Leave It, Good Gardener!

Spring is a great time to befriend nature, forgetting its wintery wrath and accepting its apologies with the first blooms of the season. And now that the apathy that follows snow shoveling has worn off, it’s time to get back into compulsive garden cleaning mode!

Or not. Please don’t! Good gardener, I beg of you: leave it!

Those leaves you’re picking up out of your garden, do you know what that is? Mulch. Sure, if you have an extremely thick layer of leaves, remove some to allow for good air circulation, but please don’t scrape your soil bare. Those leaves are home to important beneficial insects, small amphibians, and other little critters that are there to keep your garden in tip top shape.

We do remove thick piles of leaves but we're certain not to overdo the cleanup. We always leave some debris on the ground and make sure not to strip the ground bare. A thick covering of leaves will allow the soil to retain the cold winter temperatures. Let the light shine in to warm up the soil.

We do remove thick piles of leaves but we’re certain not to overdo the cleanup. We always leave some debris in the gardens and make sure not to strip the ground bare. A thick covering of leaves will keep the soil too cool for spring greening. Let the light shine in to warm it all up!

We did a little cleaning up last week at Wildflower Farm. In between all the rain we had, it seemed like a good time to get this all done. And in the midst of picking up a few leaves and dried up stems, we made some awesome discoveries.

So here’s to a short blog with lots of much needed spring photos. Enjoy!

Milkweed fluff found in the asparagus patch amongst all of additional debris that we leave to return nutrients to the soil.

Milkweed fluff found in the asparagus patch amongst all of additional debris that we leave to return nutrients to the soil.

 

The 13-acre field of Little Bluestem glows a brilliant dusky orange. Warm weather grasses like Little Blue green up slowly and shine in late summer throughout the fall.

The 13-acre field of Little Bluestem glows a brilliant dusky orange. Warm weather grasses like Little Blue green up slowly and shine in late summer throughout the fall.

 

Rattlesnake Master poking through the debris. As they grow, they will resemble yucca leaves.

Rattlesnake Master leaves are poking through the debris. As they grow, they will resemble yucca leaves.

 

The native/non-native mixed garden with some early blooming yellow daffs and a mix of debris keep all the plants protected and nourished.

The native/non-native mixed garden with some early blooming yellow daffs and a mix of debris keep all the plants protected and nourished.

 

The perfect spring bloomer for full sun, sharp drainage. An excellent addition to any rock or scree garden with their soft, fuzzy beauty.

The perfect spring bloomer for full sun, sharp drainage. An excellent addition to any rock or scree garden with their soft, fuzzy beauty.

 

Prairie Smoke is just beginning to wake up. Looking like tiny pink rose buds, Prairie Smoke is perfect for the scree or rock garden where the sun shines brightly and water drains very well.

Prairie Smoke is just beginning to wake up. Looking like tiny pink rose buds, Prairie Smoke is perfect for the scree or rock garden where the sun shines brightly and water drains very well.

 

Solomon's Seal is waking up in the former shade garden. Although it collapsed with the harsh winter, we will be reconstructing the shade structure that used to provide constant shade for the many shade-loving plants.

Solomon’s Seal is waking up in the former shade garden. Although it collapsed with the harsh winter, we will be reconstructing the shade structure that used to provide consistent shade for the many shade-loving plants.

 

Another shade-lover, the Toadshade Trillium's flower is much smaller than its leaves. You'll notice the debris left in the garden which acts as a natural mulch that retains moisture and will break down into a nutrient rich organic material. Think forest floor.

Another shade-lover, the Toadshade Trillium’s flower is much smaller than its leaves. You’ll notice the debris left in the garden which acts as a natural mulch that retains moisture and will break down into a nutrient rich organic material. Think forest floor.

 

Another shade garden inhabitant: Dutchman's Breeches. Aptly named, looking like upside down cream-coloured britches, this early spring bloomer is delightfully adorable.

Another shade garden inhabitant: Dutchman’s Breeches. Aptly named, looking like upside down cream-coloured britches, this early spring bloomer is delightfully adorable.

There you have it. Keep a little bit of that leaf litter and debris to protect your plants. And hey – it’ll free up your time for more important things.

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Answering Your Wildflower Questions

I just found out about wildflowers now and I want to get started right away but don’t know how. What do I do first?

