Sunday, February 26, 2017

A Stylish City Garden

This is another one of my favourites from last summer. I think what makes this garden stand out in my mind is the design and the plantings.  

At the front of the house, there is a very large Norway Maple whose canopy casts the garden in shade. 

There is no bare earth here waiting for the arrival of weeds.

Instead, a mix of groundcovers, which includes miniature euonymus (see note below) and periwinkle, fills in the spaces between the hosta. You'll see this layered approach to planting elsewhere in the garden.

While I have heard Miniature Euonymus or Miniature Wintercreeper, Euonymus fortunei 'Kewensis' recommended as a groundcover that can take foot traffic, I caution you to consider its use very carefully. It is a plant that has made it's way on to lists of invasive species. In some parts of the States,  this aggressive perennial has spread to native plant areas and is crowding the natives out.

By the front door, there is a large square planter that is a nice change of pace
from the urns one usually sees.

More hostas, with a backdrop of feathery yew, line the pathway to the backyard.

There are just a few hosta cultivars that are repeated down the length of the path and that unity really helps the pathway feel like a quiet introduction to the rest of the garden.

Again, there is no bare ground. Between the stone pavers, Creeping Jenny, Lysimachia nummularia 'Aurea' has been given free reign. 

I always feel sorry for gardeners who unwittingly plant an aggressive groundcover like Creeping Jenny only to discover that this plant has a secret masterplan hellbent on world domination. By the time they discover their mistake, getting rid of the problem is a nightmare! 

Here I think the choice of an ambitious spreader was an intentional and informed choice. The garden's designer chose to embrace the madness, so to speak, and let Creeping Jenny do its thing. Will the homeowner regret this rather bold move? Hopefully not.

In many situations, Creeping Jenny might be a really bad option, but I think it works in this context. It's going to do just what it was intended to do; fill in the gaps and choke out any weeds. It's never going to overtake the much larger hosta. Still, I feel obliged to caution you to consider carefully before planting Creeping Jenny. 

At the end of the pathway, I frog sits waiting to greet visitors.

The plants include more Creeping Jenny, some hosta and grass-like Carex (Sedge Grass).

The property is wider than it is deep, but the garden doesn't feel small. Shrubs and evergreens hide the yard's boundaries and make it feel spacious and private.

The large flowering shrub you see to the right of the outdoor eating area is a Beauty Bush. Note the shrub has been pruned to remove the lower branches and allow room for an understory of more hostas.

Beauty Bush, Kolkwitzia is a really pretty shrub. It has a fountain shape with branches that hang in long, sweeping arcs. The flowers are a soft pink that fades in the sun. Plant a Beauty Bush in full sun in average garden soil. This shrub blooms on old wood, so prune in spring after it flowers. Cut old canes to the ground to renew the shrub. Height: 8-10', Spread: 8-10' USDA Zones: 5-9.

More layers. Tucked under the leaves of the upright yellow-green hosta is a much smaller blue-green hosta. The foliage of the small hosta has a stripe of the same yellow-green as the hosta above it. 

To the right of the table and chairs is a small seating area with a gas fire pit (the concrete bowl with grey stones that you see in the centre). The custom-made lime green chairs were crafted by a local artisan.

Beginning with the large Japanese Maple in the centre of the backyard, one of the things I want to point out is the repeated use of plants with burgundy foliage. The red color adds warmth to a color palette that is largely green.

Adjacent to the seating area is the garden's water feature. Water bubbles up from a low flat stone and adds the relaxing sound of splashing water as it flows into a reservoir below.

In early June, a Dogwood tree is covered with white blossoms.

Another example of warm color contrasting with cool is the combination of a Barberry bush, Berberis thunbergii, with a Japanese maple with its fine-cut green leaves.

A striking pairing of a hosta and a deep burgundy Heuchera.

At first glance, these two plants would seem like an unlikely couple. Hostas generally prefer shade and moist conditions. Euphorbia prefers sun and much dryer soil. The only way to make this pairing work is to choose a hosta that can take a bit of sun.

