The Guides for the Prairie Gardener Newsletter – June 2020.

Welcome to the third issue of The Guides for the Prairie Gardener Newsletter! Janet Melrose and I are keeping you up-to-date on everything related to our book series Guides for the Prairie Gardener, letting you know about what other Prairie gardening-related projects we’re working on, and throwing in some gardening trivia and newsy tidbits, just for fun!  If you like what you see, please follow us on our social media and hit the subscribe button on Flowery Prose. 

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Book News and Events

We held our virtual book launch via Facebook Live on the evening of May 31.  The event was hosted by the Alberta Gardening Facebook group and despite some major technical difficulties, we still managed to chat a bit about our books and answer a few prairie gardening questions for viewers.  A huge thank you to everyone who joined us!

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An article Janet and I wrote about updated-for-2020-small-space Victory Gardens is out and about on Facebook and the rest of the Internet – and it comes complete with a useful garden plot planner, gorgeously illustrated by Tree Abraham (who also did our amazing and unique book covers and designed the layouts).  Please feel free to share it!  P.S.: The garden plot in the article isn’t merely hypothetical – it actually exists!  It is the very one Janet is using this year in one of the community gardens she belongs to! 

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Janet did an amazing interview with Michele Jarvie of the Calgary Herald on May 16, talking about our books and the unique challenges of gardening on the prairies. You can read the article here. 

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We were on the radio again!  We did a segment with Doug Dirks on CBC Radio One’s Homestretch program on May 14. We talked a bit about our new books and dispensed a bunch of tips for long weekend gardening!  And Janet was a guest on 770 CHQR’s “Let’s Talk Gardening” show on Sunday, May 31.  The link to the podcast is here. 

Out and About

Sheryl: 

There has been a lot of walking and appreciating the fact that spring is bursting out all over the place.  I’ve done plenty of writing, and editing, too, as well as volunteering for the Calgary Horticultural Society and the Master Gardeners Association of Alberta answering online gardening questions.  It’s always difficult at this time of year to strike a balance between going slow to properly take in all the newness in the world and the unbelievably harried (and hurried) rush to get everything done…but this year is a bit different because I am not yet back to work at my regular job at the library.

Apple blossoms – Photo by Sheryl Normandeau

One of my articles, “Using Colour in the Garden,” has been published in the May 2020 issue of Calgary Gardening, the members’-only publication brought out by the Calgary Horticultural Society. 

Janet:

 Like Sheryl, I am trying my level best to enjoy our early growing season and this year the flowering trees and shrubs have been fabulous! I have been taking photos right, left, and center!

(Top left: Haskap; Top right: Forsythia; Bottom: Double Flowering Plum – Photos by Janet Melrose)

May was unbelievably busy with workshops with experienced and new gardeners all taking part in the webinars I have been involved in facilitating.

June is a slower workshop time as we are able to be outside in our gardens, but here are a few workshops happening to launch us into summer:

June 3rd – Embrace Gardening-  How to Get the Most out of Your Raised Bed Part 2

We will have spent May sowing and transplanting, and things are coming up and some may almost be ready to eat. While others should not have even gone into the soil outside yet! There’s more to edible gardening on the Prairies! To register, click here.  

June 4th– 2 Gals in a Garden – Sensational Succulent Planters

Succulents are a fascinating with all the different shapes, colours, and sizes! They are perfect in a container for a hot and dry summer. To register, click here

June 11th– Calgary Horticultural Society – Bringing Back the Bugs!

Creating a welcoming garden for all the critters that are so necessary to our world is one way; a very constructive way to contribute to the larger efforts to stem the insect crash of our times. To register, click here. 

June 18th– Beyond Kale* – Taking the Edible Garden Into the Summer!

Now that our gardens are growing strongly, let’s learn what we need to do to keep them that way!  To register, click here.  