The good news is that you’ve found wildflowers and are ready to enrich your garden (and your life) with their fantastic beauty and low-maintenance properties. The not so good news is that it’s not really the time to be sowing the seeds outdoors.

Most wildflower seeds NEED winter. They need that cooler weather and increased moisture to break down the seed coat. For this, you have a few options:

Let your seeds experience a true winter. Place them in labelled pots outside and the snow and cold will do the rest.

 

 

1. Wait until fall, place your seeds in labelled pots filled with moist soilless medium and then  place them outside. They will get the freeze-thaw action of winter and will begin to germinate naturally as the spring rolls in.

 

 

 

 

Don’t have snow? Your refrigerator works just as well!

 

2. If you don’t experience snowy winters, you can do the same thing with a refrigerator. Place your seeds in labelled pots or resealable bags filled with moist soilless medium. Give them 6-8 weeks of this fridge treatment then remove them from the cold.

Seed and soil in bags can be transferred to pots and placed outdoors or indoors under grow lights.

Watch your seedlings, keep them watered and transplant them outdoors once they have developed a good root system.

 

Leggy annuals

Leggy seedlings look tall and gangly. The stems are thin and once top growth begins, most will topple over under their own weight. Alleviate this problem with a special light made for plant growth and soilless seed-starting mix.

My seedlings are really thin and flopping over, what’s wrong?

No matter what type of plant you’re growing from seed, leggy seedlings are caused by two things: too many nutrients and not enough sunlight.

Plants stretch to reach the sun. If your seedlings are sitting inside by a window, it’s likely that the spring sun just isn’t strong enough for them to grow straight up. A grow light can alleviate your leggy seedling woes. Use a low heat bulb that provides a natural spectrum similar to that of the sun (lights intended for growing plants will specify this on their packaging).

Never use potting soil or regular garden soil for starting seeds. A soilless seed-starting mix allows for proper drainage and contains minimal nutrients. Add nutrients or transfer to a more nutrient-enriched soil mix once the true leaves have formed.

A meadow is a complex combination of native grasses and wildflowers that work together to keep out weeds, hold moisture, and return nutrients to the soil.

 

I want a meadow but don’t really like grasses. What can I do?

The romantic fantasy of a wildflower meadow always conjures up images of luscious flowers, swaths of vibrant colour, and wildlife abound. The truth is that meadows are a complex ecosystem all on their own. To function properly, they require grasses and flowers working together. And really, it’s only to your benefit to include grasses: no watering, no weeding, no fertilizing.

It’s true. The root system of grasses and flowers functions to take up multiple layers within the soil, preventing weed seeds from germinating. Above ground they work together to keep the soil surface shaded and cool. And the falling debris from the plants that peak at different times throughout the season will put nutrients back into the soil.

A real meadow is composed of about 75-80% flowers and 20-25% grasses. At Wildflower Farm, we’re getting away with 90% flowers and 10% grasses so there’s a little wiggle room with Mother Nature. The key is to not completely exclude grasses.

 

Do you have a wildflower question? Send it to us and we may feature it in our next blog for the FAQ series.

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Orange is the New Yellow

Time is running out for Monarch Butterflies. Last summer it’s likely you observed the distinctly alarming lack of monarchs in your own landscape, remarked upon it at work and home and also read news bulletins about the decline of the Monarch population. Concerns about this drastic decline have inspired a multitude of ‘Save the Monarch’ campaigns throughout North America.  No one wants these beautiful orange pollinators to become extinct.

monarch caterpillar

Monarch caterpillar munching Butterfly Milkweed

Monarchs are beloved by pretty much everyone. How can one not fall in love with orange and black stained glass creatures that dance among flowers? Or fail to appreciate their cunning cocoons and smartly striped caterpillar bodies? Monarchs inspire the inner child in all of us to learn more about the science and ecology of insect life and its co-evolutionary partnership with native plants. Their captivating stories are hero journeys that are deep in the bones of human history.  Stories of transformation, trial and travel.

Mature Monarch sips Red Milkweed Nectar

Mature Monarch sips Red Milkweed Nectar

What I as a native plant grower and ecological landscaper most appreciate about orange Monarchs is the same thing coal miners value in yellow canaries – their ability to warn us of impending disaster.  The decline in the Monarch population is putting the spotlight on native plants. Milkweed plants are where Monarchs are genetically programmed to lay their eggs, and nurture their young until maturity.

