Category: Other useful plants

Winter Garden Plants

For the front garden, we decided on a fairly tight theme: plants chosen for their fall and winter features. You might think that this plan would feel restrictive or limiting, but I actually found it to inspire my creativity. I started by ordering a few varieties of willow, with their colorful winter stems. That led on to other plants with interesting stems and bark, and then on to plants with colorful berries, blooms or foliage through the cold season. In this post, I’ll list some of the best small trees, shrubs, and perennials for winter color.

Here’s a video tour of the garden as it stands going into winter of 2017:

Stems and Bark

Both dogwoods and willows display brightly colored stems after their foliage drops in the fall, and that color often intensifies over the following months. We selected 5 varieties of willow and 3 dogwoods for the front garden. They all put on their best color on first-year growth, so I recommend a low annual spring pruning.

  • Salix x. ‘Flame’
  • Cornus ‘Midwinter Fire’
  • Salix rubens ‘Hutchinson’s Yellow’
  • Cornus ‘Winter Flame’
  • Salix alba ‘Chermesina’
  • Cornus sericea
  • Salix matsudana tortuosa – red corkscrew willow
  • Salix alba ‘Britzensis’

To round out the bark colors and textures, I also added:

Paperbark Maple – photo by Derek Ramsey
  • Acer griseum – paperbark maple, for its ornamental peeling trunk
  • Rubus thibetanus – ghost bramble, for its striking white canes
  • Lagerstroemia indica – for its patchwork of stem colors

Flowers for the Winter Garden

At first consideration, I would have been pressed to think of many plants that carry flowers through the cold of winter. We started with the late winter blooming Witch Hazel ‘Jelena’, but then expanded my definition to include shrubs and perennials that flower late into the fall or push the boundaries of early spring. Pictured is Mahonia intermedia, and our other selections are listed below:

  • Mahonia intermedia
  • Helleborus hybrids
  • Hypericum – St. John’s Wort
  • Schizostylis coccinea
  • Hamamelis ‘Jelena’
  • Ribes sanguineum – flowering current, for very early spring
  • Viburnum ‘Dawn’
  • Sarcococca confusa – Himalayan Sweet Box
  • Bergenia cordifolia

Berries

I’m going to have to include roses in this category, because their main winter feature is their fruit. I chose these three for the winter garden:

  • Rosa davidii – which also has deep red colored stems
  • ‘Ballerina’ – a hybrid musk with a veritable cloud of small hips
  • ‘Magic’ – a not-so-miniature mini rose with great fruit

Some of the most exciting color for the fall and winter garden comes from brightly shaded berries like these:

  • Callicarpa americana
  • Ilex aquipernyi ‘San Jose’
  • Hypericum – for the fruit as well as flowers
  • Callicarpa bodinieri

Foliage and Form

I still have some space in the winter garden, and my plan is to spend it on some of those evergreens and structural elements that tie a garden together when most of the other foliage has dropped. So far, I’ve planted:

  • Cephalotaxus fortuneii
  • Buxus ‘Winter Gem’
  • Abies koreana
  • Thuja occidentalis ‘Teddy’

The holly (Ilex) and himalayan sweet box (Sarcococca) listed above are also evergreen, and could be listed in this category as well. In addition to these conifers and broadleaf evergreens, I’m pondering the addition of ornamental grasses, which can hold their structure well in the winter. Even a deciduous shrub like Euonymus alata (burning bush) can add an architectural quality due to the cool way it accumulates snow atop its winged branches.

I’ll run out of space before I run out of plants

My one conclusion from designing this garden is this: once you start looking, there are plenty of plants with interesting winter features. There’s definitely some call for winter-blooming bulbs, ultra-early perennials, and the list of conifers with striking foliage is massive. I’ve made good progress in deciduous plants with colorful stems, but even within the willow family, there are another 3 or 4 I’d like to wedge into the beds somewhere. I’ll be making videos as the garden matures and fills in. If you’re interested, you can subscribe to my Youtube channel to get the updates. If you have any suggestions, I’d be happy to hear those as well.

