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Canada's favourite gardeners share their plans for summer

Downsizing, sharing fresh produce, raising garden beds, and finally addressing the dreaded ‘forgotten zone’.

Downsizing, sharing fresh produce, raising garden beds, and finally addressing the dreaded ‘forgotten zone’

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

After a harsh Canadian winter, the return of spring is always a gift — and this year the gift feels particularly precious. The determined blooms of Siberian squill and the sunny faces of daffodils remind us that time marches on and beauty persists. It seems both veteran green thumbs, who may be considering turning their entire front lawn into a garden, and those just learning of the inherent joy of sowing seeds are feeling horticulturally inspired — perhaps because gardening offers us a modicum of control that we so desperately seek right now. 

I've been daydreaming about the things I'd like to do to my garden to make it even more inviting this summer and that got me wondering what Canada's gardening experts are dreaming up. This is what they told me. 

Mark Cullen, gardening expert/columnist

MC: I'm moving from a 10 acre garden to a one acre garden this year. With many prized perennials in my current garden, I am digging and dividing much of the spring to make the most of it. Hostas, Bee Balm (Monarda), Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) to name just three, will all be poached in the nicest possible way. Not only are these mature and excellent quality plants, I will save a fortune by not having to purchase them new.

Also working on building a new potting shed, installing insect hotels, bird nesting boxes and arbours — not to mention creating a plan for the veggies, fruit, ornamental trees, kids' natural play garden and a water feature.

From left to right: Hostas, Black-eyed Susan, Bee Balm (Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Ben Cullen, gardening expert/columnist (and Mark's son!)

BC: We live in a rented house in Guelph, Ontario and last year I got permission from the landlord to put in two oak trees — a red oak and a bur-oak. The trees I planted were bareroot, two year old trees about as thick as your big toe — but I am looking forward to seeing how they establish this summer. To see them leaf out will be a great joy. I chose native oaks because we have learned how they support hundreds of insect and caterpillar species, which in turn support the birds. My wife and I are starting our seeds now as well — this year we will be doing more paste tomatoes for preserving as we have found that we just can't eat them fast enough when they are in season. As well, a friend recently gave us seeds for Palestinian Molokhia (Corchorus olitorius), a prolific leafy-green similar to spinach and related to okra. Friends are where most of my floral additions will be coming from — our master gardener friends are generous in sharing their perennials with us renters (and I'll see what I can steal from Dad's place during the down-size too).

Red Oak and Bur Oak (Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Frank Ferragine AKA "Frankie Flowers", gardening expert/author

FF: This summer, I look forward to motivating even more people to garden through my personal gardening project called 'Elevated Eats'. Elevated Eats is an urban test farm and the goal is to elevate people's food growing knowledge and elevate food choices for Canada's hungry at the same time by donating the food that's grown. Located at Yorkdale Shopping Centre, people of all ages can sign up to volunteer and learn about our 'milk crate farm system' which has been used to successfully grow over 30 varieties of vegetables including cucumbers, swiss chard, kale, eggplant and lettuce as well as herbs such as basil, chives, mint, rosemary and thyme. And the best part is, we've been able to donate this fresh bounty to food banks for three seasons running! We've also created a free, full education plan to go along with it so new gardeners can find all the information they need to get inspired. Like a lot of gardeners, I'm really looking forward to getting my hands dirty this year.

(Source: Frankie Flowers)

Carson Arthur, landscape designer/television personality

CA: With all of this extra time on my hands, I've made a list of the projects I want to get done — including tackling the 'ugly spot' in my yard. Now I can totally admit to having that one spot that I'm not proud of and this is the spring to fix it!  If you have one of these spots on your property, possibly the side garden between you and the neighbour, or out near the storage shed, maybe it is time to do something about it. Here are my easy fixes for those neglected spaces.

Add something special. Sounds easy enough right? Give a space that has no visual attraction a focal point. The challenge is the level of visual interest can't be too great. Now let me explain; for most of us, there is a valid reason why these spots in our yard are not where we often spend time in so adding a 'wow factor' to them may not be the best solution. 

Plants in these spaces need to be low maintenance. I, unfortunately, have a bad habit of sticking plants that don't have a home into these spots in my yard. If you are uninspired by a piece in your yard there is a simple trick. Go to a garden centre and get one flowering perennial with medium to big leaves that is currently in bloom. Add one perennial grass to the cart and one dark leafed shrub. This combination is my 'go-to' whenever I need to add pop to a space. 

Every space in the yard has the potential to be something special. You just have to get inspired! 

