Showy Rose Hips

I’ve always said that roses are the hardest working shrubs in the garden. From the earliest in spring, they provide ornamental interest to the garden, plus food and habitat for insects, birds and other wildlife. In the fall and winter, they demonstrate this work ethic with their ripening fruit – the rose hip.

As I write this, it’s early October in my garden. While some of the less sensible hybrid roses are still sending up soft new shoots and flower buds, the species roses have been planning for winter all season: hardening off the wood from this year’s stems, and slowly ripening hips from the clusters of flowers they wore in May and June. If you’re not familiar with the species roses here’s the short explanation: these are the native wild roses from around the world. Unlike the hybrids often seen in gardens, they usually bloom all at once for a few weeks early in the season. Some of my favorites really put on a fall and winter show with their hips, and I’ve featured them in the video below:

What’s a gardener to do with all these rose hips?

If you’re like me, I just enjoy them as seasonal decor of the garden. The birds, rabbits and other small critters will snack on them as they soften. I only do minimal pruning and tidying in the rose field in the fall – small birds take refuge in the canes and brambles in large numbers. Sometimes, we’ll have a spell of hard winter weather and the snow and ice will cover the rose hips for a beautiful display.

If you’re a little more inclined to forage for yourself, you can collect the rose hips and use them for tea, syrup, jelly or even wine. They’re sweet and fragrant, with a flavor somewhat like an apple or quince – they’re also very high in vitamin C. Herbalist recommend them for heart health and arthritis – and they’re also supposed to be good for the common cold.

In my opinion, the best hips for harvest are the big, juicy hips of Rosa rugosa:

Some of the rose hips featured in the above video are definitely not for eating. The Scots rose, Rosa spinosissima and its relatives have attractive black or purple hips, but they’re rather dry and mealy inside:

One more rose I have to add a photo of is Rosa roxburghii, the chestnut rose. It’s a very large shrub (almost a tree), with finely divided leaves, and these large spiny hips that distinguish it from all other roses:

Grow roses with cuttings taken from your own yard

Hundreds, if not thousands, of garden-worthy varieties of roses are in danger of disappearing. I could give a long rant about the reasons why – but it really is as simple as this: for various reasons, even wonderful roses can fall out of fashion, sales fall below a certain level, the big nurseries can’t make money propagating them in large numbers, so they fall “out of the trade”.

Here’s where the little guys like you and me come in, and here’s what I want you to do:

  1. Collect out-of-patent and garden-worthy roses before they disappear from the nurseries
  2. Take cuttings
  3. Once rooted, sell them or give them away
  4. Accept my thanks for keeping old & uncommon roses alive and for sharing the hobby!

Of the actions listed above, numbers 1 and 4 are pretty easy… I suspect if you have any questions, it’ll be about the “taking cuttings” and the “rooting” part. Happily, there’s plenty of information out there about how to take semi-hardwood cuttings of roses (my preferred method). My part is to encourage you to get some experience doing it, and to answer any questions you may have. My own success rate varies according to how much time I have to attend to the cuttings, but I still manage to root in the range of 1000 per year on a part-time basis.

Here’s an introductory video I made on the topic:

Some people learn from watching, but I really need to emphasize that the best way to learn propagation is by throwing caution to the wind and just doing it. Get those clippers into your hands and get snipping – even if you’re not sure you’re doing it right. You’ll get a feel for it as you get experience handling the roses and cuttings.

To recap and detail the points on the video:

  • Start with clean, sharp clippers. I use a Felco, but any decent quality blades will do as long as you keep them sharp and clean.
  • Select a section of the rose’s stem – a good section has at least 3 or 4 nodes and is somewhere around 4 to 6 inches in length, the thickness of a pencil or slightly thinner. What’s a node? It’s a place where a leaf emerges from the stem. If the section doesn’t have leaves at every node, you can recognize the node by the bud – see this picture as an example:
  • It may take some practice to choose the right “firmness” or ripeness of the wood. See in the video for the way I try to bend the stem – if it bends very easily, it’s too soft. If it wont bend without feeling like it will snap, it’s too hard. If you’re not sure, just take and stick the cutting anyhow. Your success rate will tell you if you got it right.
  • Cut just below the bottom node, and just above the top node. Strip off most of the leaves. In my cuttings, I leave two leaflets on the top node and that’s all.
  • To help with your success, you can dip in a rooting hormone.
  • Stick the cutting in a sterile, well-drained potting mix. No fertilizer please. You only have to push it in by an inch or two – just enough to keep it stable and upright under the mist.
  • Yes, there are alternatives to mist. I’ve had decent success with a humidity dome or tent in the past. It depends on how many you’re doing. Let me know if you need any tips! It’s important not to keep the cuttings water-logged while they’re trying to root.
  • You’ll know your cutting is beginning to “take” if it’s forming white callus along the base of the cutting. Here’s an example:
  • Reduce the mist / humidity when the cutting “pulls back” when you gently tug upward on it. At this point, the early callus tissue have begun to form roots, as pictured here:
  • If you grow in the 9cm size pots I use, you can leave the cuttings to fully root and grow for 6 months, a year, or more before you have to do anything with it. Here’s an example of one I overwintered from last year:
  • And that’s it… you have a well-established rose, ready to go into a larger pot or to be sold, traded or given away.

