot temperatures and lack of rain. Almost everyone wishes vehemently that the weather we experienced last year not happen again this year.
Although, in that conversation, at least one proud plant moment emerges. Phones with saved photographs are whipped out and pictures of an amazing deck box or hanging basket are shared. We often hear, “Last year my flowers were amazing, despite the weather…”
How could this be? It was an unprecedented summer of temperatures above 40 degree humidity for weeks on end and a record-setting seventy-eight days without significant rainfall. People were buying in water and wells were running dry. We were trying to grow Ontario plants in Floridian weather; there is a reason you don’t see begonias and geraniums growing in Florida in the summer – they just can’t do it.
So, how did we do it? How did our patio planters thrive while we were all puddles of perspiration sequestered in our air conditioned homes? It is our conclusion that the lack of rain forced us to WATER each and every day, without fail, and that was the key!
In summers-gone-by we have felt that because it rained a bit or was overcast and cool that we didn’t need to water our containers and planters. A rain storm of a couple of hours surely watered my planters, right? Wrong! Unless it rains steadily the whole day, your planter is still in need of water; a light to moderate summer rain usually just bounces off the dense foliage and never reaches the roots of the plants.
So, with no rain last summer, we had to water our plants daily, sometimes even twice daily. It didn’t rain, so we couldn’t use that as the excuse to not do it. And see what thorough, daily watering can do?
It is the simplest but seemingly most difficult thing to do: be consistent with watering plants contained in pots. Best practice is to water in the morning so the plants are hydrated and stress-free during the hottest part of the day, but in modern times when lives are so busy, watering whenever we can is the best we can do. If that means at the end of the day, with a glass of wine in hand, then it is.
Fertilizer can be as simple as a powder or liquid additive to water that is watered in weekly, or twice-monthly at the least. Fertilizer is usually the difference between “wow” and “WOW!!”
Many lessons can be learned from 2016: watering daily is needed, plant choices can make or break a planter (the sun was harsh, did you have the right plant in the right place?) and tropical plants, such as hibiscus and mandevillia, thrived in the heat. Talk to a professional at a good Garden Centre to learn more. Cheers to a more temperate, but sunshine-filled Summer of 2017!
On a busy day, a staff member at a garden centre can answer hundreds of questions. At times, your head can spin from trying to picture the space the person is asking about (“I have a porch that faces northeast, with a big overhang, what hanging basket is best?”) or identify the plant the person is requesting (“I saw a green and yellow plant in my neighbour’s garden; it is about this tall…”).
When armed with questions for your local garden centre, try to have as much information as possible to help the staff member answer your queries and meet your needs. Can you bring a photo or your digital camera with a picture of the space or plant you desire? This is always very helpful! Although you are bringing this information with you, please do not have expectations that one staff person at any garden centre can spend a long period of time providing an in depth consultation with you, unless you have arranged something prior to your arrival. This is the “busy season”; consultations are usually conducted in April, prior to the “craziness” of May and June.
As for the information you can provide, do you know the exposure of the location you wish to put the plant? Is it a hot, sunny space? Is it really windy or very shady? Do you have water restrictions? Is the soil of average quality or do you think it needs amending? How much commitment can you make to these planters or garden plants? Are you looking for something too fussy for your no-maintenance sensibilities? It is best to be honest with yourself about what you are looking for, especially concerning your ability to care for the plants and your budget.
If you are looking for a specific plant someone else has, can you bring a leaf from that plant? How about doing some research ahead of time and bringing a list of perennials you are interested in along with ones you have tried in the past that you either like or dislike? If you bring some identifying feature (photo, leaf, name) of a container planting that you love or plant you are coveting, that information will guide a savvy staff person to help you make choices that will not only satisfy you, but thrill you.
It’s time to move on to the next season for your decorative outdoor pots. If you missed the briefly warm mid-March window of opportunity to remove your evergreen boughs, you will need to either cut the boughs to the frozen soil level and remove the cut stems under the soil at a later date or pour boiling water to ease the stems out of the soil. If possible, moving the containers into a garage (near an interior wall where it is warmer) or into the house will speed up the thawing process.
