Not happy with your peonies? Can't get your lilac bush to flower? Want to make your garden more presentable?
Whatever your gardening dilemma, Marjorie Harris, author of the Globe's weekly Hurried Gardener column, can help.
Ms. Harris was online earlier today to answer your garden queries. Your questions and her answers appear below.
Marjorie Harris is considered one of Canada's leading garden writers. She writes a weekly gardening column for The Globe and Mail and is editor-at-large of Gardening Life magazine. Born in Shaunovon, Saskatchewan back in the mists of time, she was educated from Goose Bay Labrador to Vancouver B. C. and graduated from McMaster University.
She is the author of 13 gardening books, her most recent being How to Make a Garden, The 7 Essential Steps for the Canadian Gardener, published by Random House.
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Rasha Mourtada, Globe Life web editor: Welcome, Marjorie, and thanks for lending your green thumb to our readers. We've got loads of questions, so we'll get right to it.
Allison, Ottawa: Ms. Harris - Here is a picture of my, as yet, non-existent garden. It is the typical lot of a townhouse dweller: small and dark. The only sunny spots we have are on the cedars along the back and in the corner where the composter is.
Until recently it was almost entirely paved with the stones you see lying around. We thought we'd keep the few we left scattered about to walk on, get rid of the piles of leftovers, and plant some low maintenance things around them. Clearly, in order to do this we will have to dig up the gravel and in-fill with soil. We have lots of compost ready as well.
I would like to put in an interesting array of inexpensive shade plants (and grasses?) and some perennial flowers for the sunny area around the compost. So far all I have are a couple of ferns and hostas (which I love) and the lily of the valley that crept in under the fence from the neighbours. I plan to keep the cedars for privacy. Any suggestions? Also, how can I encourage the cedars to fill in at the bottom?
I believe we are in hardiness zone 5a (Ottawa). Thanks very much!
Marjorie Harris: Dear Allison: I obviously love the idea of a checkerboard pattern since I had that in my garden for decades. Make sure you dig down about 8 or more inches to back fill the planting pockets. Then add a thick layer of sand, then soil and top with a couple of inches of compost. You canplant almost anything in this. Fescues ('Elijah Blue' is gorgeous); the Japanese gold grass (Hackonachloa).
Get that lily-of-the-valley out of there, it's going to take over.
Add some sedums ('Xanax' and 'Black Jack' along with 'Autumn Joy') which will love this situation; and make sure the colours are harmonious so you have a tapestry effect.
Hostas and ferns like shade so put them in shady part and get a mix of different kinds. Don't just fills holes for their own sake. Do one at a time and get my book POCKET GARDENING which is full of ideas for this kind of a situation. Yours, Marjorie
Nathalie Mattheus, Vancouver: Hi Ms. Harris, Thank-you in advance for whatever advice you may have to offer.
We have a flowerbed below the large picture window of our living room and directly in front of our rec-room window. The house faces north and the overhangs/eaves of our roof ensure that the flowerbed stays dry. Although I am not averse to the occasional watering, I am looking for plants that are both shade and drought tolerant as I would prefer as low-maintenance as possible a flowerbed.
I have considered doing away with the flower bed in favour of containers that retain water better. Any suggestions? (Originally, hostas populated the space but I find these to be relatively unimaginative...)
Marjorie Harris: Dear Nathalie: Hostas are gorgeous golden forms H. 'Sun Power' for instance, blue
'Halcyon'; endless stripped forms. If you make a pattern of these wonderful plants and bumped up the soil with lots of humus (compost, manure, ground up leaves) and make a mulch. You might have something way more interesting than this. Try shrubs such as dogwoods with bright bark for winter (Cornus sericea), sweet pepper burch (Clethra spp); or Winterberry (Ilex verticillata). I like Mahonia myself since it looks sort of like holly. Unkillable which is what you'll needs.
Ground covers such as epimedium, wil ginger, gergenias and good old Ladies' mantle will all service you well. But not if you don't add humus and mulch deeply.
Manny Escalante: Hi Marjorie; This strip of earth (roughly 18 feet long) lies by the side of a boardwalk that leads to our front door. A tree rests in the middle giving cool shade in summer. We have planted tulips on it that flowers so beautifully at the start of spring. We tried annual flowering plants with modest success. Right now the earth is mostly bare.