In Our Gardens

Sheryl:

Lots going on!  The community garden which looked to be shuttered for the season has now reopened…and to my surprise, they weren’t full up, so the garden leader asked if I wanted to rent a second plot.  Twist my rubber arm! This gives me plenty of space to put more seed in…which I did, with huge enthusiasm, this past week.  Late in the month, I also planted the plot I acquired from the other community garden I joined – I put in potatoes, onions, and a few root veggies such as beets and rutabaga.  I know I will not be able to get over there often due to the distance I have to travel, so low-maintenance selections were key. I spent hours last week digging up quackgrass in my “new-old” community garden beds and found a pleasant surprise tucked in alongside the troublesome plants: clusters of dill weed volunteers.  I know some people find them annoyingly…erm…weedy, but to me, dill is a staple herb – my hubby and I love its fresh leaves in potato salad and other dishes, and I always bring some to seed to use when I make garlic dill pickles.  I will allow a few of these plants to grow and produce seed, and the thinnings I removed were scrubbed and used in a meal. 

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Dill weed – Photo by Sheryl Normandeau

In the communal beds at the “old” garden there are chives and lovage and rhubarb ready for all the plot holders…especially that lovage!  It grows so fast I think you could just sit in front of it for five minutes and new leaves would pop out before your eyes.  Be aware if you plant lovage that it is a perennial, that it gets to six feet tall (or over), that it has a propensity to reseed, and that you will ALWAYS have too much of it as a very little goes a long way in cooking.  But it is well worth having in the garden if you love to cook – it’s one of those herbs that once you’ve tried it, you’ll wonder why you didn’t plant it sooner. Plus, you seriously don’t have to do anything to get it to grow – it’s unbelievably maintenance-free.  

(Left to right: Lovage, Rhubarb – Photos by Sheryl Normandeau)

Janet:

I am trying out our Victory Garden plan with my bed at the Inglewood Community Garden and going whole hog with a full-on Square Foot Gardening grid to boot! We were delayed getting into the garden while rules for operating during the pandemic were being figured out, but after the long weekend we got busy. I had already prepared the bed last fall and my garlic was up so I launched right into sowing all the cool season veggies on the plan along with some kale seedlings. Our monsoon rains took us out the next week but I was back in there again this week and took a chance and sowed some pole and runner beans, though I may regret it if the soil isn’t warm enough for them to germinate quickly. No way was I going to transplant my tomatoes and cucumbers in this early as the long-range forecast is calling for the obligatory cool  and rainy (maybe snow) episode the first weekend of June. Did you know that [famed championship horse jumping venue] Spruce Meadows [here in Calgary] changed the date of their first tournament [on the annual schedule] to the second weekend of June because that first weekend always was snowed/rained out? I’ll wait until June 10th for those tender transplants, thank you very much!

(Inglewood Community Garden Bed – Photos by Janet Melrose)

Lots of other gardens I am involved are getting planted too with the hope that sometime during the summer Horticultural Therapy programs can resume in some form or another and will want a garden growing strongly to greet everyone! It’s a time to try out all sorts of techniques and planting schemes not to mention a few old gardening saws to see how it all works out. For starters I am trying out a large 2 Sisters planting guild at the Between Friends Camp Bonaventure garden with lots of pumpkin plants surrounding the corn and beans to see if we can ward off the hares and deer that think that garden is a buffet planted just for them! If it works our returning gardeners should have a treat harvesting everything come September!

Floral Miscellany

Sheryl:

I recently came across an unusual piece of garden advice: apparently, to reduce the risk of seeds from squash such as zucchini from rotting in the soil before they germinate, you’re supposed to sow them with the edge of the seed slid vertically down into the soil, instead of laying the seed flat onto the soil surface.  Have you ever done this?  It’s not wise to direct sow squash seed into cold, wet soils, anyway – it’s better to instead wait for everything to heat up a bit.  (For squash and pumpkins, you’re looking at soil temperatures of 15.5 degrees Celsius/60 degrees Fahrenheit, minimum.  Waiting until the temperatures approach the mid- to high twenties is even better). If you do that, then you don’t have to worry which way is up (and more importantly, you’ll likely have better germination rates!).  I’ve been asked a few times whether or not it matters how you orient seeds when planting (as far as how it influences the way seeds germinate and grow) and this article from the Laidback Gardener gives one of the best explanations I have ever read. 

