All posts by Brian Minter

Brian Minter: These flowering gems will attract pollinators to your containers

Incorporate pollinator-attracting plants into your containers to get butterflies, hummingbirds and all species of bees dropping by.

As the weather begins to warm, it is finally time to set out planters and baskets on our decks and patios.

It looks as though we will be staying close to home for awhile, so this year we should try to be more creative and make our containers more interesting.  We need to add fragrance but, more importantly, we need to incorporate pollinator-attracting plants.

All our containers and baskets should be colourful and have at least some perfume. The benefits of butterflies, hummingbirds and all species of bees dropping in for a snack of nectar or pollen adds a connection to the natural world that we all crave right now.

The challenge is that many of the best pollinator plants bloom for short periods, leaving us with more foliage than blooms, but there are several jewels out there.

Some of the most popular plants today are the more compact buddleias (butterfly shrub). New breeding has resulted in varieties, like the ‘Lo and Behold’ series, that are compact, continuous blooming, fragrant and non-invasive.

Growing only 1 1/2  to 2 1/2  feet tall and wide, they fit comfortably into larger containers, and they play nicely with other annuals, perennials and compact shrubs.  Their colour range has certainly grown as well, from the original ‘Blue Chip’ to ‘Lilac’, ‘Purple Haze’, ‘Ruby Chip’, ‘Ice Chip’ and my favourite ‘Pink Micro Chip’.  Most of these varieties have won international awards at various trials, meaning they have been vetted by some of the best horticultural judges.

 ‘Pugster Blue’ Buddleia

Not to be outdone, another new series of buddleias has also caught fire. The ‘Pugster’ group is similarly compact. Their shorter ‘pug-like’ blossoms are three to four inches wide and have quite a unique look. Their colour range has expanded from the original blue to amethyst, periwinkle, pink and white. Being smaller and compact, they combine well in containers with other plants.

All these buddleias do best in full sun, and as their common name implies, when in bloom they attract butterflies, as well as hummingbirds and bees.  Having their perfume fill our patios all summer is another highlight.

 Proven Winners’ ‘Vermillionaire’ Cuphea

The true sleeper plant for attracting pollinators is the so-called ‘cigar plant’.  Cupheas are native to both Mexico and Guatemala. Cuphea ignea produces narrow, tubular, orange-red flowers with a white tip and dark rings that resemble a lit cigar.  It is a hummingbird magnet.

There are many offshoots of the original cupheas. The most well-known, branded variety is Proven Winners’ ‘Vermillionaire’. It is quite at home both in containers and in hanging baskets, and it blooms continuously well into fall.  Our daughter had a container of ‘Vermillionaire’ on her patio, and it not only attracted hummingbirds well into October, but I also noticed bees hovering over it.

The old-time German variety of a dark-leafed, upright fuchsia called ‘Gartenmeister’, with its long, narrow, tubelike bright orange flowers is, perhaps, the most recognized hummingbird and bee attractor.  It is quite sun tolerant, and because of its unique colouring, it fits nicely into any yellow/orange/red combination plantings.  Of all the trailing varieties of fuchsias, the sun-tolerant, tubular, pink-red F. ‘Wilma Verslot’ is one of the best and most floriferous hummingbird attractors.

The demand for lavender is truly remarkable.  Historically, it has been used to produce soothing perfumes and oils and in dried sachets. Today, its calming fragrance is still popular as a sleep aid.

Lavender, when in bloom from late May into July, is also very attractive to pollinators, particularly the hardy L. angustifolia (English lavender). You can often hear the buzz of bees as they swarm the fragrant blooms.

 Spanish lavender ‘Anouk’

Spanish lavender is not as hardy, but its distinct advantage is its continuous summer blooms. The fuller, rounded blooms of the ‘Anouk’ variety exude a nice perfume, and it regenerates those blooms all summer.  For their best performance, they need a sunny location and very well-draining soil.  Available as standards or tree forms, they make unique focal points for any planter.

There are also many great perennials that attract pollinators. The challenge with perennials, however, is the length of their bloom times.

 Coreopsis ‘Zagreb’

Many new coreopsis will produce flowers from June well into October, and the old standbys, like the lace foliaged C. ‘Zagreb’ and C. ‘Moonbeam’, are great pollinator attractors. So, too, are the rudbeckias, especially those with smaller blooms, like R. ‘Little Goldstar’, that have similar blooming periods.

