Category Archives: Homes

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.

In coastal areas, once the temperature hits 10 C, the bees are out, and depending on the species, they are searching for both nectar and pollen.

 Heathers are bee magnets.

Last week, I was trying to pick out a few winter-flowering heathers, and I was delighted to see them smothered with bees. Not only do heathers provide colour from late October until late April in zone 6 regions, but they also produce both nectar and pollen for our bees. If pollination of your early-flowering fruit trees and small fruits is a concern, planting these winter beauties is a great solution because they attract bees to your garden.

Winter-flowering camellias (C. sasanqua, zone 7) have also been in bloom since November, and they will continue flowering well into April.

I recently noticed that both bees and Anna’s hummingbirds were attracted to them, especially to the brighter coloured blooms. As the early-flowering Camellia japonicas begin to open, they, too, will be a great source of nectar and pollen.

 Camellias are a great source of nectar and pollen.

The soft pink blossoms of Viburnum bodnantense ‘Pink Dawn’ (zone 6) have also been supplying winter colour since November, and will continue to do so until late April.  This remarkable plant may not be as much a bee attractor as other varieties, but it certainly still attracts some.

A very old variety of flowering cherry, Prunus ‘Autumnalis’ (zone 5), with its soft pink single blooms, puts out colour from November well into April.

Some brilliant folks with Vancouver Parks planted them on Nanaimo Street, just south of First Avenue, and what a treat they have been for the people who live in that area, and for pollinators.

Cornus mas is a unique dogwood that is, unfortunately, seldom seen in today’s gardens. It is blooming now with tiny yellow blossoms that look very much like witch hazel flowers.

Similar in size to Cornus florida, its early blossoms attract pollinators. Once fertilized, the blossoms turn into edible fruits that look like cherries. As an added bonus, its fall foliage colour is stunning.

Speaking of witch hazels, the hamamelis family (zone 6) is still in bloom, and the selection of varieties today is amazing from shades of yellow, orange and red to amethyst. I prefer the yellow varieties for their delightful perfume, and pollinators like them for their nectar.

 Hummingbirds love King Edward VII flowering currant.

The starting gun for hummingbird season is the red flowering currant, Ribes sanguineum ‘King Edward VII’ (zone 6). Depending on winter temperatures, its long, drooping flowers will begin blooming later in April, and they are hummingbird magnets.

This variety is fairly shade tolerant, allowing for more versatility in planting sites. In colder areas, the native alpine currant Ribes alpinum is hardy to zone 2.  It’s a must have for anyone wanting to introduce more native plants into a garden.

Flowering quince are just about to open. Chaenomeles (zone 6), with their vibrant red, pink or white blooms, are particularly loved by pollinators.  I like to espalier them against a wall or fence for a spectacular look year-round, but especially so once the apple-like fruits form in summer.

Kerria japonica (zone 5), with their single or double yellow flowers are just budding up and will provide a vibrant April and May pop of colour.  They, too, are on the hot list for pollinator favourites.

As the seasons progress, many more flowering shrubs, perennials, annuals and trees will be producing both nectar and pollen, but it’s now, early in the year, when it is most important to have some of these plants in our gardens to help sustain emerging populations of pollinators.

As the blossoms of our small fruits and fruit trees begin to open, we will appreciate the role pollinators play and the hard work they do to provide us with fruit.

There are still mason bees available.  So, if you can, introduce them into your garden as well.

With many stores closed at this time, it may not be possible to get these amazing plants until later in the season, but consider finding a spot for them, both for their beauty and for their nectar and pollen.


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Brian Minter: Tips to get going on growing your own food

Vegetables and herbs can be grown in containers.

With all the uncertainty these days around almost everything we do, many more folks are planning to grow their own food this year, especially vegetables.

The good news is that growing veggies can be done not only in traditional gardens but also very successfully in containers and raised beds as long as you have a space that gets full or partial sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. If you don’t get a lot of sun, you can still grow crops, but leafy vegetables like lettuce, spinach and Swiss chard will fare better.