If you can thaw the soil, the only décor you can safely add in early April is a collection of twigs and sticks. Consider using curly willow, the red dogwood and/or birch from your winter arrangements and fluffy, Spring-like pussy willows. The soil top can be covered with fresh looking woodland moss. A good garden centre will be stocked in all this product. This can be very effective and the only option during the inconsistent early April temperatures.
Once the deep freeze has passed and night time temps flutter around zero or minus one, the moss can be parted and pre sprouted bulbs can be added to the base of the sticks. Favourites include tulips, hyacinths and daffodils. When it looks like the night time temps will be above zero, cold tolerant annuals such as pansies, primula, campanula, English daisies, ranunculus, dusty miller, and alyssum can all be added to the planters.
If a random freezing night occurs and you are unable to bring in the planter, it can be saved by placing a light bed sheet over the arrangement and letting it return to a normal temperature the next morning without exposing it to sunlight (until it has thawed) and without touching the leaves.
The weather forecasters have been very vocal in telling us that we are going to have a snowy, cold winter. Ouch! If that’s the case, we need to get your outdoor winter decor done sooner, rather than later. It’s no good trying to push evergreen boughs into pots that are frozen with the wind whipping around our frozen faces.
To prepare your winter-proof pots, cut all remaining plant material off at soil level. Leave the roots and soil right into your pots. This will form the base to firmly push in the evergreen boughs. If you’ve already cleaned out your pots, create a base using heavy soil (from your garden, perhaps) and floral foam or some stryofoam.
Use a generous amount of a variety of evergreen boughs at various lengths (shorter and compact is always better than floppy) to form a base and then add height with red dogwood or birch branches. Push your boughs in firmly or they will move and sway with the wind before they permanently freeze. Accents can fill in the body and can be natural like dried hydrangea blooms, pinecones, sumac, sedum heads (use spray paint to bump up the colour, if you wish) or decor accents that you purchase (shiny balls, wicker shapes, bows and the like). Be creative and have fun with your choices!
Do remember that these arrangements can last throughout the entire winter so wire distinctly holiday accents to a stick that you can cut out once the festivities are over. While stars, pinecones and birch branches look winter-y, shiny red balls, gauzy bows and Santa faces look dated and out of place in February. Make your arrangements full and lush so when you cut out the seasonal accents you are not left with large gaping holes.
The Canadian outdoors is Mother Nature’s Cooler, so you do not need to water your outdoor arrangements unless we hit a really warm spell mid November and your evergreens look dry. Usually though, the moist air is more than sufficient to keep everything fresh and lovely from November to March. If wind movement or theft are concerns, dribble some water around the bottoms of the pots on a freezing cold night and the pots will freeze to the sidewalk/patio!
Weather-wise, we don’t know what we’ll get until we get it. That said, we can take steps to be prepared for the extremes. I am sure very few people wish a repeat of the weather and stresses of the Summer of 2016 – it was too dry, too hot and too extreme.
In the seven weeks plus of heat and dryness we experienced this past July and August many of our plants suffered. Plants, especially in small pots and containers, dried out several times per day and, when water restrictions came into effect, it was not possible to water them that often, even if you had the time and energy to do so.
For the future, it is practical to consider replacing small pots (less than 14” in diameter) with larger, deeper pots. BIG pots hold a lot of soil and soil holds water. It’s quite simple: large pots dry out less frequently than small pots. Plants that do not experience the extreme stress/de-stress/stress/de-stress patterns remain lush, in bloom and healthy.
Therefore, instead of three or five small pots scattered on the stairs to your front door, consider one or two large pots (18”+) at the base of the stairs. A visitor’s eye will be instantly drawn to it and it’s largesse will allow for spectacular and welcoming plant arrangements, with minimal care.
In large pots consider planting large plants such as canna lilies, elephant ears, ornamental grasses, ferns or palm plants and even dragon wing begonias, tomato plants and herbs. Large plants fill a large pot and give a lush effect for less money than one expects.
When possible, consider replacing hanging baskets with 16” + patio pots or 30” + window boxes. Plants that are “grounded” will dry out 50% less as they will not be moving around in Mother Nature’s “oven”.