 ‘Rozanne’ Geranium

One of the finest perennial geraniums, G. ‘Rozanne’, with its non-stop blue flowers, entices its share of bees, as do the many bee balms (monarda) with their extended blooming periods. The wide range of repeat-blooming agastaches also play a huge role as pollinator attractors.

All these perennials can be planted together or combined with annuals to give you a beautiful display.

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Brian Minter: New dogwood varieties are great garden additions

Cornus florida 'Rubra' is the most popular of all the pinks.

The first wave of dogwood blooms is just beginning to light up our landscapes and parks, and they add so much vibrancy to any garden.

As B.C.’s official flower, dogwoods are well deserving of their recognition.  I wrote an article about dogwoods in spring 2019, but I want to recognize some of the amazing new varieties in 2020.

In the Lower Mainland, we do not often see our native dogwoods in their natural forest settings.  Changing weather patterns, particularly wetter springs, and subsequent leaf blotch fungus have caused their demise. Development, with so many new homes on hillsides and lower mountain areas, has also taken its toll.

 As B.C.’s official flower, dogwoods are well deserving of their recognition.

Back in the 1950s, H. M. Eddie, — one of our early B.C. nurserymen —  developed a much more resilient cross between the eastern dogwood (Cornus florida) and our native specie (Cornus nuttallii). The result, ‘Eddie’s White Wonder’, is still one of our best dogwoods.

A smaller to mid-size shade tree, it grows about 7 to 8 metres tall, has a reasonably narrow form, and blooms massively with creamy white blossoms that completely smother the tree.  In addition, it has magnificent red fall colour and is really a showpiece twice a year.

‘Venus’ is another eye-popper.  It is a cross between our native dogwood and the Asian kousa dogwood.  Similar in size to ‘Eddie’s White Wonder’, it has remarkable 15 to 18-cm blooms.  You cannot help but stand back and say “wow!”. ‘Starlight’ is another exciting new variety.  Both are very disease tolerant and stand up well to our wet climate.

Not to be outdone, the florida dogwoods, especially the vibrant pink C. florida ‘Rubra’, are now in full bloom and putting on some very showy displays.  It is still the standard to which all newer varieties of floridas must be compared.  It grows about 5 to 8 metres in height and width, makes a nice screening tree,  and has brilliant fall colouring in multiple shades of scarlet reds and oranges.  ‘Cherokee Chief’ has slightly redder toned flowers, and ‘Cherokee Brave’ is a deep pinky red variety that is quite disease resistant.

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Gardeners can use the dogwood family to create over two months of colour and beauty. Japanese chinensis and native Korean kousas begin blooming about four weeks after the nuttalliis and floridas.  Growing anywhere from 8 to 12 metres in height and width, I find them to be a little faster growing and more disease resistant.  Even though the blooms are smaller, their massive displays make these trees must-haves.

For today’s smaller space gardens, kousas can be more easily pruned and kept compact.  The time to prune them is right after flowering and before the new growth begins, allowing time for next year’s buds to develop.

No doubt, the star of this group is the pink flowering C. k. ‘Satomi’. A location with morning sun and afternoon shade seems to suit them best.  There are many varieties of white kousas, and all of them are standouts.  ‘Milky Way’ is often noted as the most floriferous.

All kousa varieties have rich scarlet fall colour, and in late summer all produce red edible fruits that taste much like ripe persimmons.  Because of their hard seeds and tough rinds, the fruits are generally not eaten fresh but rather mashed and used for making jams, sauces or wines.

 As B.C.’s official flower, dogwoods are well deserving of their recognition.

I’m most excited about the many new varieties of kousas with variegated foliage.  Some early ones had foliage that did not open but remained curled.  The newer varieties, however, are truly magnificent.

‘Wolf Eyes’, with its somewhat wavy white and green leaves that have red margins in fall, is the best known.  ‘Samaritan’ is one of my favourites. Its early green foliage develops stunning creamy white variegations with pink marginal infiltrations in fall.

A new variety, C.k. ‘Summer Fun’, is among the most sun-tolerant and most vigorous variegated forms, and its foliage has now become the one for all others to match.

‘Summer Gold’ and ‘Gold Star’ have more of a gold and green colour variegation.  They have also become a hit in the smaller tree world, offering not only rich white flowers and stunning summer foliage but also intense fall colour.