Along with many products today, there’s been a bit of panic buying on seeds. In speaking with some of the major seed companies, I have been told there is no shortage of seeds, but there may be a delay in shipping. The usual popularity of some varieties may require restocking or substitutions could be made.

In addition, many local growers are shifting from ornamental production to more food items. Because of this, there will be a good supply of transplant seedlings of peas, beans, all brassicas and lettuce, as well as root crops, like beets, onions and carrots, throughout the growing season. The same goes for later seedlings of tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers.

Perhaps one of the greatest concerns is when to start our vegetable gardens. Planting too early can be a problem, especially for heat-loving vegetables like tomatoes and cucumbers. Early in the season it’s colder, wetter and there is always the chance of a night frost. As well, it’s a time when insects, slugs and birds are also looking for early food.

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that it’s better to err on the side of being a little late rather than too early. Remember, right now we get a minute and a half more light each day, and the sun is warmer as its rays edge northward in our planet’s seasonal cycle.

For cool-loving crops I wait until we get a consistent daytime temperature of 10 C, even though it can still get closer to freezing at night. Crops, like onions, brassicas (such as kale, cauliflower, cabbage and broccoli), beets, early potatoes, peas, broad beans, radishes, spinach, Swiss chard and perennial herbs can tolerate the cool weather.

Using a row cover like Reemay cloth, at night when it’s clear and cold will keep the young sprouts somewhat protected from frost.  If a heavy frost is forecast, use N-Sulate, a 10 C-rated frost protection blanket. Garden beds that are raised eight to 10 inches will keep soil temperatures five to six degrees warmer.

Open, porous, well-draining soils are far better for an early start. Mixing in as much organic matter as possible will make a big difference, especially once the weather warms up.  Composted manures and Sea Soil are great, and provide much needed nutrients to get early veggies off to a good start.

Container food gardening is growing rapidly and, done well, it can be just as productive as ground planting.  A few tips, however, can make a big difference.

Large rectangular containers (3 to 4 ft long, 18 inches deep and wide), are best. You can purchase them or make your own wooden ones. I also like to secure a 6 to 8-ft trellis to the back of the container so vines like peas, beans, cucumbers and even tomatoes, can be trained up for better light and air circulation.

The best soils are lightweight mixes, especially on balconies where weight can be an issue.  Sunshine, Sungrow and ProMix bales are the most effective as complete soil mixes. There are many other products, but make sure you get a container mix and not a cheaper topsoil. I always like to work in a little composted organic matter, like Sea Soil.

Today, many vegetable varieties are bred specifically for container growing, but some of our traditional compact veggies are also ideal. Seeds can also be started in containers, but transplants will save you four to six weeks in production time.

There is still lots of time for direct seeding of cold crops.

Longer, heat-loving crops like tomatoes and peppers should be started soon in your home or in a small greenhouse.  Remember, if you start your seeds indoors, there must be a continuous process of moving steadily though the stages of germination, transplanting, acclimatization to the outdoors and finally planting.

No heat-loving vegetables, like peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, melons and eggplants should go outside until we get consistent night temperatures of 10 C, which usually happens towards the end of May. Don’t start heat-lovers too early or you’ll have long, legging plants that may not do well.

Fortunately, many of our B.C. and Canadian seed catalogues give approximate times for seeding indoors. They also give the best times to direct seed vegetables outside.

When we get a few nice days in late March and early April, many of us are anxious to get growing, but if you wait until late April or May, both for seeding and transplanting, I guarantee you will have far better success.

The goal is to have a very productive and successful garden — therefore garden wisdom is paramount.

There is lots of time, lots of seeds and lots of transplants available. I rarely have time to plant my own veggie garden until the end of June, and I always have good success. So don’t panic.

Even though these are stressful days, you should still be able to enjoy a summer full of produce from your own garden or patio.


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The Home Front: Sorting out the patio for spring

Bar cart from HomeSense used to arrange plants at different height levels, which creates dimension and scale.

Mid-March is usually the time of year when people start taking a good hard look at their patios and balconies and dreaming up the possibilities for the months ahead. Being honest about what worked last spring, summer and fall, in terms of potted plants, furnishings and decor is usually a good place to start, says landscape designer Janis Matson, of Shoreline Landscape Design .