Many large sized patio pots have two layers of composite material and a layer of air buffers between the two. This insulating pocket of air helps to keep the roots cool in the summer and insulated in the winter, preventing some large pots from splitting and breaking if left out 365 days. We call these double walled pots and they are excellent investments, often lasting 15 years or more without fading and cracking.
A large pot can be expensive to fill with proper Container Soil. Remembering that soil holds moisture, find a balance between using “filler” in pots and topping up with soil. If the environment is windy, add bricks or rocks to the bottom of the pot. This is also a good technique to keep pots heavy to prevent theft in a commercial or business setting. If the need to move the pots easily is priority, then use unused nursery pots flipped into the bottom of the pot or pieces of large Styrofoam. At least 50% of the large pot should be soil to make the moisture retentive soil work in your favour.
Once September rolls around your patio pots and hanging baskets might be looking a little tired or you might be tired of looking at them. It’s time to renovate your pots and welcome Fall to your home and garden.
Some plants in your pots might look healthy and be suitable for the cool Autumn temperatures. Plants to consider leaving in your containers: annual grasses, bacopa, nemesia, alyssum, dusty miller, ivy, dianthus, verbena, or any plant that looks Fall-like in its colouring and looks healthy. Plants to remove, either due to a too-summery look or to their inability to handle cool temperatures: potato vine, geraniums, sun-impatiens, begonias, marigolds (one of the first plants to be taken by even a light frost) and tropical plants.
Whether you remove one plant or all of them, you will need to freshen the soil before choosing from the abundance of Fall Fill-in Plants: mums, ornamental kale and cabbage, fountain grasses, millet, pansies, asters, ornamental peppers, swiss chard and ivy. Perennials can even be added in: sedum, coral bells, rudbeckia, perennial grass, lysimachia and ajuga. To use perennials, either remove a healthy section from an existing plant in your garden (warning, there will be wilt and transplant shock) or purchase a new perennial, add it to your design and then be sure to remove it from the pot and plant in the ground just after Thanksgiving. Perennials cannot over winter when left in pots in our zone; they must be in the ground.
Fun, decorative accents can make your new Fall Arrangement unique. Add in a scarecrow, pumpkin accent, even a witches broom. Colourful ornamental corn or gourds can be set beside your pots – even a straw bale! If you choose to add a gourd or pumpkin, put a square of plastic or a saucer on the soil first then add the vegetable accent – this will prevent moisture contact and premature rotting. Saying good bye to Summer is hard to do, but when you have fresh Fall planters to look forward to, it lessens the blow!
The weather this Summer is one to remember, just not for the right reasons.
We’ve always been confident in our water supply with two ponds usually filled to the brim. Not this year; we’re worried. Our pond that runs the length of the cold frame greenhouse has almost run dry. We have just the main pond left and with the disappointing no-show of rain last Friday, it looks like no precipitation is in sight – again.
The agricultural business is suffering; just have a chat with any of the farm families at the local Markets to confirm this. It’s getting desperate. And if you are on a well, you too are feeling the panic of no rain in sight. We’ve heard from many of you that you’ve not only let your grass go, but your flowers too. When it’s the choice between flushing toilets and watering flowers, necessity wins out.
If you are in this situation, or if you wish to conserve water for your municipality/city (and for your water bill), a few suggestions to weather your plants through this drought and intense heat include:
Water carefully turning off the sprayer as you move from one container to the next.
Water directly on the soil; the leaves do not need water. Do not use “Mist” options on nozzles. Get the water directly to the soil!
Water until the plant/container feels heavy with water weight; it is more effective to water thoroughly once then partially several times through the day.
Water in the evening; this will avoid evaporation and will help your plant be at its best during the heat of the next day
Use any extra water you have (dehumidifier, light dishwashing water, kiddie pool water) to water plants or flower beds
On days of intense heat, move container plants to a shady spot to give them a break from the high UV. Cluster several small pots under a market umbrella or a tree. This works especially well if going away for a weekend; plants on the ground (not hanging) clustered together in a partial sun location will dry out at a slower rate.
Water flower beds thoroughly and then mulch well (if not already done so) We are sold out of bags of mulch, we can recommend places to purchase mulch, if you wish.
Use soaker hoses for flower beds and especially for new perennial or shrub plantings