Each day everyone here at Wildflower Farm fields phone calls and emails from concerned individuals and groups feverishly ordering milkweed to save the Monarchs. Some are avid and practiced gardeners familiar with the process of growing milkweed from seed; others are startled to realize milkweeds are long-lived perennial plants that require winter sowing or as an alternative, 4-6 weeks of winter fakery in the fridge. I am here to tell you that now is an excellent time to start milkweed from seed.  Even though it’s springtime, there’s plenty of time for you to grow milkweed seedlings into sturdy young plants with generous root systems that can be transplanted into the garden all summer and as late as the early fall.

It's easy to convince wildflowers they've experienced winter! Simply combine moist soil, seed and label and place in the fridge for 4-6 weeks.

It’s easy to convince wildflowers they’ve experienced winter! Simply combine moist soil, seed and label and place in the fridge for 4-6 weeks.

While you’re starting some milkweed from seed, it is the perfect time to grow the wildflowers that come into bloom when the milkweeds have finished their bloom cycle. These later blooming plants provide the high octane native nectar that Monarchs must have in order to make their long and difficult flights south.

Let’s support Monarchs all the way through the growing season with beautiful wildflowers such as the blazingstars, asters, echinaceas, ironweeds and the gorgeous and non-allergy causing goldenrods.

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Mature Monarch sipping nectar from fall blooming Stiff Goldenrod

I urge you to grow a selection of wildflowers. Why not beautify your landscape and at the same time provide the living lifeline for the drastically declining Monarch population!

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My Lawn Obsession

I don’t own a house – I rent. It’s a humble home surrounded by sugar maple trees and a few pines. There is no backyard as the old maples have taken over; the side yard would be the equivalent of a typical home’s backyard. It’s where we toss the ball, where the dogs run around, and where we sit to relax under the maple shade during the hottest days of summer.  And when I say shade I mean it: the majority of the yard sees no sun at all through the thick jumble of maple leaves overhead. This year I expect it to be even less.

What little light reaches my side yard is only from the spaces left by fallen leaves in autumn.

 

This week, I saw my ‘lawn’ for the first time since November. I even mustered up the courage to brave the few mucky areas and went out to do some raking. After making several piles of sticks, woody debris, leaves, and a few stones, it started to rain and I went into the house.

Looking out at the cleaned up area only moments later, I realized that the rain was falling on bare soil. None of the grass planted last year had survived except for a few sparse patches. The dogs had torn up their running path, the gas company had ripped up a 4 foot strip, and a moldy fungus had spread itself out in several areas. Needless to say, it’s looking pretty dreary at this point.

Definitely not the green ‘expanse’ I was expecting after the snow melted.

Where is the lush green grass I remember from last year? All that effort and what do I have to show for it? Empty dirt?

Wait…why do I care? Where does this need for a lawn come from?

I began working at Wildflower Farm October 2013. My first task? To read this book. I won’t spoil it for you, but it’s a good read. Incredibly interesting insight into lawns and the North American wide obsession with them.

But now it’s several months later, I’ve read the book, I understand the history and still I’m looking out at my bare patch of soil and yearning for something green. Something I can walk on. Something I can manage. If anything, something to hold the soil in place. And if it can meet all three criteria, I’m a happy camper.

There is an intense amount of pressure in Western society to have perfect lawns and this is only reinforced in many communities through by-laws that require grass to be kept short and pleasing to the neighbours. In 2012, a couple in Quebec had to fight to keep their front yard vegetable garden. They had transformed regular lawn into a beautiful full scale vegetable garden. And they had to FIGHT to keep it because Quebec by-laws stated that at least 30% of a front yard had to be grass.

The front yard vegetable garden created by Drummondville couple, Michel Beauchamp and Josée Landry. Photo courtesy of CBC News Montreal.

The front yard vegetable garden created by Drummondville couple, Michel Beauchamp and Josée Landry. Photo courtesy of CBC News Montreal.

So what’s a person to do? I can’t feasibly transform my yard into a vegetable garden (as much as I’d like to, it’s far too shady); I can’t let weeds take over (it’s unsightly and uncomfortable to walk on); and I can’t leave it bare (the dogs will erode paths throughout and it will become a mucky mess).

For me, a small side yard makes sense. But it doesn’t have to be traditional. Indeed, I’d rather it be anything but, which is why this year I’m going to try Eco-Lawn in my own yard. It just seems to make sense – it will grow under my shady maples, keep my soil where it should be, and give me a place to laze around on the weekends because I certainly won’t be burdened with mowing it all the time.