 

 

 

 

 

If you actually love having insects in your garden, plant these:

You’re not freaked out by “bugs” in the garden – because you know a balanced population of insects is the secret to a healthy garden.

There are all sorts of plants you can include in your garden to support the health of bees, butterflies, and other garden helpers. In general, any increase in plant diversity is helpful – but I’ve prepared a list of plants that can “fill the gaps” in feeding and supporting the beneficials. To round-out your insect-friendly garden plan, choose some from each of these 6 groups:

1) The early-season heroes, like Candytuft

Late winter and early spring can be tough times for your garden helpers. Gardeners who provide early-season blooming flowers give the good guys a head-start against the inevitable population explosion of garden pests. Candytuft (Iberis umbellata, the annual type, is pictured above) is a member of the mustard family, which also include such early-season flowers as wallflowers (Erysimum), Rock cress (Aubrieta), and Basket-of-gold (Alyssum). Supplement your early season bloomers with some of these:

  • Siberian bugloss (Brunnera)
  • Lungwort (Pulmonaria)
  • Species roses (Rosa hugonis or Rosa spinosissima, for example)
  • Creeping phlox
  • Lenten rose (Helleborus)
  • Pigsqueak (Bergenia) and yes, I just like to say “Pigsqueak”

2) Wide-open flowers for bees, like Echinacea

Hard-working and adaptable as they are, there are some flowers that bees can’t feed on because they have too many petals or a difficult bloom form. To support these pollinators, look for wide-open and easy to access flowers, like the ones on this list:

  • Shasta daisies (Leucanthemum)
  • Single-flowering roses like ‘Darlow’s Enigma’ or ‘Ballerina’
  • Borage
  • Joe-pye weed (Eupatorium)
  • Lenten rose (Helleborus)
  • Pincushion flower (Scabiosa)

3. High-nectar plants for butterflies, like milkweed

Butterflies can feed on many of the flowers that bees are attracted to, so if you’re already planning on some bee-supporting flowers, you’re well on your way to helping butterflies too. In addition to the ones listed above, butterflies look for nectar in plants with tubular flowers, like garden sage (Salvia). Here are some other plants that butterflies frequent:

  • Butterfly bush (Buddliea)
  • Goldenrod (Solidago)
  • Gayfeather (Liatris)
  • Root-beer plant (Agastache)
  • False-indigo (Baptisia)
  • Verbena

4) Tiny flowers for tiny insects, like Queen Anne’s Lace

Don’t forget about the little guys – the little Aphidius wasp and hoverflies that do so much to control aphids are particularly attracted the tiny flowers of members of the carrot family – but other plant from different families are equally useful. Some of the easiest and most attractive garden plants are in this group:

  • Yarrow (Achillea)
  • Fennel (Foeniculum)
  • Lobelia
  • Poached-egg plant (Limnanthes)
  • Statice (Limonium)
  • Sweet cicely (Myrrhis)

5) The designated victims, like nasturtium

The idea behind a “trap crop” is to give early pest outbreaks a place to happen in your garden – on your terms – on a plant that you’ve grown for that purpose. My roses are never the first place I notice aphids. They appear on my nasturtiums and lupins first. This gives their natural enemies a chance to build up their population and bring things into balance before the outbreak reaches my favored plants. In this way, the trap crops also become banker plants for beneficial insects. Other plants often planted as trap crops are:

  • Beans (for spider mites, aphids and thrips)
  • Eggplant (for whitefly)
  • Lupins (for aphids)
  • Shasta daisy (for thrips)
  • Dill (for aphids)

6) Winter insect habitat, like hedging cedar

Believe it or not, even the common hedging cedar can play an important role in balancing insect populations. Researchers found that conifers like spruce and cedar maintain high levels of predatory mites through the winter. Even dormant plants can be a safe haven for overwintering beneficials, so don’t be so quick to tidy up and cut down your perennials. Here are some other overwintering havens you can provide:

  • Evergreen viburnum or other broadleaf evergreens
  • Tall wild grass or ornamental grasses (unpruned)
  • A wood pile or stump or other fallen branches
  • Roses with hips left on
  • Fallen leaves (left in place in the garden)

Make small improvements, and then fill the gaps…

It’s tempting, but maybe unrealistic, to make a planting plan that covers all these functions for the entire year – and gets it right the first time. My suggestion is to start with some multi-function plants – like joe-pye weed or yarrow – and then observe to see what’s still missing. Is there a time your garden lacks flowers? Where and when are the pest outbreaks happening? With these observations, you can add plants to fill the gaps for upcoming years.