“Sooner or later, every gardener comes around to roses” was a quote from Christine Allen, I think, in a book I read. The prospect of that seems pretty bleak right now… it appears that gardening trends have placed the rose, with all its associated baggage, in an unfavorable position. Those of us who have come around to the hobby, we have the great good fortune to inherit 2000+ plus years of rose varieties, passed down from ancient China and Rome and the middle-east – along with the efforts of hundreds of breeders in modern times from all around the world, including Canada. Let’s take the opportunity to gather those hybrids we like the best, and share them with each other so that if (when?) all the other gardeners “come around to roses” there’s something of this magnificent hobby left for them to enjoy.

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

Five Purple Roses – Old Garden Roses

Red is the new purple, purple the old red. At least as far as western rose breeding goes, this is the way it went. Maybe red was always a desirable color, but among the old garden roses of Europe, true red wasn’t one of the options. There was white, light pink, dark pink, and even darker pink – but not red, not quite. The closest the breeders could come is by selecting darker shades of pink until they ended up with a select few roses that were dark crimson/pink to purple, fading through mauve.

One of the highest rated roses of all time is a gallica bred in this fashion, ‘Charles de Mills’:

Can you even believe the depth of color on this bloom? The form of the bloom is quartered, with loads of petals and quite a flat surface. The blooms are quite large in diameter, particularly for an old garden rose. The scent is strong & classic old rose. It’s a low, suckering shrub – once-blooming in early to mid-spring.

Another gallica rose in the same shade is ‘Tuscany Superb’ – which has blooms nearly the same diameter, but with a more open bloom form:

‘Tuscany Superb’ has a smaller-flowered “twin” in the same form, called ‘La Belle Sultane’. It’s also a gallica rose, but despite having smaller flowers, it’s actually a somewhat larger, more vigorous shrub than either ‘Tuscany’ or ‘Charles’. Here’s a picture:

I have two other purple-blooming roses in different classes, both in bloom around this same time in the garden: ‘Robert le Diable’, a centifolia, and ‘Cardinal de Richelieu’ a china/damask. Here’s ‘Robert le Diable’:

Here’s ‘Cardinal’:

Here’s a quick video I made featuring the above five roses:

These are by no means the only deeply colored “purple” roses, but they are among the finest (in my oh so biased opinion). Some modern roses have tried to capture the charm of these wanna-be red roses. Here’s ‘William Shakespeare 2000’, a modern shrub with a great color and a similar bloom form to ‘Charles de Mills’:

One more worth mentioning is ‘Souvenir du Docteur Jamain’ a very old climbing rose with a depth of color to rival any of these.

‘Complicata’ and ‘Veilchenblau’

I don’t have a very good excuse for pairing these two roses together: one’s a gallica, the other a rambler, one has huge flowers, and the other has tiny ones. However, they were both in bloom on the back fence of our farm at the same time, so let’s just call it a marriage of convenience. Here’s a quick video to see what these roses are all about:

Now the more in-depth description of each, for those who want a little more detail.

‘Complicata’ is a rose of unknown parentage, but is presumed to be a hybrid of Rosa gallica and Rosa canina. It’s and old rose, but not ancient – known to be around since around 1800, but not much before that. It can be used as a large mounding shrub, or trained up as a climber. Here’s a close-up of some of the flowers:

The individual flowers can be up to 4″ across, and are a luminous pink with white centers and prominent yellow stamens. In mid-spring, the shrub blooms all at once in large clusters.

Later in the season, when the flowers have faded, ‘Complicata’ is covered in large round hips. This is an adaptable shrub: it can be grown in full sun or part shade, and is extremely cold-hardy.