You know what also makes sense? Saving water and not using chemicals. In this really amazing 3 ½ minute video, you’ll hear all sorts of numbers that, in all honesty, are hard to imagine. Numbers like these:

  • There is 3 times more irrigated turf grass in the US than corn
  • 30% of the overall drinking (potable) water supply in the US is used to irrigate turf grass
  • 70 million pounds of pesticides are used annually to treat US lawns

And the video is right: grass doesn’t even feed us.

So if I can avoid spending unnecessarily on my lawn, why wouldn’t I? I can use money that would have went into turf fertilizers and put it towards a vegetable garden; the time spent mowing, watering, fertilizing, and just generally caring for my lawn can now be spent trekking through the trails with my dog (or scouring the gardens for new bugs, knowing me).

Couldn't resist adding in a bug photo - even if it's a snowy bug photo.

Couldn’t resist adding in a bug photo – even if it’s a snowy bug photo.

But all jokes aside, it just makes sense. Why do something wasteful if you don’t have to? If there are alternatives that are all around better for us and those around us, what’s stopping us from making the switch?

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Speed Dial Wildflowers

This week I thought I’d be able to write about snow melting and seeing some of the lovely green Eco-Lawn for the first time in many months…

Alas, winter has returned.

IMG_8900

A snowy birdhouse…emptied by the squirrels no doubt.

 

But, for a few days in between its wrath, we did see some greenery.

Winter isn’t all bad: it’s a necessary process required for the germination of many North American wildflower seeds. Even if winter in your region simply means a cooler, rainy period, it’s enough to break that hard seed coat and facilitate spring germination.

We’ll talk about this in a little more depth in future posts but I really want to talk about spring.

Fortunately, there are some really amazing wildflowers that do not need winter. They will germinate with warm soil and some water…aka: spring.

And because we all love a good list, here’s one! The “Sow & Grow” or, as Miriam likes to say, the “Speed Dial” wildflowers.

No winter required, just a warm spring.

Blanketflower
Coreopsis
Purple Prairie Clover
Black-Eyed Susan
Canada Tick Trefoil
Pearly Everlasting
Evening Primrose
Bergamot
Culver’s Root
Dotted Mint
Lavender Hyssop
Mountain Mint
Helen’s Flower
Silver Sage
White Aster
White Yarrow
 
 

And with the exception of Sweetgrass, all of these native grasses will germinate without winter as well.

If you haven’t planned your garden yet (or even if you have), check out these great possibilities. Start them indoors for strong, healthy plants.

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Buying grass seed this spring? You MUST read this!

If you’re not already familiar with Eco-Lawn, you’re missing out:

2014 EcoLawn 5lb-small

 

It’s drought-tolerant

 You can literally save hundreds of dollars on watering

Significantly less fertilizing required

It grows under pine and walnut trees

You can choose to mow as few as 2 times a year with no negative outcomes

 

 

The list goes on and we honestly think it’s a fantastic alternative to any of the other grass seeds on the market. I know what you’re thinking: “It’s your own product. Of course you think it’s great.”

True, but we’re not the only ones.

The Most Important Customer Review You’ll Ever Read

A while back we received an email from Quinn, a Canadian customer who was impressed with his own Eco-Lawn. So impressed, in fact, that he decided to do a little experiment to try and understand the hype surrounding the other available grass seeds.

For the experiment, Quinn used Perfect Patch, PatchMaster, a Coated Blend and our Eco-Lawn seed. Growing the seed in peat moss for two weeks, he watered consistently. At the start of the third week, he cut off the water supply completely! After thirteen days with no water, can you guess which is which?

Quinn

Quinn says, “My grass seed test: no water for 13 days. Guess which one is Eco-Lawn?! Perfect Patch left, PatchMaster right, the coated seed far right…”

Quinn adds, “At first the Perfect Patch and coated seed grew longer, quicker and sooner. But then the Eco-Lawn not only caught up with the other brands, it surpassed them; and that was after I cut off the water supply.”

Quinn’s final words on why he bothered to do this experiment? “I hear the local hardware guys bragging all the time about these other products and I always kind of snicker. I farm on the side and I just wanted to do it. It’s good to know when you are planting this stuff that it’s the best.”

Thanks Quinn! It’s amazing to see such enthusiasm and commitment to a product that we believe in so much!

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