I would prefer to have perennials, even create simple landscaping design. Low maintenance is preferred although we can also plant some annual plants to give lthe space with longer blooms.
Really would appreciate your suggestion.
Marjorie Harris: First of all, Manny, get some mulch on that soil. Even in the shade soil will degenerate: add compost, manure, ground up leaves anything to protect it. If you are on clay, add lots of sand. Then figure out what colours you like and research the perennials in that colour range.
I would add a small weeping cragana which grows well un your area you and then scale down to a low growing boxwood (don't trim it they have a nice rounded shaggy shape). There are great nurseries near you and I'd recommend some of the new Heucheras for colour and durability: 'Marmalade' is terrific and tough. There also variegated moor grass Molinia caerulea 'Variegata,' which would look good there. And one of my favourite of all plants Ligularia 'Britt-Marie Crawfod' with huge purple leaves.
Fill in with some dramatic new annuals. Thought it's getting late in the season for this year. This is an important border: the welcome to your house so make it shine and you'll love it.
NOTE TO ALL: Low maintenance seems to be a theme. NO GARDENING IS LOW MAINTENANCE. You have to pay attention to mulching, to adding organic matter to the soil (compost us the best and make your own, it's the cheapest) and you do occasionally have to water.
C. Andrews: Hello Ms. Harris. I need some advice/ suggestions to fill in an area that was damaged due to foundation work that was done. I prefer to keep it evergreen so the view from the windows is pleasant year round. I have also included a back shot that needs something low, inside the boxwood. I live in southern Ontario and our location can get quite windy. Thank you, C. Andrews
Marjorie Harris: Dear C. Andrews: That's what I'd call tabula rasa. I can make a few suggestions but go at this carefully.T hose are important spots for plants.
If there is detritus from the work, you'll have to replace the soil will a good triple mix that has lots of sand in it for drainage. Be careful of the rain shadow under the bow window.
Given the location I'd suggest yews on either side of the windows because they look gorgeous let them grow tallk 'Hicksii' is my favourite. and under the windows try drought tolerant barberries (Berberis thunbergii) they come in gold, almost purple black. And some low growing grasses such as Hackonachloa macra 'Aureola' (gold); Helictotrichon spp (deep blue all winter). And a selection of ever green ground covers.
Not ivy, it just takes over in a few years. Check out nurseries in you n'hood and see what they've got. I like Cornus canadensis but it grows very slowly. Yours, Marjorie
Glen and Karen MacLachlan:This is our garden near Eyebrow Saskatchewan 8:30 pm August 2 2006. The tomatoes are in the foreground, potatoes off to the right. Peas are at the back where the netting is. The little white golf balls on the ground are hail stones. Afraid you can't help with this one but couldn't resist sending you a picture.
Marjorie Harris: Dear Glen and Karen: This is a great shot. Makes all the rest of us be happy with what we've got.
I was born in Sask and that seems vaguely familiar.
Thanks for sharing this. It's gorgeous here: in fact, perfect. Yours Marjorie
Steve Young, Toronto: I have a mature Korean maple (acer pseudosieboldiana) growing on my property in Prince Edward County (zone 5a). This year, there appears to be some dieback throughout the tree (lots of leafless branches). The rest of the tree seems healthy, though I have noticed the woodpeckers in the area are visiting it more often. My question is when is the best time to prune off the dead twigs and branches - now, or wait for winter dormancy? I'd like to do it now, as the beauty of the tree is diminished, but don't want to damage the tree any more. Thank you. Steve Young
Marjorie Harris: Prune your tree now. Get an expert in to do it unless you are confident that you can diagnose things yourself and make really good cuts. You'll find out why those birds are finding so many delicious bugs. Make sure it has lots of compost to help with the stress it's under from the dieback and the birds.
NE, Toronto: I have an urban garden in downtown Toronto. My hostas always start the season looking great but by mid-late summer are full of holes from what I assume are grubs. I have tried putting out beer (although I think the raccoons are the ones truly benefitting from it.) Any other solutions?