‘Veilchenblau’ is about the closest thing to blue that I’ve seen in a rose that doesn’t involve dye or genetic modification. Bred a little over 100 years ago from a multiflora rambler, this is one is a little space-hungry – to the point of voracious.

The buds and newly opening flowers are cerise in color, but soon fade through to the “violet blue” for which it is named (in German). ‘Veilchenblau’ is a once-bloomer, but the bloom period is so spectacular that it earns its this rambler a large place in the garden for the whole year. In addition, the long stems are thornless, making pruning and management a lot easier. Full sun or part shade will suit its needs.

For both of these roses, save your pruning until after flowering, then prune for both shape and size.

The Scots Rose

The earliest group of roses to bloom in my landscape are the Scots roses and their close relatives. For those who are not familiar with this group of roses, they deserve a formal introduction – but maybe skip the handshake on account of the thorniness.

The species rose that they are all related to is Rosa spinosissima. Native to the British isles, northern and western Europe, and western Asia, it’s picked up a few other names from the people who live around it. I know it as the Scots rose, Burnet rose, or the Scotch Briar rose. It’s noted for growing in sandy or rocky places, usually near water. It is very tolerant of drought, shade and cold winters – making it quite a useful rose in the landscape. The Scots rose flowers in white, with prominent yellow stamens for a period of around 3 weeks starting in May (here… maybe earlier in warmer climates).

The ornamental features of this rose doesn’t end with the flowers – that would be quite a let-down, given how early in the season it finishes blooming. The Scots rose also has finely divided leaves (up to 11 small leaflets on a leaf), which are also a deep green color and have toothed edges. The foliage makes for quite a fine textured shrub compared to most modern hybrid roses. The other really cool ornamental feature is the fruit, or hips. The fruit swells and ripens through green, red, brown, and finally to a striking black. The cut branches with black hips make for interesting winter decor.

As much as I appreciate the species roses itself, what I really find exciting is that breeders have been able to use the genetics of the Scots rose to hybridize these excellent landscape characteristics into shrubs with diverse flower forms. Here are some examples:

Above: ‘Suzanne’. Soft pink. I think in the video I called it an Erskine rose, but it’s actually Skinner.

Below: Austrian Copper – not a Scots rose, but a genetic relative with some similar characteristics.

Above: ‘Betty Will’

Below: ‘Prairie Peace’ I can’t stop taking pictures of this rose when it looks like this!

A fence to nowhere…

Five years ago, this farm was a blank slate to us. From the time we finished clearing the brush on the north end of the property, we’ve been in an ongoing process of adding defining features: the squash field, the children’s play area, the winter garden – and the rose garden was actually one of the first plantings. It was never a priority for us to have it all filled-in and finished, but we’re happy to have the outlines in place to help guide our upcoming planting choices.

This spring, we finally addressed an uncomfortably bare stretch of land between the house and the rose garden. It was easy mowing, I’ll admit, but seemed a poor approach to the garden – and somehow incomplete.

Big doughnut rose garden

This was the only photo I could find of our early rose garden. The space I’m talking about is occupied here by the greenhouse and some sort of wooden support. The greenhouse was wood-framed, and a winter storm took it down in year two – so then it was just lawn.

Here’s how we replaced it:

Please pardon the muddy ruts we left behind as we hauled in the soil for the new garden beds! This all went up in the last two weeks – before we run out of time due to Farmers Markets and (sigh) my day job.

So the solution we came to was a couple of sections of unnecessary fence – each around 80′ long. It’s a stacked cedar split rail fence. No posts were dug into the ground – which avoids some of the concerns about wood rotting over time. We planned it this way partly because I wanted a way to display some climbers and ramblers horizontally along the fence. The eight roses I planted are:

Rosarium Uetersen

Geschwind’s Orden

Buff Beauty

Heaven’s Eye

Emily Grey

Seven Sisters

Eden

Super Dorothy

I don’t mind hearing it from other rose growers who may second-guess these roses for a low fence. I’m not sure that these are the right roses yet either. I’ve grown most of these for only a couple of years in the field, and if any are too “vertical” in their habit, I may have a problem. Anyhow, it’s a starting point.

This one is ‘Heaven’s Eye’, a Geschwind bred rose from the 19th century. Light pink flowers with darker centers.

We also planted six trees – ‘Satomi’ dogwoods – to add some vertical interest.

Now for the fun stuff – planting the beds and training the roses!

 

Rose Pruning

Shocking but true – some people are intimidated by roses!