And, as the rhubarb is growing beautifully and thoughts turn to rhubarb pie and upside-down cake and pie again, I’ve put in my two cents’ worth about how to properly harvest the plant here.  

Janet:

As always, I am interested in weather and nature wisdom. Buffalo beans (Thermopsis rhombifolia) are blooming right now. They are so named because First Nations people used their bloom time to indicate that buffalo bulls were ready for the spring hunt! 

(Left to right: Lilac, Buffalo bean – Photos by Janet Melrose)

Another guide is to wait till the lilacs are in bloom before setting out tender seedlings such as cucumbers, squashes, and – dare I say it – tomatoes and eggplants. Seeing as the lilacs in Calgary are only just budding out, though I have seen a few in bloom downtown in the heat island, we had better pay heed and have the patience to wait till they are in full bloom.

You may like to check out an article by Steve Allen on the Harvest to Table website for lots more seasonal advice for planting this year! 

Get Social with Us! 

Sheryl: 

Facebook: @FloweryProse

Twitter: @Flowery_Prose

Instagram: @flowery_prose

Janet:

Facebook: calgaryscottagegardener

Twitter: @calcottagegdnr

Instagram: calgaryscottagegardener

 

‘Til next month!  ♥Sheryl and Janet

Columnar conifers for Prairie gardens.

Another plant list!  This is based on a question that keeps popping up from members of my local horticultural society, as well as online.  They’re looking for columnar conifers for their small urban gardens – and the clincher is, of course, that the trees have to be hardy enough for the Canadian Prairies.  Bear in mind that in areas like Calgary, where we have drying winter winds, desiccation can be a major problem and may cause severe browning in conifers. Keep those trees consistently watered up through autumn and use mulch!

Columnar Conifers for Prairie Gardens 

‘Moonglow’ Juniper – J. scopulorum ‘Moonglow’ – zone 3 – 16 feet tall and 8 feet spread

‘Wichita Blue’ Juniper – J. scopulorum ‘Wichita Blue’ – zone 3 – 12 feet tall and 8 feet spread

‘Cologreen’ Juniper – J. scopulorum ‘Cologreen’ – zone 3 – 13 feet tall and 5 feet spread

‘Medora’ Juniper – J. scopulorum ‘Medora’ – zone 3 – 10 feet tall and 3 feet spread

Columnar Blue Spruce – Picea pungens fastigiata – zone 2 – 20 feet tall and 5 feet spread

Columnar Norway Spruce – Picea abies ‘Cupressina’; ‘Christina’; ‘Pyramidalis’ – zone 4 – 18 feet tall and 5 feet spread

Columnar White Pine – Pinus strobus fastigiata – zone 3 – 30 feet tall and 8 feet spread

‘DeGroot Spire’ Cedar – Thuja occidentalis ‘DeGroot Spire’ – zone 3 – 12 feet tall and 2 feet spread

‘Skybound’ Cedar – T. occidentalis ‘Skybound’ – zone 2 – 16 feet tall and 5 feet spread

‘Brandon’ Cedar – T. occidentalis ‘Brandon’ – zone 3 – 13 feet tall and 5 feet spread

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What are your favourite trees for small gardens? (They don’t have to be Prairie-hardy, nor do they have to be conifers!). 

Prairie garden tips: use floating row cover.

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This stuff. Floating row cover is incredibly useful in regions where the weather is, at best, a little raunchy, and at worst, downright horrific.  Here on the prairies, we commonly face high winds, heat, drought, excessive moisture, hail, and freezing cold…often within a 24 hour period in the middle of July.  (I exaggerate, but only slightly).  Floating row cover, combined with a hoop tunnel, can be massively helpful when it comes to protecting your plants from all that wackiness.  It can also assist in a whole lot of other ways, including as a control for insects (buh-bye, flea beetles!).