All these new varieties are slowly finding their way into local nurseries, so keep an eye out for these great garden additions.

All dogwoods require a little more care to get growing.  They need a location with exceptionally good drainage, and they need thorough watering until their roots become established in their new home.

Initially, you may find curly leaves and a slower start up, but after one growing season, they will perform up to your expectations.

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Brian Minter: High demand for seeds and transplants a sign of the times

There are many cool season crops, like kale, that mature fairly quickly so you don’t have to wait long to enjoy them!

The upside-down reality that we’re all experiencing is also being reflected in the world of gardening. Some garden stores have temporarily closed due to concerns about social distancing, and lower staffing levels are also a factor.

Of course, they need to be respected for doing the right thing. Many, however, having been deemed an essential service, are starting to reopen with shorter hours, and as in all other retail situations, they’re keeping people safe with strict sanitation protocols and by limiting the number of folks in the store at any one time. Even so, people who want to grow their own food are finding a shortage of some seeds due to an overwhelming demand.

The regular restocking of seed racks during the normal busy spring season has dramatically slowed because seed companies are also dealing with staff attrition, compounded by high demand.

To get a sense of current and future seed availability, I spoke with Alex Augustyniak, general manager of West Coast Seeds. They have been experiencing an extremely high volume of mail-order sales and have been working three shifts in an attempt to deal with the exploding demand.

He assured me, however, that there is adequate seed available, but the process of getting it out to both their own customers and the stores they supply is understandably slower.

Packaging is a huge issue as well. It’s not necessarily the availability of seed that is the problem but the packets they go in have been depleted and can’t be replaced quickly. Augustyniak said there will be some very plain seed packets out there as we move forward.

West Coast orders their seed based on prior years’ numbers. With this year’s high demand, some popular varieties have been sold out, but there are many other excellent varieties that will be equally good substitutes.

Augustyniak also mentioned that we have a wealth of local B.C. growers who have their seed stock already in place, so are expanding their production of vegetable starters for garden outlets.

Vegetable ‘starters’ can save anywhere from three to four weeks of growing time. So, in many cases, they will help you enjoy earlier food from your garden.

Today’s selection of starter plants has hugely expanded to include even root crops, like beets and carrots. Starter plants will often save you money on wasted seed because some plants, like celery and celeriac, can be hard to germinate.

 Vegetable starter plants are a great way to get a jump on the growing season.

Transplants of peas, beans and turnips are now grown as regular crops, offering far more choices.

Timing is a big issue. The demand for tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and squash seedlings has been off the charts. Even experienced gardeners are surprising me by asking for these heat-loving veggies that shouldn’t be placed in any garden until the later part of May when we get consistent nighttime temperatures of 10 C.

The current demand for basil plants is extraordinary, but that can be a problem. Basil simply dies off in cool, wet weather. It needs the heat of June to do well.

Of course, people with heated greenhouses enjoy growing heat-loving starter plants in order to set out larger plants in May. Putting heat-lovers out in your home garden or on your patio this early makes no sense. Don’t even pick up heat-loving plants until mid-May, and don’t worry about garden stores running out. I assure you there is a very good supply out there.

The traditional time for starting a vegetable garden, right across Canada, is the May long weekend. At that time we get far superior growing conditions: the soil and air temperatures are far warmer, the weather is usually pleasant and we get those longer spring days. Gardens, which are started later, not only have fewer insect and disease problems, but they also grow twice as quickly.

It’s still April! So please, if you are keen to get your food garden growing, then starter plants or seeds of the following can go out now in raised beds or in containers — of course starters must first be acclimatized for the outdoors.

Now is the time to plant either seeds or transplants of broad beans, fava beans, brassicas, like cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli, kale, green onions, onion sets, all onion varieties, scallions, shallots, leeks, lettuce, mesculin, peas, early potatoes, radishes, spinach and swiss chard.

For good germination from seed and for success with transplants, heat-lovers, like green beans, beets, carrots, celery, celeriac, corn, cucumber, eggplant, melons, peppers, pumpkins, tomatoes and squash, should go out in mid-to-late May, and not before.

The whole concept of food gardening is to reap a bountiful harvest and to enjoy fresh, healthy vegetables. There is no need to panic. There is still lots of time and adequate seed and transplants for everyone to get growing. Patience and wisdom are your two best assets — and we’re learning a lot about both right now.