It could be the thorns. I’ll admit to having been bullied by a few roses in my time. Or maybe it’s that roses are what serious gardeners grow. When you go to Stanley Park or Queen’s Park, or even Heritage Park here in Mission, the roses have a garden all to themselves. If they’re so serious a garden plant that they need to be grown in a special place, with special methods, then what chance does a casual gardener have to succeed? Right?

And when I ask customers what they’re concerned about, that’s what I hear.

“Pffff… I’d just kill it off, ” says she.

No, you wouldn’t. Honestly. Roses are easy. And while I’m all busy debunking the mystique around roses, let me also say that the idea of a segregated rose garden is ridiculous. To treat roses as if they need some sort of special garden plot, away from all the more mundane garden plants is silly. They work better in a mixed garden – particularly at this time of year (spring) when they’re often cut back and look quite bare, it helps to have some other plants around to fill the gap.

Back to my topic now: Spring pruning. This may be the topic that frightens the newbies the most, and it shouldn’t. Here… I’ve prepared three short videos on the topic of annual pruning.

This first video is on the “Why” to prune roses. What’s the big deal about pruning?  *Spoilers* : There really is no big deal. If you neglect pruning for a year or two, the worst that will happen is your rose will get a little overgrown. If you prune a little too much or too often, it’s not really a problem for a healthy rose. The bottom line is that you can play around a bit, and not worry about the results.

So… why prune? I answer this in the video, but I don’t mind going over it in a bit more detail here. Roses are shrubs, and shrubs are the workhorses of the garden. As far as I’m concerned, if you compare shrubs to perennials and annuals, you get more value in the garden from shrubs, with way less maintenance every year.

Roses are vigorous shrubs, and require some pruning and feeding to perform really well. Left on their own, it will take a few years for a rose to become quite overgrown and leggy. Your goals for pruning are to keep the rose a good shape for your garden, to remove old, dead wood, and to encourage flowering.

Every time you cut a significant amount of wood from a rose, it sends an important signal to the entire plant. The balance between roots and shoots – what’s below ground and what’s above – needs to be maintained. Upon losing top growth, the rose will naturally work to rebalance, and in doing so, it will send up fresh vigorous new canes. These canes are the ones that support the largest flowers.

So if you want lots of big flowers, cut really low, right? Sort of. But doing so is also pretty costly to the rose. At the same time that the rose is rebalancing by throwing up new shoots, I’m told that it also allows some of its roots to die back. Smaller shrub = less roots needed, I guess. Heavier pruning means a big shock to the rose. It will respond with more flowers, which is good, but doing it too low and too often decreases the overall vigor of the shrub.

One topic that does freak people out a bit is the timing of pruning. Here’s my take on that:

Nothing too complicated there either. The only tricky point is that some roses only bloom on last year’s ripened growth, so if you prune these once-bloomers heavily in the early spring, you’ll be sacrificing some flowers.

I mention the classic benchmark shrub for spring pruning, the forsythia:

At this time of year, you’ll see the forsythia and it’s obnoxiously yellow flowers everywhere in the landscape. If you don’t happen to have one of these shrubs handy, you can benchmark with any one of the other early bloomers. I like flowering currents (Ribes spp.) better. My plum trees are blossoming up nicely now too. Basically any of the early flowering shrubs will do.

If you get there a bit late, and your roses are already beginning to leaf out, don’t worry. It’s still okay to prune. You can actually prune almost any time in the year. The only time I’m cautious is when winter is approaching – so I usually hold off any major pruning from say August onward.

Here I need to make a distinction between repeat-blooming roses and once-blooming roses. Most every rose sold in the garden centres is a repeat-blooming rose. These are the hybrid tea roses everyone is so familiar with, and the smaller cluster-flowering floribunda roses. If this is the kind of rose you’re growing, early spring is a good time to prune.

The once-blooming roses are mainly the old garden roses of Europe. The damasks, gallicas, albas and centifolias. If Josephine Bonaparte grew it, chances are that you should wait to prune until after it flowers.

Any doubts about what kind of rose you’re growing? If you have its name, do a quick search on helpmefind.com. Or e-mail me, and I’ll see if I can help.

Finally, here’s my example video for the cutting itself:

I used a vigorous little Floribunda, Copper Kettle for this video. I’ll see if I can post some other examples through the year using other varieties and classes.

My advice on the whole is this: don’t hesitate to prune. Roses are pretty vigorous, and they’ll bounce back from wherever you cut them. There are some guidelines to follow. Prune heaviest on your fastest growing hybrid teas. A little lighter on floribundas. Leave some longer canes on climbers, so that they can be secured to the supports. Wait until after flowering for once-bloomers – and then prune only for overall shape.