Cushion Spurge, Euphorbia Polychroma: prefers full sun and somewhat dry conditions. Normal or sandy soil is best. Trim Euphorbia Polychroma back in early summer to keep it neat and compact, but be careful to wear garden gloves as the milky-white sap it extrudes can be irritating to the skin. Height: 30-45 cm (12-18 inches), Spread: 45-60 cm (18-23 inches). USDA Zones: 3-9.

As small city gardens go, I think this one was pretty amazing. It was a treat to visit. 

Design and Construction: Aldershot Landscape Contractors

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Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Outdoor Spaces for the Whole Family

Here in Ontario, Monday was a new holiday called "Family Day." As well as being a great excuse for a long weekend in the middle of winter, it's three days to take advantage of a long list of events and special activities geared toward families. 

In honour of this holiday, I thought that I would do a special post on gardens that are meant for the entire family.  

Just getting kids active and outdoors can be a huge challenge these days! If you have the budget, you can always invest in fancy outdoor play equipment, but that's certainly not the only way to go. Thankfully there are lots of inexpensive ways to get kids outside in the fresh air. 

Here's a list of simple ideas to get kids out of the house:

• Build a fort with outdoor chairs and some old sheets or blankets. 

• Have a backyard picnic or eat a family meal in the garden.

• When it comes to nature, it's important to create a sense of wonder. Turn over a rock or old log and see how many different kinds of insects you can spot.

• Organize a scavenger hunt for natural items.

• Lay back on the grass and watch the clouds on a hot afternoon.

• Take a night hike in the backyard with a flashlight. Teach them how to identify nocturnal insects.

• Look at things like insects up close with a magnifying glass.

• Camp out in the backyard. Pitch a small tent in the backyard and have a sleepover with a bunch of friends.

• The outdoors is a big place. Sometimes kids need a way to focus in to see what's right under their noses. Arm them with an inexpensive camera and go on a photo safari. Have them take pictures of bugs or flowers. Review the photos later and talk about what they discovered.

Steve Biggs, author of Grow Gardeners: Kid-Tested Gardening with Children, advises that parents should adopt a child-like approach to being outdoors. We adults forget the joy a puddle can bring or how much fun it is to play in the mud. Steve's "tool kit for play" involves simple, everyday items like leaves, soil, garden tools and water.

Here are a few ideas for outdoor themed fun:

• Paint a birdhouse and let the kids hang the finished project in a tree.

• Make a wind chime with large wooden beads or shells.

• Make a bird feeder and fill it with birdseed.

• Press flowers or make leaf prints with ink pads or paint on paper.

• Go on a worm hunt. Teach the kids how to handle them carefully and the importance of their role in the garden.

• Paint rocks or popsicle sticks as plant markers. A rounded rock with a little bit of paint might just as easily become a ladybug.

• Press leaves or flowers between the pages of a book to be used later to make greeting or birthday cards.

• Create a miniature or fairy garden.

In his book, Steve Biggs advises that once children enjoy playing and exploring outdoors, gardening is the next step. Just don't expect kids to garden exactly the same way adults do! Instead Steve recommends making adjustments like using larger seeds that are easy for small fingers to manage.

Here are some gardening ideas to get you started:

• Give kids their own space to garden. Keep it small and manageable.

• Plant vegetables that the kids actually like to eat. Let them harvest what they've grown and involve them in the process of turning that harvest into a snack or a meal.

• Choose plants that are fast to germinate and easy to grow. Plants with large seeds such as peas, beans or sunflowers are the perfect size for little fingers to plant. 

• Plant flowers that will attract butterflies and host plants that will feed caterpillars.

Avoid those cheap plastic tool sets that only break. Invest in a few basic tools like a shovel, trowel and watering can that are small and light enough for a child to manage.

• Encourage kids to participate in regular waterings even if they get wet or muddy.

• Show older children how to make new plants from cuttings.

Watch this HouzzTV video to see how one family created an outdoor living space for their modern-style home. One thing these parents discovered is that children, who participate in growing edible plants, are more likely to eat them!