Marjorie Harris: It's probably not grubs or even slugs up to now, it's more likely earwigs. Put out cardboard rolls so they can curl up overnight and then dump them into a pail of water with some oil on top (vegetable oil). If you are convinced you've got grubs, buy live nematodes and follow the instructions on the package scrupulously. The nenatode treatment lasts about three years.
Patricia Shapiro, Ottawa: Thanks for taking my question, Marjorie, I am really enjoying your 7 Essential Steps. What does it mean when a perennial plant, such as a hosta, siberian iris, daylily or phlox produces tons of healthy green leaves but does not bloom? Is it always a case of too much nitrogen or could there be other reasons? Can you name some other reasons and explain how to correct. Thank you!
Marjorie Harris: Often it means that you've got them in the wrong spot for their soil and light requirements. Don't add nitrogen to the soil. Add compost, which will feed the plants as needed and it adds organic matter to the soil as well making it healthy. All these plants need is a bit of shade, good drainage and lots of humus (organic matter in the soil).
Julie Rosenthal, Canada: I have a hydrangea bush that hardly gets any blooms at all. I live in mid-town Toronto. I have a pink hydrangea bush planted in a south facing bed up against a white wall. It gets full sun until well into the mid-afternoon. I do not know exactly how old the bush is, but I suspect no more than 4 or 5 years old. The previous owner of the house told me that she never had any blooms on it. Last year (our first summer in the house), I had two or three blooms. (Very pretty.) This year, I can see evidence of only one head of blooms. Each spring, I have cut back the stalks from the previous year's growth down to the second or third nodes from the base. I do not fertilize the bed (although when the lawn gets fertilized in the spring and fall, I suspect some stray fertilizer pellets make their way into the bed). The foliage is healthy. Why am I getting so few blooms?
Marjorie Harris: A south facing white wall will be incredibly hot, what with direct sun and the bounce off that wall. It's also a very limey environment. Stop pruning it for one thing and let it do what it needs to do for a year. Some Hydrangeas bloom on new wood and others on old wood. Unless you know what you have, you might be chopping off all the future blooms.
Instead of throwing fertilizer pellets around on the grass, use compost in spring and autumn and that way you'll be doing the plant a favour as well as the grass. This is just too harsh an environment for a shrub that likes a bit of shade. It will do better in a more harmonious situation. Yours, Marjorie
Stan Supleyson, Canada:I've heard climbing vines can kill a tree. I've got clematis growing in my Japanese Lilac tree. Might this be a problem?
Marjorie Harris: It would be a problem if it was a woody vine, like climbing dyrangea or ivy, but a clematis, especially a herbaceous form (one you cut back in spring), shouldn't be a problem.
R.C. Toronto: I live in a condo with a small balcony that faces west and gets minimal morning sun. I have been limited to a few hanging flower boxes on the railing and 3-4 medium size pots on the the floor (no hanging baskets). Begonias do well as do some impatiens but I'm at a loss as to what else I can put out there with virtually no direct sunlight and I LOVE flowers.
Marjorie Harris: West facing means lots of heat radiated in the late afternoon. Try hostas (there are golden foliage forms, and they all have pleasant flowers), which do well in containers and in this situation would thrive. Annuals: ipomea 'black,' alternanthera 'black knight' and many dahliahs will also do well.
DB, Toronto: Hi, We recently bought a home with a lovely, narrow south facing garden that largely gets afternoon sun. There are fairly mature lilac trees that bloom, though one appears sickly. When we moved in there was tape around two holes (nests) in the tree and lots of ant activity. We suspected an ant colony was inside the tree. The next tip off was that the tree would blossom, but the flowers would go brown and die within a week. The leaves are lovely, green, healthy...it's just the flowers themselves. Is this ant problem or otherwise? Friends have suggested that we cut down the tree - let's hope it's nothing that dire! The other lilac tree blooms well, with less issue, but some overall guidance would be appreciated for both. Any thoughts?
Marjorie Harris: You might have carpenter ants. They are only active in rotten or wet wood so if you do, that means you should get rid of the tree. Even ant traps won't help at this stage (if they are carpenters ants--bit black things. This will probably improve the health of the other lilac. If you are at all in doubt, get in a good arbourist to make a diagnosis.
