It’s no exaggeration to say that gardening has exploded in the past year-and-a-bit. People who count these things say somewhere between two million and three million Canadians took up gardening for the first time last year, fuelled to a large extent by the pandemic and its stay-at-home orders.
The resurgence of interest is terrific, but gardening, which exists at the intersection of art and science, is more than sticking plants in the ground. It’s about the soil, about nutrients and water, about maintaining the garden through the highs and lows of our climate. It’s about what you plant and how it exists in an ecosystem of other living things. It’s about trial and error. No one becomes a great gardener or in the span of a single season.
With all that in mind, we surveyed some experienced Hamilton gardeners for advice and tips on making, growing and maintaining your pandemic garden.
If you’re wondering how to make your garden thrive:
Dave Cummins and wife, Cathy, are makers of a fabulous Dundas garden and authors of “The Rusty Rake Gardener.” Dave is a firm believer in the adage that you should feed the soil and let it feed the plants. Chemical fertilizers damage the soil, killing or disrupting essential microbes and other dirt-dwellers. Enriching the soil with compost or well-rotted manure is absolutely key to a healthy, thriving garden, he says.
“If you’ve got the room to make your own compost pile (or bin), there is nothing better,” Dave says. For a new gardener or someone with limited space, he recommends buying manure, compost or soil from a reputable source. There’s a lot of crappy soil — contaminated or ground-up clay — on the market, so look carefully at what you’re buying.
Dave likes to add compost to planting holes and put compost or manure around existing plants. He doesn’t turn over the soil in his vegetable beds in the spring, as used to be common practice, because it disrupts soil layers and those valuable microbes. At the same time, compacted soil is not healthy either: Dave loosens the soil so air and water can get down into the root layer.
Raised beds and containers do need their soil replenished from season to season. Dave says he digs out the top layer and replaces it with fresh soil mixed with manure and/or compost.
If you planted bulbs last fall:
Marjorie Cooke and her husband, Cec, have one of the best spring gardens I’ve come across in Hamilton: Hundreds of daffodils, tulips, crocuses and other spring bulbs growing under lovely flowering trees around their Mountain home. It’s a magnificent sight, year after year.
But, what do you do with the plants’ leaves left after the flowers fade? Marjorie says to remove the dead flower heads and their stems, but it is important to leave the foliage in place as long as you can so that they can strengthen the bulb for next spring’s show. Tulip foliage turns brown fairly quickly but daffodil foliage seems to last through July.
Marjorie says she plants perennials — hostas and the like — in front of many of her clumps of bulbs. As the bulb flowers fade, the perennials grow up and hide the unsightly leaves. For others, as the leaves die back, she cuts them off too. “I don’t do a lot with my bulbs. I don’t need to,” she says. “I do lift and divide them (every few years).
Her tip for gardening with spring bulbs? Put small stakes or other markers where your bulbs grow so that later in the season you’ll know where not to dig and damage the bulbs. The same tip works for marking those empty spots where you want to plant bulbs in the fall. “We think we’ll remember where things were,” she says with a laugh, “and nobody ever does.”
If you’re growing vegetables for the first (or second) season:
Win Czum grows enough vegetables and other edibles in her Dundas garden to keep her and husband Ted going year around. She’s been gardening all her life and they have a large garden with multiple rows of vegetables. She adds compost and manure to the soil every year to keep it fertile and full of nutrients.
Win says home vegetable gardeners should start small and find out for themselves how much space and time commitment they want to give to their gardens. Their son and daughter-in-law began growing things to eat last year and they’ve started, she says, with a modest raised bed in which they grow tomatoes, squash that trailed over the sides and a few other easy-to-grow edibles.
She likes growing vegetables from seedlings, rather than seeds. Exceptions are radishes, lettuce and kale, which are easy to sow directly into the garden. She plants nasturtiums to draw insects away from vegetable plants and puts marigolds among the edibles to repel bugs.
As for larger wildlife, Win says (with a laugh) that she plants extra lettuce for their resident (wild) rabbit. “You have to work with nature,” she says.