Why I love selling at the farmers market

Yesterday a customer challenged me about some plants I’ve been selling. The plant is butterfly weed (aka milkweed), the genus Asclepias, of which I sell two species. What he took me to task on was my description, in which I noted that Asclepias is the host plant of the endangered Monarch Butterfly.

He wasn’t questioning the accuracy of the information – both Asclepias incarnata (which is tall, pink flowering, and likes a moist soil) and Asclepias tuberosa (which is shorter, bright orange flowering, and likes a drier location) are the larval food plant of the Monarch Butterfly, and both are native to North America. What he was challenging is the relevance of the information: if our local area is outside of the range of the Monarch, then isn’t it a bit misleading to appeal to customers with this tidbit of information.

Back to the Monarchs in a minute, but I found this to be a nice reminder of why I so much enjoy my time selling at the farmers market. Not all feedback is quite as direct as this example, but selling at the farmers market gives me a wealth of feedback.

Growing plants is a challenge I enjoy – otherwise, I suppose I wouldn’t spend a large portion of my free time doing it. On the one hand, I enjoy the challenges and novelties of growing the plants themselves. On the other hand, it’s the business end of it – how to use my limited resources to keep the costs of my “hobby” from overwhelming us, and how to progress our little farm towards sustainability. That’s the balancing act I’ve been working at for the last six years. To do this successfully, I need to share my hobby with my customers, and I’ve learned that to do it well, I need to allow my customers to “have their say” in what I grow, and how I grow it.

This would be true, by the way, even if I were selling through wholesale or by mail-order, but I happen to think these channels would be much less personally rewarding. I can grow whatever strikes my fancy, but the correctness of that decision is only tested when my produce sells – or doesn’t! If my enthusiasm for a plant doesn’t translate into a customer interest, I messed up.

At the farmers market, I get to see that moment up close and personal. I experience the feedback richly and completely, sometimes in what my customers say or ask, but more often in how they shop – what they walk by, and where they pause, how they select the plants and how long they consider their purchases. I see it in their mood when they walk right past my tent, or when they shop and walk away with something they’re excited to plant or or cook with or give away as a gift.

I don’t think I could ever gather such rich feedback from a sales report. No offense to the accountants who are reading this. Yes, your numbers are essential to the running of a good business, and they keep me honest about how things are going, but no spreadsheet could adequately tell me about that flower stem that catches everyone’s eye in a bouquet, or what color and form of rose is most likely to be sniffed.

Seasonality is a funny business, and very much woven into my life now. My preparations for farmers market begin in December and January, with seed purchases and stratification. That part is predictable. After that, the actual weather and variability of the season begins to alter my carefully prepared plans. I have to watch the cues of our shoppers to see where I should focus my efforts. I do know that sometime in late May or early June, plant sales will fall off – but exactly how steep and deep that cliff will be varies from season to season. So the decision is whether to seed more cilantro or sweet peas, or whether to spend my limited time pruning and fertilizing roses for rebloom, or to attend to cut flower crops instead.

The trends are unmistakable. When customers are “done” with planting, their eyes avert as they walk past. The more avid gardeners may walk though to see what’s new, but the small-talk topics turn to the difficulty of keeping the garden watered, or summer vacation plans – both common reasons why a customer would choose not to plant anything new.

However, as quickly as market visitors can close a door on your sales, if you watch carefully, they’re opening another. It’s what led me to sell cut flowers during the sales lull following the spring planting season. It’s also what led me to growing tomatoes and squash for the later part of the year. You see, as enthusiasm wanes for my potted plants, I can see excitement building for the summer produce season. Stall visitors will pause to talk about how their grapes are coming along, and the veggie vendors become the main attraction at the market.

