Who knows when Winter-y weather will hit us this year? It’s no good trying to push evergreen boughs into pots that are frozen. it’s best to prepare your pots for your winter arrangements now and start on them as soon as Remembrance Day has respectfully passed. Or, “green up” your pots in early November, waiting until after November 11 to add in the sparkly accents.
To prepare the pots, cut all remaining plant material off at soil level. Leave the roots and soil right in your pots (make sure they are pots that are “winter proof”). This will form the base to push in the evergreen boughs. Use a generous amount of at least two types of evergreen boughs at various lengths to form a pleasing base. Layer your boughs so they are full an lush; multiple layers of boughs will be better able to handle ice and snow weight and won’t “pancake” out as the winter progresses. Add height to the arrangement with red dogwood or birch branches. Accents can fill in the body and can be natural accents 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! Take a moment and think about the style of your home and match your accents to reflect your style or your family’s personality.
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.
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, balloon-flowers, 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 or a witches broom. Colourful ornamental corn or gourds can be set beside your pots – even a straw bale! 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 differences in varieties of garden mums are not simply the colours. Certain mums are for indoor decor while others are specifically outdoor mums. In our zone, some are perennial, but most sold in September are not. Bloom times vary. Navigating the world of mums can be complicated.
A good garden centre can navigate you through the process so you are pleased with your Fall purchases. You will find a wide selection of colourful garden mums on the outdoor benches in September: burgundy, purple, orange, golden yellow…. Most of these are sold for less than ten dollars and are not typically perennial in our zone. Occasionally people will hit the jackpot with some that do over winter, but, in our area, it usually happens only during a mild winter, in a sheltered area. Hardy perennial mums are available (generally in May and June, sold with other perennial plants) but they usually offer single daisy-like blooms in minimal colours – not the rich, deeply coloured double-type blooms most of us yearn for to put in displays of hay bales, corn stalks and pumpkins.
Indoor Mums are varieties that have large blooms, often in bi-colours or stripes. These are sold in stores, not in outdoor displays. Best on your dining room table, they can be placed outdoors in very sheltered areas, like under a porch. If you are unsure, ask the garden centre staff which mum is which. While indoor mums can be outdoors (sheltered), outdoor mums cannot remain indoors for any length of time.
Mums are bred by colour, by location needs (indoor, outdoor planters or perennial garden) and by season. Early blooming mums are available mid-August and usually finish blooming by the end of September. Mid season mums begin blooming early to mid September and finish near Hallowe’en. Late blooming mums are just cracking colour at Thanksgiving and die with the November frosts.
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.
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.
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