Brian Minter: Container gardening is convenient and easy

Osteospermum offer great cool season colour, and they come in many shades including white, yellow, purple and orange.

Many of us are anxious to get fresh veggie greens or colour plants growing on our patios or balconies, but it has been an unseasonably late spring. Finally, as of a few days ago, we’re now getting some warmer day and nighttime temperatures.

Today, container gardening is so popular that it far surpasses traditional gardening. High-density living has been the driving force, but in many cases, containers are just a lot more convenient.

For successful container growing, size matters. Small containers dry out too quickly when the weather turns hot, and unless you water several times a day, your plants will become stressed and will not perform well. The minimum size for both square and round pots should be at least 16 to 18 inches in diameter and in depth. This size provides enough critical soil mass to handle a single daily watering, unless it’s extremely hot. Rectangular containers need similar sizing.

It really doesn’t matter if you use plastic, ceramic, resin or any other type of container as long as it has good drainage. Drain holes in the bottom of pots need to be a significant size so that when watered or after a heavy rainfall, excess water gets away quickly. Large drain holes should be covered with broken bits of ceramic or flat stones to prevent the soil spilling out.

Speaking of soil, never use cheap topsoil blends, and never use garden soil in containers because it is heavy, wet and poor draining. It’s best to use a professional blend. For moisture retention in summer, use Pro Mix BX or Sunshine #1, and for additional organic matter, work in some composted manure or Sea Soil.

 Osteospermum offer great cool season colour, and they come in many shades including white, yellow, purple and orange.

Do not put Styrofoam chips or other materials in the bottom of your pots because they will disrupt the flow of moisture and the growing dynamics of your soil. During hot summer weather, your plants will need a critical mass of soil, and their roots will need to find their way to the bottom of the pot.

It’s still early in the season, so now is a good time to develop a strategy to achieve a professional look in your containers. The key is to choose a great focal point and work around it. For years dracaena palms played this role to the point of being a bit overdone. Fortunately, today we have new varieties and new, interesting colours. Phormiums, in all their vibrant colours, add a touch of class. Tender grasses, if properly hardened off, can go in now, and they will last well into fall. Purple fountain grass is a great accent plant and with its plumes later in the season, it looks even more dramatic. Tall, narrow broadleaf plants, like Japanese ‘Sky Pencil’ holly and ‘Green Spire’ euonymus, also look very impressive anchoring any container.

Once the focal point is in place, build around it. Until we get consistent warm weather in late May or June, the go-to early colour plants are trailing Wave pansies, daisy-like osteospermums, fragrant carnations, colourful ranunculus and well-acclimatized petunias. For spillover plants, the favourites

for early spring containers are bacopa in all its colours, trailing alyssum, vibrant yellow lysimachia (golden jenny), variegated ivies and trailing carex grasses, especially the yellow C. ‘Everillo’. These plants will provide colour and add life to your balcony or patio.

 Spanish lavender is a lovely choice as a focal point in containers.

It doesn’t take much to create attractive, edible, cold-hardy food containers for early spring produce. As a focal point, I simply tie three tall bamboo stakes in a pyramid form and trail up vines of sugar snap peas. Around them I plant hot lime, fiery red and vibrant green leaf lettuce. The Simply Salad Blend ‘City Garden’ is a great way of getting a mix of lettuces in all these great colours.

Kale is ‘hot’ right now and comes in so many colourful varieties, like ‘Red Bor and ‘Scarlet Bor’. Swiss chard, especially ‘Bright Lights’ with its vibrant stems, also creates stunning displays of yellow, red and pink.

Beets, too, have colourful and delicious foliage, as does red cabbage.

Many herbs can go out now and can be used in containers to create beautiful, artistically designed plantings. Bay or larger rosemary and lavender plants make great focal points. Surround them with curled and Italian parsley, purple or variegated sage and golden rosemary; the tuck in a few everbearing strawberries so they trail over the edge.

Yes, it’s early in the season, but containers brimming with cold-hardy plants will add vibrancy and fresh food to our patios. They will lift our spirits — something we all need right now at this challenging time.

Brian Minter: Plant small berries for a tasty treat

Strawberries in the process of ripening.