My first love in farming will always be novel and interesting plants, I think. It’s just the way I’m wired. However, by listening to my customers, I’ve found a way to maintain my presence at the market and my relationship with the visitors outside of  the spring selling season. I’ve become a tomato and squash grower because I listened to what my hobby “partners” told me they want.

They’ve told me a lot, directly or indirectly. Customers have told me they prefer veggies that are grown without synthetic fertilizers and sprays. They’ve let me know that multi-purpose plants are better – they want a plant that doesn’t just look good, but also attracts pollinators, or has edible flowers, or is suitable for difficult growing conditions. They’ve taught me that the average gardener is a little intimidated by the idea of growing roses, but also isn’t afraid to occasionally try something new in the garden.

So what about the Monarchs? Well, I’m not troubled by the fact that my customer challenged me about selling milkweed for the benefit of the Monarchs (when, in fact, the presence of Monarchs in the lower Fraser Valley is a little dubious). The tone of the conversation was positive and respectful, which I find pretty typical of the farmers market crowd. The fact that he was ready to challenge my marketing just confirms for me one more thing that my farmers market customers have said loud and clear: authenticity is important. They don’t want to be manipulated.

My answer to the Monarch question: my cursory research indicates that we’re on the edge of the Monarch’s range. A UBC report documents individuals periodically in the South Coast, presumably as a part of migration towards the Pemberton/Lillooet area and upper Fraser Valley, where populations are more numerous. E-fauna BC and other BC gov websites also place the Monarch as a present but infrequent species in our area.

The fact that Monarchs aren’t numerous in the Fraser Valley doesn’t dampen my enthusiasm for the Asclepias species at all. As it happens, the milkweeds are a reliable nectar source for a very wide variety of butterflies and bees. They’re also quite attractive in the garden – despite the “weed” in their name. And if they end up being of some use to the odd wandering  Monarch, so much the better!

Bumblebee on Asclepias tuberosa, photo by Kabir Bakie

Seed stratification

I know my weakness. This time of year, when things are less demanding at work, and my roses no longer need daily attention, I’m particularly susceptible to the overtures of the seed companies. They send me catalogs with what I can only assume are lightly photoshopped plant pictures, and liberally embellished descriptions… and I don’t even bother to hide my wallet. Lisa knows what I’m up to.

Can you really blame me? I go outside to this:

Don’t get me wrong… I do love how the freezing rain looks encasing the remaining rose hips on our stock plants. However, there’s nothing like a six foot snow drift to remind me why spring is my favorite season, and gardening my favorite hobby. Seeds are my earliest and most hopeful connection to the upcoming season.

I made a quick video on starting seeds – particularly seed stratification. Here it is:

On the topic of seed stratification, the key points are these:

  • Not every seed needs pre-treatment. It’s more commonly required for temperate climate trees, shrubs, and perennials – and largely unnecessary for annuals and veggie starts.
  • The reason the seeds need to be treated is to fool them into thinking they’ve been through a winter outdoors. Some people skip the middle step, and simply sow their seeds into a prepared bed in the fall outside, letting nature do the work. I prefer to stratify seeds myself in my own containers – sometimes nature can be a bit inconsistent, even cruel. Outside, my seeds can be eaten by critters, before or after germination.
  • The most common treatment is approximately 8 weeks of cold stratification. That means placing the seeds in a moist (not soaking wet) sterile medium (sand, perlite or vermiculite usually) and keeping them in the fridge at around 2 to 4 degrees celsius.
  • Even though this is the most common treatment, research your particular seeds. Some benefit from a warm moist duration before cold. Others need two full winter cycles with a warm duration between. Be sure and check the seeds every now and again. My roses, for instance, quite often begin to germinate while in the fridge towards the end of their stratification period.

I’ve grown a few hundred varieties from seed – some easily, and some by trial and error. If anyone out there wants advice on any specific varieties, I may be able to help.

