A few weeks ago, I was sent a question about fire blight – a gardener had a seriously infected hawthorn tree cut down in her yard and the arborist left the chips on the ground. She wanted to know if she should remove the chips or keep them; her second query was what types of trees she should plant in the hawthorn’s place. Fire blight is caused by a bacterium called Erwinia amylovora. It is spread by insects, birds, wind, and water, so it is likely to have traveled from another infected plant nearby.
My recommendation was to remove the chips and dispose of them at a landfill. As for the trees, fire blight affects members of the rose family, so I advised her to avoid those, or at the very least, look for cultivars within those genera that are fire blight resistant. Trees that are susceptible to fire blight include:
There are a few shrubs to avoid as well, including roses, spirea, and cotoneaster. Raspberries can also get fire blight but it is a different strain than the other plants mentioned can contract. By knowing which plants to avoid, better choices can be made about the new selection.
Particularly at this time of year, when the new candles are formed, mugo pines may appear to be the angriest shrub of the plant world, looking for all the world like they are furiously gesturing to the idiot that cut them off in traffic. (Now you’ll never see them the same way again. You’re welcome). 😉
Mugos have shorter needles than most pines, but they’re still fairly long (up to two inches), elegant as befitting pine trees, and clustered in pairs. If you touch the needles, they’re not particularly soft like some other pines. Again, that sort of fits with the whole angry thing.
On the larger cultivars, the branches are supposed to sweep upwards in stiff arcs, but the shrubs themselves sometimes acquire a sprawling habit as they age (I completely understand this as I have, too), so this isn’t always accomplished as well as it should be. When left unkempt, unattractive bare spots often open up in the centre of the shrub. (You can – carefully and judiciously – prune the shrubs every few years to maintain a more tidy, compact shape). Smaller cultivars, such as the lovely ‘Mops’ (which really does look like a ploofy green mop turned upside down and stuffed into the ground), tend to be a tad more well-behaved.
Once you’ve got the ID down pat on these, you’ll start to realize how common they are, at least in urban areas here on the prairies. Their hardiness and compact size (small and smaller) make them tough to beat as landscape specimens. They’re pretty much a go-to for residential and commercial foundation plantings. Although it does occur in particularly harsh years, mugos tend to resist winter desiccation a bit better than many other conifers, and that’s a big deal around here.
This amazing natural area just outside of Calgary is one of my favourite places to visit – the views are incredible in any season and in any type of weather. The Rocky Mountains to the west, rolling grasslands in the south and east, and even a view of the city’s downtown when you gaze north – it’s all eye candy from the trails, and depending on the time of year, you’ll catch a myriad of wildflowers in bloom, numerous bird species, and maybe even some wildlife (we’ve seen moose and deer, and a few small mammals such as squirrels). I took this photo about three weeks ago, when the aspens were just leafing out and their foliage had that brand-new-straight-out-of-the-package brilliant yellow-green colour and the snow pack was still high on the mountains (that actually hasn’t changed much – the peaks remain pretty white).
If you plan to grow fruit trees and shrubs that are pollinated by insects such as bees, consider your site carefully before you plant. If you are thinking about putting the plants in a windy, exposed site, your plants may not receive their very best chances at pollination. Bees don’t like working in the wind! (It totally ruins their hairdos). Instead, choose a more sheltered location to encourage the bugs to do their jobs in calmer conditions.
Do you grow any fruit trees or shrubs? I’d love to hear about them (it doesn’t matter if you live on the prairies or not!). What do you like best about them? Is there anything about them that you find challenging?
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.
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!
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.
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
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.
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!
Haskap – Photo by Janet Melrose
Forsythia – Photo by Janet Melrose
Double Flowering Plum – Photo by Janet Melrose
(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
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.
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.
Lovage – Photo by Sheryl Normandeau
Rhubarb – Photo by Sheryl Normandeau
(Left to right: Lovage, Rhubarb – Photos by Sheryl Normandeau)
(Updated on June 22 to add this video I made to profile the herb lovage:)
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!
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:
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.
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
What are your favourite trees for small gardens? (They don’t have to be Prairie-hardy, nor do they have to be conifers!).
Noun, plural. The fuzzy little huggable bits that emerge from the tips of branches of some tree species in very early spring. A sight for really sore eyes after twenty months of winter (I exaggerate, but only slightly). More snow is supposedly on its way tomorrow, but for now, we’ll go with this. *purrs contentedly*
This is the retention of the dead and dry leaves (and sometimes other parts such as fruit or seed pods) on some deciduous trees through winter. Persistence, or as I like to think of it: a relentless lingering, somewhat along the lines of my cat’s queries for elevenses, twelveses, oneses, twoses (you get the idea). Some trees seem to exhibit marcesence as a trait – oaks are apparently one of them, although our climate isn’t mild enough for most Quercus spp. so I can’t perform a decent study on multiple varieties. I did take a wander past the row of bur oaks (Q. macrocarpa) that grow near the train station in my neighbourhood, and while there were a few single leaves straggling on the branches, the trees were pretty much completely bare. But we have to count that as an insufficiently representative sample (which, incidentally, also seems to be my cat’s views on the amount of food I give her).
There are several theories on what causes marcescence, and what purpose it serves. I believe in the case of this elm tree (and others like it in our city), the early frosts and severe cold we received back in September led to a failure of the formation of the abscission zone. (This is an area of separation created by the natural weakening of cell walls between the petiole and the leaf. While deciduous trees abscise in autumn, conifers do it pretty much all the time. Another big difference is that deciduous trees normally fling everything off and conifers are, well, waaaaaaay more reserved). The leaves in my photo basically died on the spot and the tree wasn’t quite ready for that to happen. The wind took most of them off but some are still hanging around, waiting for spring like the rest of us.
Some researchers speculate that marcescence is a defense mechanism for the tree, protecting it from the munching of herbivorous predators such as moose and deer (who are going to eat fresh, tender young branch tips over icky dry foliage every time. You can’t blame them, really). Another idea is that the dry leaves act like little windproof shawls for the leaf buds, protecting them from winter desiccation. Perhaps. Still another thought is that the trees are deliberately generating their own mulch, dropping it at just the right time – spring, not autumn – for maximum moisture retention and as a source of nutrients. Far-fetched? Maybe, maybe not.
So what happens in the spring, when the buds of the new leaves break? The marcescent leaves may remain on the tree, still waiting for a really strong wind to snap them off, or they may be pushed off the tree by the new growth, in which case they are instantly sucked up into a magical vortex so that you never have to rake them up.
Then again, there are never any guarantees when it comes to magic, so have that rake handy, just in case.
*To be completely truthful, I’m not sure which specific day of the week the Botany Word of the Week will be posted. Or that it will actually be posted weekly. It may kind of float around and periodically pop up and surprise you. Hopefully that’s okay.
A week of seriously cold temperatures has given way to unbelievably warm temperatures ((we’ve gone from dipping as low as -30.9ºC (-23.6ºF) last Tuesday to +6ºC (42.8ºF) today)) and the poplar trees are responding like the rest of us are…giddy with the sunshine and ready to fling off the parkas and toques.
But we had better not throw them too far away. Spring is not just around the corner. Not yet. Despite appearances….