Another HouzzTV video about a tiny edible garden in California that still manages to produce fruit, vegetables and herbs for a small family. 

A healing garden designed for children at the Headwaters Health Centre in Orangeville, Ontario.

Echinacea and Rudbeckia

A huge, brightly-colored moose may be a bit much for an average-sized backyard, but it works perfectly in this garden at the Headwaters Health Centre in Orangeville, Ontario.


If your kids are old enough, get them involved in the garden design process. Ask them for suggestions of what they'd like to see. They'll be much more likely to feel a sense of ownership and actually use the space, if they have some part in the planning and construction phases of a garden.

Designing a garden with kids in mind:

• Choose resilient plants that can take some potentially rough handling. 

• A child's garden should be fun and colorful. As well as plants, outdoor furniture, plant supports, birdhouses and plant pots are ways to inject color into a garden.

• Add a sandbox where they can dig freely and happily.

• Choose plants with interesting textures and smells. The foliage of this Agastache for instance, has a mild liquorice scent. Lavender, scented geranium, rosemary, mint and thyme are just a few of the many fragrant plant options. 

• Invite kids to touch with plants that are soft or feathery like ferns or velvety like Lambs Ears. 

• Build a small playhouse.

• Include a kids sized table for activities such as tea parties, outdoor meals and crafts.

• Add a treehouse to the backyard (just be sure to check local building codes before you build). Take a look at the amazing treehouse in this HouzzTV video:

Kids love to have their own space. Here an entire section of the backyard has been designed specifically for the younger members of the family.

Gardening is such a great way for kids to connect with the nature and foster a life-long love of the outdoors! Happy Family Day!

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Unexpected House Pests

Yikes! There's something on crawling on your houseplants! In her first post of 2017, Jean Godawa tackles the subject of unexpected and unwelcome visitors that seem to appear out of nowhere.

Before the middle of the 17th century, people believed that some animals could spontaneously generate under the right conditions. According to the wisdom of the time, you could make a colony of mice simply by putting some dirty rags and a bit of wheat into a barrel. Likewise, if you left a carcass of meat hanging, you could create a swarm of flies. The idea that the right conditions just attract these creatures from somewhere else was not even considered. We know better now thanks to science and experimentation.

But if you've ever had a fittonia in your house develop mealy bugs, seemingly out of nowhere, you might start to understand that 17th century mid-set. If you keep your plants indoors, you shouldn't have to think about insects, should you?

Unfortunately, indoor plants are just as susceptible to certain pests as their outdoor counterparts, but not by spontaneous generation. Introducing new plants into your home, leaving windows open, putting houseplants outside during good weather are all invitations for unwanted pests.

A favourite meal to ladybugs, aphids (Aphididae) are not just pests of outdoor plants. These tiny (approx. 4 to 8 mm) bugs are easy to recognize with their pear shape and two short, stick-like cornicles near their backside. Aphids can have both winged and wingless forms and vary in colour depending on the species.

In their winged form, they can fly into your home and lay eggs on your houseplants. Aphids can also hide on fruits and vegetables at the grocery store where they have unlimited food and no predators. If you bring home any produce, even with a single aphid on it, your houseplants could soon be covered in the pests. Aphids are one of the few insects that are capable of parthenogenesis. That is, they can reproduce without mating.

These creatures use a short, beak-like mouth to pierce plant leaves or shoots and suck out the fluid. They excrete a clear, sticky substance called honeydew, which can often invite mold growth. Because of the way they feed, aphids are also capable of transmitting plant viruses from one plant to another.

Typically, a few aphids on a healthy houseplant won't kill it but they can become a problem if you don't intervene. If your houseplant is a sturdy one, take it outside and knock off the aphids with a forceful blast of water from the hose. For more delicate houseplants, treat aphids with an insecticidal soap or horticultural oil.

If your houseplants start to develop a cottony white substance on the underside of leaves or on the stems, take a closer look. That white mass could be a group of plant sucking mealybugs (Pseudococcidae). These creatures are elongated, oval bugs coated with a waxy secretion and are common pests of houseplants.