Overwintering perennials

Even if you only know me casually, you’ve probably caught on that I’m a bit of a plant geek… I mean, more than just the roses, tomatoes and squash. In fact, my real expertise (at my day job) is regarding perennials. I’ve learned a lot there about how to grow each crop to finish for sales in the spring, but the trickiest growing is on those crops I have to tend through the winter.

I made a quick video about it:

When it really comes down to it, the tricks to successfully overwintering any hardy plant in a container are pretty similar:

  • Start with clean plants – remove dead and diseased foliage early to avoid later problems
  • Protect them from cold winds that would dry their tissues
  • Shelter from the coldest temperatures. For some of the less hardy plants, this may mean heating – but for many perennials in the mild winter climate of the Fraser Valley, this just means a layer of protection (snow, crop cover, or an unheated greenhouse)
  • Try not to let your greenhouse heat up during sunny days
  • Provide decent air circulation
  • Don’t keep the plants wet all the time, but do water ahead of the coldest weather to prevent desiccation
  • Even if you start with clean plants, do inspect them frequently for any signs of disease or rot. As foliage dies down, in most cases, it’s advantageous to trim it away from the plant

And because this is a website about roses, I’ll add this: while I don’t recommend much winter pruning for roses in the landscape, I perform a moderate pruning on the container roses in my greenhouses. Where they have a little protection, they tolerate the winter pruning fairly well – I combine the pruning with stripping off the old foliage. This sanitation protects from winter rot, but also gives new foliage in the spring a fresh start, with no old leaves to carry over black spot or powdery mildew.

And here I am, enjoying a sunny January day in our garden! The days have been getting longer since December 21 – but I recently heard a climatologist quote a different measure: the dead of winter, which sounds more ominous than the way he explained it. The dead of winter, measured by local weather history, is the point in the year when your area has the very lowest average temperature. Every day after that is statistically more likely to be warm. I can buy into that! Here in the Fraser Valley, it’s around January 4th.

So we’re over the hump. As a rule of thumb for me, I begin seeing my greenhouse plants wake up around Valentine’s day. There’s still a lot of winter that can happen in a month, but it’s nice to have the finish line in sight.

 

Why squash?

We’re a rose farm – it’s right in the name. But it’s not an exclusive relationship. The roses seem to be okay with the fact that I grow other plants, and I’ve come to peace with the rose’s reputation for getting around in other people’s gardens.

Speckled Hound and Marina di Chioggia
Speckled Hound and Marina di Chioggia

On our old suburban lot in Abbotsford, I’m not sure how soon I would have come around to growing squash. Space was at a bit of a premium, and ornamental plants took up the majority. Here on Nicomen Island, however, there was an empty field behind the house that was always threatening to be overtaken by weeds. One summer, on a bit of a whim, I bought some pumpkin seeds. I figured that the sprawling nature of these squash would make for good competition to the weeds.

The good news: it worked for the summer

The bad news: there are three other seasons in a year

Oh, and then there’s also my slight tendency towards overindulgence when it comes to plants. I should have knows that growing couple of common varieties would soon lead to an exploration of all manner of squash.

Sweet Meat, Red Kuri and Spaghetti
Sweet Meat, Red Kuri and Spaghetti

So we’re currently up to 30 varieties from four different species. My favorites for flavor this year were Long Island Cheese and Winter Luxury, but that may change as the winter progresses… I have a lot of recipes and a lot of squash to try.

In the pumpkin field now, fall and winter mean that the weeds are back in play. I’m trying to be chill about it. When it comes to edible plants, lamb’s quarters, purslane and wild turnip aren’t probably the worst things that could take over a patch of land. Buttercups and bindweed, on the other hand, make me a bit nervous. My current strategy is to establish some Bocking 14 comfrey, faba beans, and crimson clover, all of which can be “chop and drop” mulches to fertilize my next year’s crops. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Braggar (I think)
Braggar (I think)

So, while I’m confessing to a full-blown case of squash mania, I may as well admit that the tomato crop we put into one of the greenhouses this year has kicked of another minor obsession. We’ll see how this one goes… but I’m already up to 26 varieties, so yeah. I may be hooked.

