Bring your outdoor oasis to its full potential
Text and Photos by Julianne Labreche
My suburban garden in west-central Ottawa may not be a showstopper, but it’s most definitely healthy and happy. After years of digging in the dirt, my feeling is any healthy garden, by definition, is a happy garden. After all, plants that are insect-free, grown in good soil and planted in the right place tend to thrive. That sense of well-being can’t help but rub off. No wonder working away in my garden makes me happy and healthy too. Gardening is my passion and my post-retirement tonic for good living.
With over 30 years of gardening under my secateurs, experience dictates a healthy garden doesn’t happen without planning, nor does it happen overnight. Like a mouth-watering slow-cooked meal, or a prized bottle of fine red wine, a healthy garden takes time, a little know-how, and some tender loving care.
Here are 10 simple tips I’ve learned over the years for a happy, healthy garden.
Tip 1: Feed the soil
Soil is more than just dirt. It’s a living, breathing diversity of microbes, earthworms and insects. Early in my gardening career, I remember shoppinginlocalnurseriesforexoticplants,liketree peonies and Japanese maples, only to discover heavy clay soil actually prefers weeds. Now every year, I add aged manure and compost to the front and back beds and then watch nature do its work. Spring chores include turning and spreading the compost pile. Fall tasks include shredding leaves and spreading them over the garden beds.
Tip 2: Mulch is the magic word
Being a lazy gardener, mulch has become my best friend. I prefer the natural cedar mulch and purchase it whenever possible in late summer when prices are lower.Mulch has many advantages. It helps to keep the soil moist, especially during scorching hot days of summer. It dramatically reduces the amount of weeding required. It also looks and smells wonderfully woodsy. But I always avoid putting mulch too close to plants. Due to poor aeration and rot, too much of a good thing can be the ruin of many a good plant.
Tip 3: Plant for diversity
Biodiversity in a garden means adding a spicy mix of plants. Hav- ing a wide variety of plants re- duces infestations of destructive insects and plant diseases.We all know the story of the emerald ash borer that wiped out many of the forests in eastern Ontario, as well as many urban ash trees.With di- versity, a single insect species or disease won’t have the potential to do so much harm.
Tip 4: Keep plant selection simple
Most of the Ottawa region is in zone 4b, so plant hardiness is dependent on plants that can survive colder climes and dramatic temperature fluctuations.That’s why peonies thrive in Ottawa temperatures and lemon trees don’t. Before buying a new plant, especially a rare, exotic cultivar, determine if it might prefer to head south for the winter. If you choose to take a chance, talk to other gardeners and learn from their mistakes.
Tip 5: Beware of friends bearing plants
Years ago,a friend offered me several plants of potted mint,promising they’d be easy to grow and would come back every year.Little did I know that mint is an aggressive garden thug, best potted to avoid its rampant spreading habits.Goutweed,no friend to this gardener,was another gifted plant.The bottom line: beware of friends who gift plants, or do a bit of sound research before planting their offerings.
Tip 6: Plant the right plant in the right place
Most plants prefer their first home be their last.Read the labels before planting that new hydrangea or hibiscus. Sun-loving plants need to be planted in a sunny location. Shade plants prefer shade. While it isn’t rocket science, the site for your new plant will determine whether it will survive or get tossed in the compost heap.
Tip 7: Create some walking paths
A good design plan always helps in a garden, even if it’s one that evolves with time.Take time to plan your garden design, either on paper or in your head, then create a few paths to eliminate foot traffic on garden plants.
Tip 8: Water thirsty plants
A good soak when the soil is dry is a simple rule in gardening.The best time to water is early in the morning, before the sun is hot.A long, slow soak is preferred to the powerful splash of cold water from the hose.
Tip 9: Plant for the wildlife
There are gardeners who spend their days plotting the demise of local squirrels, rabbits and groundhogs.That kind of anger takes the fun out of gardening. If your focus is, like mine, on a pollinator garden, you’ll find an array of plants, including many native ones, to attract the birds and pollinating insects.These same perennials, shrubs and trees are often of little interest to more pesky wildlife.The exception is the vegetable bed. If you’re into vegetable gardening, then good wire fences will protect your garden from these urban critters.
Tip 10: Keep your garden beds tidy
I’m not a garden neat freak because helpful insects, birds, and wildlife need winter food and shelter. It is important, however, to practise good garden hygiene. A little weekly weeding will spruce up the garden and reduce the spread of weeds.Tidying up in the fall will help to avoid a mess of soggy stems and leaves come spring.
Self-care for the gardener
To stay healthy in your garden, here are a few suggestions:
• Apply sunscreen and bug repellent before gardening.
• Avoid gardening in the mid-day sun. Get outside during the early morning or late evening.
• Wear good quality gardening gloves to avoid cuts and bruises.
• Prop gardening tools against the wall, blade side inward, to avoid a se- rious accident.
• Avoid pesticides.Their absence is healthier for you and your garden. n