One thing to know before you go out and buy floating row cover:  Don’t cheap out.  Trust me on this.  You think, oh I’m saving a few bucks, but you really can tell when you open the package that it is flimsy and a tad shoddy. You set it up at the community garden anyway, and that very night (of course), there is a thunderstorm. It’s not even a severe one.  Middling, actually.  No hail, either.  At any rate, you go in to check on the garden the next morning and your cheap floating row cover is completely ribboned, strips hanging like banners from your hoop tunnel and bits scattered all over the garden, confetti strewn in other garden plots and clinging damply to the fence.  So you spend the next half hour trying to find all the pieces of fabric and hoping that the garden leader isn’t going to show up to see what you’ve done. (Worse yet, you’re worried that she has already been and gone and is now drafting you a nasty email).

No, as with most things in life, get the good stuff.  In this case, it’s reusable for many, many years.

Do you use floating row cover in your garden?  (I know many of you who don’t live on the prairies use it, as well!).  

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Prairie gardening viewpoints: guest post.

I am delighted to announce that I have another guest on the blog!  I’ve been thinking it would be interesting for me to pose a few questions to some Prairie gardeners I know, inquiring about their experiences gardening in such a unique, challenging climate.  I want to find out what they love about gardening in Alberta, what they find difficult, and what inspires them about growing.  Whether you live on the Canadian Prairies or you’re much further afield, I’m sure you’ll find ideas and solutions to consider for your own gardening endeavours.

Please allow me to introduce Lana Gress!

Where do you garden in Alberta?  What challenges do you think we face as gardeners in this province?  How can we overcome those challenges?

I have been gardening in Red Deer, AB for the last three years. I think that Alberta is very unique in respect to gardening because we have some very distinct differences in weather depending on where you are located in the province and how close you are in proximity to the foothills. I really struggled with this the first two years that I lived in Red Deer. Having grown up in northern Saskatchewan, I initially expected gardening to be similar in Alberta but only better because Red Deer is a zone 3b to 4! I had not anticipated the affect of the freeze/thaw cycles of chinook years on trees, shrubs, and perennials that I considered hardly in SK, or how the close proximity to the mountains really makes the overnight temperatures dramatically lower, even in Central Alberta. I believe that these are probably the most challenging things for Alberta gardeners, especially when it comes to vegetable growing. I really had to rethink everything that I had learned about vegetable gardens in Saskatchewan! In Red Deer I’ve found that the ground is still too cold and the night temps are often low well into June. Things that I would have direct seeded on May long weekend in SK (cucumbers, zucchini, corn) have a better chance of success in AB if they are started as transplants in the house. I also live in a hail belt region and I usually get about 2-3 incidences of hail in June/July. This means that it is riskier growing things like tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers. I tend to grow those vegetables solely in containers for two reasons; I can move them to protected areas if I think there is a chance of hail, and with the colder overnight temps I find that container growing produces more robust and vigorous growth because the root zones of my heat loving plants are always warmer.


What inspires you about gardening?

My grandmother was an avid and inspirational gardener, and she grew the large prairie garden that was typical of her generation. She also had a passion for houseplants and her home was a jungle! Many of these tropical plants were started from seeds and slips all acquired through mail-order catalogues. Grandma even started succulents and African violets from seed! I think this early exposure to growing everything is what developed my passion for growing. I have a diploma in horticulture from Olds College, and have worked as a professional horticulturalist for over 25 years in all aspects of the trade, but growing is my main passion!  

What types of plants are you most passionate about growing?

I’m extremely passionate about food security so vegetable growing is a large focus of mine. I lived in Vancouver and urban areas of the Fraser Valley for 15 yrs before moving to Alberta. The cost of living is very high there so I always looked for ways to stretch my income. Growing as much of my own food as possible was an obvious solution to me. I never had much space either so I started to focus on container growing both outdoors and indoors to help maximize my growing potential. When I moved to an area where I was able to have a “traditional vegetable garden”, I really started to explore gardening methods like biointensive planting practices. I have had gardens that have produced about 1200 pounds of produce in 300 sq ft by using methods like succession planting, interplanting, vertical gardening etc…

What gardening (or gardening-related) projects do you have on the go this year?  What are your goals for this growing season?