Egyptian Walking Onion

A wide variety of both culinary and ornamental plants are members of the genus Allium. Onion, garlic, chives, leeks, scallions, ramps are all representatives of the culinary type. As for ornamental types, the genus ranges from the little yellow Allium moly, the medium sized drumstick allium (great for cut flowers), and on up to the massive Globemaster with 10″ round heads!

I grow all of the varieties listed above, but the one I’m singling out for attention today is the Egyptian Walking Onion. Aside from having a very marketable common name, this onion also has the advantage of living up to is description. You see, it’s a top-setting onion. Look at this picture:

Topsetting walking onionThese bulbils bulk up to the point where the scape can no longer support their weight. Once the stalk bends down, and the bulbils are on the ground, they root – forming a new patch of walking onions. In this way, from year to year, the onions “walk” from place to place in the garden.

In botanical latin, the plant is Allium cepa var. proliferum. You could probably guess that the “proliferum” part of the latin name refers to this variety’s reproductive capacity, and you’d be right. Not only does the onion “walk”, but it also multiplies at the base, forming a clump of bulbs at the base of each onion. This means that once you have established a patch, you’re likely to be able to harvest from it regularly without ever having to replant. As a hardy perennial, you can just leave whatever you don’t eat in the ground over winter, and pick up harvesting again in spring.

The onion itself is mild, and flavored much like a shallot. The greens are a good flavor, and so are the top-setting bulbils, for that matter.  Overall, it’s just a very interesting and productive plant that doesn’t need a whole lot of fussing. I generally take a whole bunch of bulbils off and pot them into 9cm pots for farmers market, so if you’re looking to try this one, let me know.

 

New Zealand Yam

I had a hard time locating this plant locally – and this scarcity pretty much guaranteed that I’d go to unreasonable lengths to find it. I never did find anyone who was willing to send me tubers in Canada, so my solution was to buy seed. After much internet searching, I found a very cool web site for a vegetable breeder in Washington State who grows some quite uncommon veggies. The site, in case you’re interested, is Cultivariable.

So why would I go out of my way to buy New Zealand Yam? Well, have a look at the tubers:

Oxalis in my handI couldn’t very well pass up the chance to grow something this unique. But let’s get some other interesting facts out there:

  1. New Zealand Yam is not from New Zealand. It’s from South America. My initial snooping on the internet tells me that it was bred by the same fine folks who brought us the potato. In South America, it’s called Oca.
  2. New Zealand Yam is also not a yam. It’s not closely related to either the true yam (Dioscorea) or the Sweet Potatoa (Ipomoea). It’s actually in the Wood Sorrel family, and is in the same genus as an annoying little weed, Oxalis corniculata.
  3. The tubers are edible. Raw, they taste starchy, like an uncooked potato, but also a little “lemony”. This acidic tang comes from the oxalic acid in the tuber. I find the flavor quite pleasant and fresh tasting, but for those who don’t like the tang, cooking neutralizes the acidity – and the tubers taste much like potatoes.

This was my first go at growing New Zealand Yam, and I was pretty happy with the results. Here’s what I harvested:

Oxalis harvestIt wasn’t enough to bring to the farmer’s market as a food crop, but it does give me a fair amount to play with for next year’s plantings. I’ll probably have some left over to bring to market as starts for other people who want to try growing something unusual.

Some notes on growing, just in case you’re inclined that way:

Oca begins forming tubers when the days get shorter than 12 hours. For us in the Fraser Valley, that means we have from late September until first frost – end of October if we’re lucky. Not a lot of time for tuber formation! There are two solutions I can think of for this, and next year, I’ll probably try both. One is to fool the plants by shading them in August – giving them a 12-14 hour “night” to force early tuber formation. The other solution is to grow them in a cold frame or with some other protection to extend the season past the first frost.

I spaced my plants at around 10 inches apart, and I didn’t think that “mounding” was necessary, so I just let the plants do their thing. Next year, I think I’ll give them a little more space (say 18″ apart). I also noticed that most of the tuber formation happened at the points where the side stems touched the ground. I’m thinking I might be able to encourage a better yield by adding some loose soil around these trailing stems.