Ellis Achtem, Canada: My concern is my inability to source a great hanging basket nemesia called 'confetti' it is a great trailer. I am only able to find unacceptable uprights. A source on the west coast would be preferable. Thank you from qualicum beach b.c.
Marjorie Harris: I have seen that nemesia in big box stores (here Loblaws) and various small mom and pop garden centres. Sorry I can't be more specifric. Find out from Brian Minter if he's got them at his nursery or knows where you can get them on the island.
Nate San Francesco, Toronto: Hi Marjorie! This Summer I'm trying (for my second time) to grow Himalayan Blue Poppies (Meconopsis Grandis). Zone 6-ish (5b or 6a, I suppose). I know I'm pushing my luck... they like cool, moist, etc. -- none of which quite describe my climate. I've been trying to keep them cool with occasional sprinkles from a hose, and they're in partial shade. So far they've been doing OK, but in the past week or so, one of my two plants has developed some brown edges to its leaves, and I vaguely recall that was the death knell for the plants the last time I tried, about 7 years ago. Any suggestions on how to accomplish the impossible? (By the way, I love your magazine, Gardening Life!) Nate
Marjorie Harris: This plant is the nemesis of so many gardeners because it's so gorgeous. The minute it gets humid they just do what's happened with yours. The Himalayas are high and dry and have unbelievably gritty soil with good drainage. These plants grow really well in Edmonton, Alberta. Thanks for comments on the magazine. Move to Edmonton to be closer to your plant. Oh, right, there is that winter problem.
Ann Bishop, Regina Canada writes: Not sure what zone I am in. I am not a scientific gardener and don't know the latin names but I have a honey suckle that seems to be dying off inside and also has dark spots on the leaves that eventually shrivel up and die. Yet the bush is blooming like crazy. We've had lots of rain but that hasn't seemed to bother it in the past. Can you comment on what the spots might be and if there's anything organic I can do to remedy it. I don't like using chemicals.
Marjorie Harris: This could be fire blight or some other form of fungal disease. Cut off all the affected parts and get them right out of the garden. If they hit the ground the spores will go into the soil and re-infect the plants. Keep it well mulched with compost to help it stand up to the stress.
LF, Canada writes: Please tell all of us lilly lovers how to beat the dreaded red lilly beetle. They are so hard to eradicate and have caused so much damage to my collection I have almost given up. Thank you.
Marjorie Harris: The Lily beetle is one of those dreaded bugs that once in your garden you will have to be on constand battle to get rid of. Squishing is absolutely the only thing that works. For a while we thought Neem would help but it doesn't. You can to check plant top and bottom and do it every day. I am so sorry this has happened. But don't give up on lilies: keep them in containers where you can see and smell and examine them easily.
Lis Angus, Kemptville, ON: I have a Russian Olive tree that is about 9 years old. It has grown well and has provided lovely shade on my patio. This year however it looks anemic: the ends of many branches never leafed out at all and seemed dead (I have now cut off the lower ones that I could reach, when it became apparent that they were not just late) and the remaining branches are much more thinly-leafed than in past years. The tree is in full sun. I believe it has had enough water (the same as in past years, as that area is irrigated) and is fairly well drained as well. I don't know if this is a result of disease, or the tree needs fertilizer, or what -- and don't know how to find out.
Marjorie Harris: So many trees in this family had a terrible time last winter because we had a warm January, then cold and so on. In this case if it's a large tree, get an arbourist to come in and prune it out carefuly. Make sure it's got lots of compost and mulch it for the summer.
Kathy Rann, Canada writes: Hi There, I have planted dragon 3 wing begonias in my window boxes. They are all begining to flower and look like they will eventually fill out...however, I have one 'difficult dragon' that is scrawny and without ANY blooms. I have fertilized once about 2 weeks ago (10-30-10) and still no growth. The other two plants which are on either side are doing fine. Is this plant a dud? Should I pull it out with hopes that I will be able to find another DW Begonia to replace it in my window box?? Looking forward your advice! Kathy
Marjorie Harris: When you've got this situation, take out the affected plant and let the other two fill in the space. It may be too crowded. Put the difficult dragon in its own container and see what happens. Feed them in a couple of weeks with fish fertilizer cut in half with the instructions on the label. I find most fertilizers are way to strong for pots. Use a compost tea (a few tablespoons of compost in water, steeped for three days).