This season is an exciting one for me! I have been renting in Red Deer and my yard had no established garden beds and the landlord was a bit hesitant for me to establish a garden bed or build raised beds.  I have solely container gardened for the last two seasons. Once my landlord saw how capable I was he has now agreed to let me develop permanent garden space in the yard. Last summer I began by developing a small in ground bed using the  sheet composting method aka “lasagna gardening”. This is a great method for my landscape as I have very heavy clay subsoil and a small layer of topsoil in the yard. I will be building more beds using this method plus I’ve started to build raised beds. I also have been growing tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers indoors using LED lights for the last few years. I’m planning on expanding the indoor garden in the fall by building a vertical hydroponic system to grow greens, herbs, and strawberries!

A huge thank you, Lana, for your detailed and thoughtful answers – you’ve got us thinking about microclimates and how to protect plants from the extremes of the weather, as well as effective strategies to grow successfully indoors, create productive container gardens, and garner high yields in small spaces. These are all concepts we can use no matter where we live!

Photo by Lana Gress
Photo by Lana Gress

Prairie gardening viewpoints: guest post.

Something new for my blog today!  I have a guest!  I’ve been thinking it would be interesting for me to pose a few questions to some Prairie gardeners I know, inquiring about their experiences gardening in such a unique, challenging climate.  I want to find out what they love about gardening in Alberta, what they find difficult, and what inspires them about growing.  Whether you live on the Canadian Prairies or you’re much further afield, I’m sure you’ll find some food for thought here (pun intended!). 


Without further ado, please meet Maxwell Hislop!  
In his own words:

“I live in Turner Valley, in the foothills of Alberta. For myself, and many others in Alberta, we have to face cold weather and a shortened growing season. It is May 20th, and I still have some ice on the ground beside my house, so on top of being cold here even for Alberta, this is the coldest spring in recent memory. To overcome this, I have built multiple raised beds, with poly covers. This not only allows me to plant before my last frost (which is in June in my area), it heats up the soil ahead of time making the plants happier to go out into the soil early. I do take the covers off in mid- to late June, pending weather and to allow pollinators access to my plants, but often find myself putting the poly back on later in the season for crops to finish. Starting seeds indoors as well to extend our growing season is common practice here, or buying seedlings from our local greenhouses (whereas other places in Canada can direct seed the same crops).

What has always inspired me about gardening is the flavors, not only in traditional crops like carrots or tomatoes, but with the variety that we can grow at home that you can’t buy at your local stores. No one believed me as a kid that I was eating purple potatoes, or veggies that they never even heard of, like sorrel. I grew up with such a love for food from everything we grew at home and the variety that I continued to have as an adult – everything from four types of perennial onions to dozens of types of potatoes, herbs and spices that no one gets the chance to experience. And there are the added health benefits of the high nutrition that many of these come with. So all of that being said, my passion about gardening is the ability to grow my own food. There aren’t really any particular plants I am passionate about, and my obsessions change year to year.


Every year I choose new projects, and this year is no different. I have already built multiple new raised beds with frames for covers, and later in the year plan on building more independent raised beds for wild perennial veggies. I have been expanding my outdoor mushroom beds to include mushrooms in shady areas along side of my house, mushrooms in my lawn, and log towers for more variety rather then just the few I had already inoculated. They are a wonderful food source and being so high in protein are used as a meat substitute. As well, my final large project for the year is a grey water recycling and filter system hooked up to a large tank with my rain water for irrigating my veggies. My town has not fully rebuilt the water treatment system from the floods five years ago, and most summers we are struck with water restrictions which makes production erratic during dry spells. By filtering my laundry and bath water, I should be able to completely eliminate the use of town water and by using biodegradable soaps it means the soap in the water actually adds nutrients to the soil that the plants need.  


My big goal for the season of giving away a thousand pounds of food to neighbors, family, friends, the food bank, and myself has already failed with this extremely cold spring that we are having. Many of my in-ground beds have not sprouted yet, and my perennials such as asparagus have failed from the cold winter with just a few plants surviving. But with the extra time off from COVID, it has developed into a new goal of helping others produce their own food. A few of us have put out time together to build nearly a dozen gardens for people, including one massive communal garden that is 1600 sqare feet. Using saved seed potatoes and seeds from my own garden, seedlings from my indoor grow setup,  and volunteer work from others like me who are passionate about growing food, there will be much more food produced in the multiple gardens we have started for people. We are also building up a collection of videos to have ready for the fall so people can watch and learn techniques to optimize their own growing space. 