(Source: Carson Arthur)
(Source: Carson Arthur)

Marjorie Harris, plant & garden consultant 

MH: Gardeners think long term, and with that spirit, I am looking forward to seeing one of my favourite recent projects mature this summer. No matter what age you are, if you like to get your hands dirty, you will benefit from raised beds. For the aging gardener, who may find it even more challenging to stoop and bend, it's the ideal place to collect all those special plants that you may have sprinkled about the garden.

To help me age well in the garden, I decided to have a large raised bed (3 metres by 1.2 metres by 1 metre high) to hold my collection of dwarf plants. Choosing a location for it was easy. I chose a spot with as much sun as possible and close to a bench where I could sit and admire the plants.

'Dwarf' is a mysterious term which can refer to a plant which is a couple of centimetres to five metres high. So be careful what you choose and only buy from a reliable nursery person or you could plant something that grows much larger than you expected. Mine came from Vineland Nurseries and I got ironclad guarantees that if these plants survived, they'd be small. I also put them in the main garden for a couple of years so I could observe them and gauge what to expect.

Rear: Cornus alternifolia ‘Argentea’ (will have to be kept bonsaied so it won’t overwhelm the plants in front of it); Left: Acer palmatum ‘Beni Komachi’; Right: Acer palmatum ‘Veridis’; Foreground: Acer palmatum ‘Mikawa Yatsubusa’; Chamaecyparis ‘Bridget’ (under the Japanese maple); Pinus mugo ‘Mitsch Mini’; Tsuga ‘Popaleuski’. (Source: Marjorie Harris)

You need to have good soil with excellent drainage for any raised bed — a mix of black topsoil, compost and sand worked for me (75 per cent soil plus 12.5 per cent for each of the other two). I top up with compost and add a bit of Epsom Salt for phosphorus and nitrogen (4 L water mixed with 2 tbsp Epsom salts applied immediately) about once a year. Compost does the trick keeping this soil healthy. I mulched with stones once the squirrels found how much fun this bed is and added sharp, thorny bits from rose pruning to help keep any other tempted marauders at bay.

My raised bed is fairly large but almost any size will work — just never jam a lot of plants in. Crowding means you can't appreciate the quality of the plants, and that's what this project is all about — an intense relationship with each plant.

Jon L. Peter, curator & plant records manager, Royal Botanical Gardens

As tree buds begin to swell and snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) are at peak bloom under the canopy of my dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides), I begin to contemplate the coming joys of my home garden. 

A neglected trouble-spot in my property is the drainage swale that runs between my neighbour's fence and my walkway. For five years, this area between our houses has evolved to include a foundation planting bed with some of my shade-loving favourites — bishop's hat (Epimedium lishihchenii), large-flowered bellwort (Uvularia grandiflora) and false anemone (Anemonella macrophylla), an in-progress metal-edged walkway, a new gate and adjoining fence. Other than raising the grade slightly for the walkway, this drainage swale has remained turfgrass and difficult to maintain. It is an awkward corner that my lawn mower doesn't quite do justice on and it's time for a change.

(Source: Jon L. Peter)

My plan is to get rid of the turfgrass throughout this swale and replace the turf with cultivated plants which thrive in this "rain garden" situation where conditions fluctuate between wet and dry.

I wanted to take a herbicide-free approach to this project so my first step was to use a line-trimmer to shave the turfgrass to deplete as much of its energy as possible. Next, I raked some leaves that had accumulated in the corners of my garden beds and piled those leaves over the scalped turf area. The leaves will create a mat that won't allow light to get to the soil surface and will smother out any growth.

(Source: Jon L. Peter)

Next, I used branches recently pruned from my Smooth Hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) and the conifer boughs which were in my winter container displays, to lay on top of the leaves. This will ensure everything is held in place. I will continue to repeat this process along the length of this area until it's all usable garden space. 

After a month or two, the turfgrass will be smothered out and I can remove the majority of the debris, slightly cultivate the soil and incorporate some of the organic matter and then plant desirable species. I am particularly excited to have grown some Carolina Allspice (Calycanthus floridus) from seed, so I have some one year old seedlings to transplant to this location. I am also excited to plant some Joe-Pye-weed (Eutrochium purpureum) and one of my favourite new introductions, Letterman's Ironweed (Vernonia lettermanii or 'Iron Butterfly'). Both perennial species along with lots of other natives, near-natives, and nativars will thrive in this renovated drainage swale location and the planting will help to reduce surface runoff, increase ground water holding and will require much less maintenance than the previous layout. 

These interviews have been edited and condensed. 


Portia Corman is the executive producer of CBC Life.

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