Sharon Kirouac, Ottawa: My Peonies die off after about two weeks after blooming. Is this normal?
Marjorie Harris: I'm going to assume you mean the plant dies off. Certainly the blooms will die off and if you want bigger ones next year, cut the dead heads off. If you mean the whole plant, that's not normal. Move the plant to a well-drained situation and make sure the eyes are at soil level and replant. Do this before a heat wave not during.
Angela Cameron, Vancouver Canada: Marjorie: I'm a big fan! I have beautiful, large, perrennial poppies in my garden. For the last two years they have produced lovely flower buds, but before they open they turn black and shrivel. The rest of the plant seems healthy. Any tips? Thanks
Marjorie Harris: When something shrivels up like that it usually means they've got some kind of fungal disease. Make sure you have good drainage, the soil should be gritty and poor not rich with humus.
Mary Mallany, Canada: Cutter bees are eating my rose leaves. I have not seen them but the leaves have the semicircles neatly cut out. Is there some way to make the leaves less appetizing without using chemicals? I live in Zone 5
Marjorie Harris: I find planting garlic next to roses really does help. Also sprinkle some epsom salts around the plant just before you water and don't let water get on the leaves, water at the base.
Mary Papanicolaou Montreal Canada: Is there a way to protect my daisy plants from being eaten by a ground hog?
Marjorie Harris: Ground hogs will eat anything. You might try Vick's Vaporub. Spread it on something you place around the plants. They might not like having that on their feet.
Hey, that's my armadillo, get your own, toronto Canada: Help, squirrels keep digging up my planters! They even knock over my water plants in my little pond. But it's the pots and planters that really bother me. I come home every day to find they've dug more holes around my carefully planted pansies and geraniums, etc. They seem to only go for spots that are uncovered so I'm wondering if there is something I can cover the dirt with that will discourage them. I've tried 'Critter Ridder'. It may work a day or two but watering seems to neutralize it pretty quickly. Any advice? Thanks.
Marjorie Harris: We all think there will be a magic bullet but squirrels at just too smart. They adjust to anything including mothballs. Use something that's hard on their paws: mulch with stones, beach glass anything that's a rough surface. In future make sure you beds are deeply mulched so they don't look disturbed, the minute a squirrel sees any disturbance in the soil, they figure it's food.
Steven Cooke Toronto Canada writes: Hi, we planted grass seed (mix of fescues and ryegrass) about 6 weeks ago. Where the seed landed and took root we have some nice cover. however, relict crab grass in the soil (despite roto-tilling and adding topsoil and fertilizer) and bare batches are spoling the view. Besides weeding what we can (very difficult) and overseeding in the fall, is there anything else you recommend? BTW, I give the grass a good soaking (30 minutes) about twice a week, depending on ambient precipitation. The lawn faces south and gets minimal shade from a new (ca 8') red oak tree and a 3' hedge. We live in Toronto where it's usually sunny and humid or sunny and dry. Thanks, Steven
Marjorie Harris: You aren't watering long enough: make that a nice long soft shower of about an hour every week. The roots will grow deeper. We're also going through a drought in this city so do this in the morning. Rototilling disturbs the soil and brings all sorts of seed to the surface. Keep on weeding, fill in the bare patches with new grasses held down with compost. Stop fertilizing with anything more than that. You might also consider have a smaller lawn area: add some nice shrubs.
Rasha Mourtada, Globe Life web editor: Thank you, Marjorie, for taking the time to answer so many questions. Any last thoughts you'd like to leave us with?
Marjorie Harris: Yes indeed, Rasha, there is no such thing as low maintenance gardening. We were given sun and soil to do something creative with, so think creatively when you look at your garden. It doesn't actually take all that much more time to do garden thoughtfully and well. Also read my book HOW TO MAKE A GARDEN if you are at all confused. Or go to my web site . I'm always somewhere around to help. I enjoyed this.