Even if you get it wrong one way or another, the worst that is likely to happen is that you’ll have fewer flowers for a time. If your rose dies because of pruning, I’m betting it was going to die anyhow for other reasons.

5 Reasons We Don’t Do HOT Compost Anymore

As noted in our Youtube video above, I’ve given up on hot composting for now. You’ll have to take my word for it, but when we lived in suburban Abbotsford, my hot compost bin was a thing of beauty (at least during the summer months). When we moved to our rural area and 3 acre farm, I had a hard time making it work for me. Here are the reasons:

  1. Yard Waste: Now that we have a larger property, not only do we have more yard waste, but some of it is really large – tree branches, stumps, and because of our rose business, a whole lot of thorny trimmings. Trying to break this stuff down in a hot compost pile would require a lot of time, and probably an extra step in chipping it down to manageable size.
  2. Crop Waste: Our main business is selling roses and other plants in nursery pots. Most plants survive, and most we’re able to sell – but those that either die or are leftover from the selling season need to be disposed of. The potting soil is bulky and doesn’t break down in the compost bin – like, ever. Trust me, I’ve tried! We also have tomato, squash, and cucumber vines that we clear out after we’re done producing veggies for the Farmers Market. Not only is this a huge amount of green waste, but it all comes at the same time – so trying to layer this and turn it properly to make a hot pile has been a challenge.
  3. Garbage service: Or rather, a lack of it. Most information on composting goes into detail about what not to include in your bin or pile. The list includes meat, bones, fatty things like cheese or oils, and starchy things like bread, pasta or rice. If I exclude these items, it means I have t find another way to dispose of them. We have no regular garbage service in our rural area, and the thought of storing these food items until we can get to the dump is just gross. Needless to say, I was anxious to find a composting system that was able to handle a wider variety of food waste.
  4. Time: To manage a truly hot compost, it takes a certain amount of management. For some people, you might even call it an art form. They blend different wastes, maintaining the proper carbon:nitrogen ratio. I used to turn my suburban compost bin weekly if not more frequently, and I was always managing the moisture level as well. The problem on our rural property comes down to time. During the main growing season, I work full-time off the farm. Combine that with all the farm-related tasks, and I just can’t justify the time it takes to manage the compost. What I really need is a fast, easy way to “warehouse” the kitchen scraps until I have time to deal with it.
  5. Winter: To tell the truth, this isn’t a new problem for me. Even on our previous property, my composting would grind to a halt during the coldest part of winter. Cold temperatures, waterlogged conditions, and also just my own reluctance to be out there turning the frozen compost, meant that everything just sort of sat there putrefying until spring.

So I spent some time researching composting systems. I looked at insulated hot composting bins (to solve the winter thing), electric “automatic” composters, and worm composting, each in turn. They were promising in some ways, but didn’t solve my problem in other ways – and it turned out, that some of these promised to be more demanding of my time – the one thing I couldn’t compromise on.

I never found any single system that worked for me. Finally, we settled on three streams: burn, cold pile, and bokashi.

Burn: for all the tree trimmings, fallen branches, and rose waste. The wood ash from this process is helpful for fertilizing and pest control. The rose canes are better off being burned anyhow, because the old wood can harbour rose diseases that I wouldn’t want present in any finished compost.

Cold pile: This goes for crop residue, potting soil, and non-woody yard trimmings. I don’t turn the pile at all. I don’t worry about layering. I don’t put in food scraps, so I don’t see any pest activity. The cold pile doesn’t break down quickly, and it never gets hot enough to kill weed seeds, and I can live with this in return for the time savings.

Bokashi: All of our kitchen waste is managed by bokashi: a step in which I ferment or “pickle” the food scraps before burying them in the garden. This system was foreign to me when I first read about it, but it matches my needs exactly. Two or three times per week, I empty the kitchen waste buckets into a larger bin in the garage. I scoop in a handful of bokashi bran (wheat bran, inoculated with bacteria and fungal cultures) to get the pickling process started. Then I just leave it. When the bin is full, I move on to another one. In this way, I can consolidate all of my “handling” time to the step 3 to 4 weeks later when I bury the fermented waste in the garden. By that time, it’s primed for a rapid breakdown in the soil. I’ve done this for a couple of years now, and have found it to be fairly trouble-free – and it saves me a lot of time over managing a hot pile. Best of all, I don’t have to worry about the “exclusions” – the pickling step works on all kinds of food scraps.

I hope you enjoy the information in the video, and if you have questions, don’t hesitate to contact me.

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.