I thank you for giving me the opportunity to share a bit of my story, and for all your work as well to help others with their own gardens.”


A huge thank you, Maxwell, for taking the time to share what is going on in your garden right now and your plans for the season and looking towards the future. You’ve offered so many excellent suggestions for extending the season and dealing with our crazy weather…and for expanding our edible plant horizons!

Raised beds – photo by Maxwell Hislop
Mushroom log tower – photo by Maxwell Hislop

Can we grow sweet potatoes on the Prairies?

Sweet potatoes, perhaps; yams, no.  Yams (Dioscorea alata) cannot grow on the Canadian Prairies – they are native to Asia and the Caribbean (where they are a perennial vine) and require a very long growing season to be able to produce tubers.

Under certain conditions we might be able to grow sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas), which are sometimes mistakenly called yams (at least in the grocery stores, where the names seem to be interchangeable). Due to our short growing season, sweet potatoes are a tricky crop to grow, as we often run out of time to produce tubers. There are short-season types available, however. Cultivars such as ‘Covington’, ‘Beauregard’, and the Canadian-bred ‘Radiance’ can produce crops in 110-120 days, and ‘Frazier White’ supposedly only needs 105 days.  This is, of course, if conditions are suitable. Due to the time constraints of our growing season (for example – Calgary only has 117 frost free days on average), starting the slips (unrooted vine cuttings) indoors is essential.

Sweet potatoes also require a long period of hot, dry weather to produce decently-sized tubers, and we all know that the weather doesn’t always co-operate in that regard.

If you have the heat and the time, sweet potatoes aren’t massively demanding plants, as far as inputs go (they are susceptible to a number of pests and diseases, however). They don’t need extremely rich soil; in fact, too much nitrogen is detrimental to tuber production. Beyond watering consistently, you don’t have to do much to make this crop happy.  Sweet potatoes fare best in full to part sun, and will produce sizeable vines that resemble those of another plant in the same genus: morning glories (I. purpurea).

Although things will likely change in the future as breeding efforts continue, sweet potatoes are considered a novelty veggie on the Prairies (although they are grown as specialty food crops in provinces such as Ontario).  You can attempt to grow sweet potatoes in-ground or in a raised bed, but your best bet is probably to try them in containers in your greenhouse and see what you end up with – at the very least, you’ll have a lovely vining plant to enjoy all summer!

Do you grow sweet potatoes in your garden (I’d love to know – whether or not you live in Canada!).  If you enjoy eating sweet potatoes, what are your favourite ways to prepare them or use them in recipes?

Botany word of the month.

Farinaceous (syn. farinose)

If a plant is farinaceous, it sports a white, flour-like bloom on the surfaces of its leaves (and sometimes fruit and other plant parts).  This white coating is epicuticular wax (occasionally referred to as farina) found on the outer surfaces of plant cuticles. Why do plants need to be waxed, you may ask?  Well…let me tell you.  The wax helps to repel water and soil particles, which prevents nasty things like bacteria and moulds from attacking the plant.  It also limits the amount of water lost by the plant through transpiration, which is valuable if the plant is stuck in a drought situation.

If you’ve ever grown cabbages, you’ve likely noticed epicuticular wax on them. You’ve undoubtedly spotted it on some apple fruit. And if you delight in succulent gardening, you’re definitely aware of the fact that these adorable and addictively collectible plants are farinaceous.

Just to be a tad more confusing, the leaves (or other plant parts) of a farinaceous plant that have a coating of epicuticular wax are described as being glaucous.  So, that’s pretty much three botany words of the month in one post – bonus!  😉

One genus of farinaceous plants is Chenopodium, which counts lamb’s quarters (C. album) as its most notable (notorious?) member.  Many years ago, I grew magentaspreen (C. giganteum) – you can see evidence of the epicuticular wax on the leaves.

Magenta spreen

Further reading: The Botanist in the Kitchen, The Most Interesting Layer of Wax in the World.