COVID-19 has created a shift in our thinking and priorities, and more people have become focused on planting their own gardens this spring. In terms of food security, what can we plant in our gardens now, apart from traditional vegetables, and expect a crop this year? Not a two-year-old fruit tree — it would still need a couple more years before it could provide a crop. However, many small fruits, especially larger-sized plants, can give you something tasty to enjoy this season.

Everbearing strawberries, for example, planted now will produce a reasonably good crop this year. I love their versatility to perform well in containers, hanging baskets and gardens. Varieties, like “Albion”, “Quinault”, “Eversweet” and “Seascape” are among the best. Day-neutral varieties, like “Tristar”, are also excellent and produce over a very long period. Most strawberries are started from “runners”, but many growers today are using seed varieties which, when started very early, will also produce nice crops all season long. Varieties, such as “Berri Basket” and “Berries Galore”, will have beautiful pink or red flowers for some added colour.

Everbearing raspberry production has surged in the past few years. While main season varieties, planted now, will produce sucker growth for next season’s harvest, everbearing varieties produce fruit on this year’s shoots that come out of the root system below. Older varieties, like “Heritage”, are now being replaced by newer, more productive varieties with larger berries, such as “Autumn Bliss” and the new hottie “Cascade Delight”. “Fall Gold”, an older yellow variety, remains very popular because of its mild but sweet flavour. These varieties can be planted in the ground or in larger containers. “Raspberry Shortcake” is an attractive container variety that is very compact and produces tasty berries, but it is not as productive as everbearing varieties.

Well-draining soil is a must for raspberries as they hate wet feet. Planting four or five canes in a larger container will get you a fairly good crop this year. Be sure to cut your canes back to about 10 cm (four inches) to encourage new shoots to develop. Adding composted manures to your soil and using slow-release fertilizer will help achieve a more continuous production. In colder areas, mulch them heavily for winter protection.

 Blueberries in the process of ripening.

Blueberries round out the top three favourite small fruits, and there have been some positive changes here as well. I always suggest planting early, mid-season and late varieties together for a more constant supply of berries. Vaccinium “Early Blue” is one of the earliest to produce. The mid-season favourites are “Blue Crop”, “Duke”, “Reka” and “Chandler”, which has the largest berries of all. “Elliot” is the last variety to ripen, giving you fruit well into September. Although the berries are smaller, a newer variety, called “Perpetua”, is amazing. One of the earliest to produce, it keeps going well into fall. For very cold areas, “North Blue” and “North Country” are hardy to Zone 3.

In terms of space, some innovative growers are planting three varieties together, both for good pollination and for extended production times. It’s a great idea and one you can do yourself by picking the varieties you want and growing them together as one plant.

Blueberries grow nicely in containers if they have well-draining soils and have fine fir or hemlock bark mulch worked into the mix. To maintain good health and steady fruit bearing, make sure your blueberries are well fed by applying a slow-release fertilizer, like 14-14-14.

Even though the Lower Mainland, the Fraser Valley and Vancouver Island have an abundance of “thorny” blackberries growing wild, “thornless” blackberries are the fourth most popular garden fruit. They are not as invasive as their prickly cousins and when grown espaliered on a fence or trellis, they will give you a considerable quantity of fruit the first year, especially if the plants are larger in size. Over the years to come, they will provide a profusion of large, sweet, delicious fruits. “Black Satin” is one of the favourite varieties and for colder areas of the province, “Chester” is the hardiest. If size matters, the “Prime-Ark Traveler” has huge, eye-popping fruits.

A whole range of novelty fruits, such as jostaberries (a black currant and gooseberry cross), tayberries (a blackberry and raspberry cross), “Munger” black raspberries and haskap berries, will produce fruit this year. Elderberries, with their high antioxidant content, will provide berries for preserves and wine. Today, vastly improved varieties of most small fruits are readily available, and they will perform exceedingly well. In these challenging times, if you have a garden or a sunny patio pot, all of these fruits are not only a great food investment, but you’ll also love harvesting your own home-grown bounty.

Brian Minter: Plants to support important pollinators

Camellias are a great source of nectar and pollen.

Even with the world in turmoil, nature simply carries on providing the normal progression of colour and beauty.

As our birds return and we see hummingbirds, bees and other pollinators back in our gardens, we really need to support them by providing nectar- and pollen-producing plants that open in sequence all through the seasons.

Because much of their habitat has been lost mainly through development, I think it is vital to add more pollinator-attracting plants into our gardens, especially those that begin their blooming cycle early in the season.

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