Mealybugs can be difficult to control because they spread easily. Being so small, they can crawl undetected from one plant to another or can be transferred by a slight breeze. The waxy coating protects the bugs from too much or too little moisture as well as from insecticidal sprays.

When introducing a new plant to the home, keep it quarantined, away from your other houseplants, for a couple of months to make sure it's healthy and pest free. For small infestations, pick the bugs off by hand or use a cotton swab dipped in rubbing alcohol to remove them. A small paintbrush dipped in mild dish soap can also help knock mealybugs off your plants. Unfortunately, you may need to discard a heavily infested houseplant to protect your other plants.

Another common houseplant and greenhouse pest is the whitefly (Aleyrodidae). At 2 to 3 mm long, this tiny pest can still cause quite a bit of damage. Like their aphid and mealybug cousins, whiteflies have a needle-like mouth they use to pierce plant tissue and suck out the fluid. Their feeding damages leaves and stems causing yellowing and wilting. The yellowish body and white wings of the whitefly are covered with a white powdery coating. These insects can also transmit plant viruses and can produce honeydew that fosters mold growth.

When immature whiteflies first hatch from their eggs, they crawl to a suitable area of the plant. As they develop, these larvae become oval, flattened and immobile until they pupate into winged adults. Insecticidal soaps are most effective on the immature bugs but will also work to get rid of the adults. Check the underside of leaves for the larvae if you notice whiteflies around your houseplants.

If leaves on your houseplants are dropping off or have yellow spotting (stippling) or webbing, particularly on the undersides, you may have a problem with spider mites (Acarina). These eight-legged creatures, relatives of spiders, may not be visible unless you look very closely, but their damage usually gives them away. Spider mites are another common destructive houseplant pest but they can be treated with insecticidal soap. As with all houseplant pests, it is better for the health of your other plants to discard a heavily infested one.

It would be easy to ignore or overlook scale insects (Coccoidea) as they look nothing like a typical insect. Throughout most of their immature lives, they have no antennae or legs and remain motionless while they feed. They often look like natural knots or bumps on stems. Some scale species are quite useful - shellac comes from a scale insect, as do some red dyes (cochineal). Despite this, many scale species are serious pests to indoor plants, and in large numbers can be very destructive.

While houseplants are typically protected from the multitude of potential pests outside, they are at a bit of a disadvantage indoors. An infested houseplant can't get help from any of the beneficial insects living in the garden. As much as I am fascinated by insects, I can't set a bunch of ladybugs loose in my home to deal with aphids and I'm not about to introduce parasitic wasps into my living room to get rid of scale insects on a ficus.

Our solutions for dealing with pests of indoor plants are more limited. Hand removal, trimming off infested leaves, applying insecticidal soap or horticultural oil can usually take care of most minor houseplant pests. 

The best option, though, is prevention. If you accept clippings from a friend or buy new plants, be sure to quarantine them first. Wash fruits and vegetables well when you bring them inside from the store or garden. If you put your plants outside in warm weather, frequently inspect them for unwanted pests.

If houseplant pests do show up, they could have hatched from eggs in the potting soil or entered through a slight crack around a window. Healthy plants can tolerate a few bugs and as long as you inspect plants often, and treat them early, pests are manageable.

Like mice in a barrel or rats on a ship, bugs don't spontaneously generate on indoor plants. Even though I know this, I am sometimes, very briefly, convinced that fruit flies can magically appear from another dimension. When I'm sure that I've thoroughly washed all the peaches in a basket from the market, those pesky little creatures will still be flying around my kitchen.

(Click this link to find out how to make your own insecticidal soap.)

Post written by Jean Godawa

Jean is a science teacher and writer. She has been writing science-related articles for print and online publications for more than ten years. Jean holds a degree in biology and environmental science with a focus on entomology from the University of Toronto. She has also conducted field research in the tropical rainforests of Asia and South America.

Photo Credits for this post: Many thanks to Leslie Ingram, David Capparet, Jeffery W. Lotz, Charles Olsen, Chazz Hesselein and Ken Sproule for allowing us to use of the photographs in this post.