“I always start with a clean up and reorganization. Decide what looks good. Are there any stains or cracks to repair? Think about the design, do I want a little more privacy? Do I keep this umbrella? Do I even need this umbrella?” says Matson.

 Patio design by hardscape specialists Belgard.

Often at this time of the year Matson says she finds herself drifting into HomeSense and Winners to see if they have any “fun gardening stuff” like table centrepieces, beautiful bowls or character pieces like obelisks .

A common mistake people often make with their patios and balconies, says Matson, is lining up all their potted plants around the edge, like a border.

“It makes spaces feel smaller,” she says.

 Choosing wide shallow pots for permanent planting is the way to go says landscape designer Janis Matson.

From a planting perspective, you want some movement and air circulation around your pots, she says, so shoving them up against glass railings, fence lines or partitions  is the worst thing you can do for them.

From a visual perspective, she says, it makes the area feel boxed in, so you’re far better off creating some dimension and scale in this space by placing pots at different heights, and this clustered effect more closely resembles nature.

“Pick up a cheap little table that you like and put one of the containers on it, so it’s maybe two feet off the ground, and then you can put another bigger one on the ground beside it and a little one on the right hand side,” she says.

A lot of people try and screen off their patios, says Matson, to avoid looking at construction or busy streets, but there is a better way to do this that doesn’t involve a physical block, says Matson, and that’s by creating something visually appealing on your patio, which draws the eye to it and away from whatever you’re not wanting to look at.

 Floral photography by landscape designer Janis Matson, who says people definitely have “itchy fingers” at this time of the year, and are keen to begin planting.

“When I walk out onto a patio I consider: What’s my first view? Where’s my light coming from? Where am I naturally looking? Where would I rather look?” she says.

A beautiful hanging trellis, or an architectural piece can work wonders, she says.

One tip Matson always shares with her clients, she says, is make sure you choose a wide enough pot for permanent planting (for seasonal plants it doesn’t matter so much).

“A permanent container needs to be a minimum of 18 inches wide, because in containers — when we have these wicked winters that freeze the daylights out of us — soil is the key to root establishment, so the more volume we can have the more root establishment,” she says.

Typically plants only want about eight inches of depth, she says, so the “massive rectangular or square containers” (think tall and lean) that look great and are currently very popular are not the best for permanent planting, she says.

“Plants will never use the bottom two feet so go for shallow and wider,” says Matson.

Something people should also consider, she says, if using heavy pots on their patios, is the weight restrictions of their patios or balconies.

“Patios are engineered for a certain amount of weight, and if you put a very large ceramic container full of soil and plant you’re probably looking at 300 pounds for that one plant,” she says.

If your patio or balcony has part shade, some great options for plants in pots are: Hostas, Hakonechloa grass, Geranium macrorrhizum, Helleborus orientalis, Japanese maples – acer palmatum and Full moon maples, says Matson. And if you have a sunny patio or balcony, she recommends: Dwarf hinoki cypress, Blue star juniper, Munstead lavender, Oregano, Moonbeam coreopsis, May night salvia, Autumn joy sedum, Blueberries, Alpine strawberries and veggies.

“Blueberries do quite well in containers and there’s some really nice alpine strawberries,” she says.


The Home Front: Now’s the time to start planning for spring planting

Master gardener Stephanie Rose, author of blog Garden Therapy and new book out Garden Alchemy.

We often hear about the therapeutic benefits of gardening . That it gets you outdoors, into the fresh air, is meditative in practice, physical in nature and rewarding when you reap what you sow. Master gardener Stephanie Rose, author of blog Garden Therapy and her just released book Garden Alchemy goes one step further. Gardening saved her life, she says.

In 2006, Rose says she was struck with a debilitative illness that left her bedridden for over a year, with paralysis in her arms and legs. When she regained some movement she began reading books on gardening, borrowed from her local library, and contemplating her East Vancouver backyard.

 Herb planter

“I went outside and sat and looked at the plants, and looked at the soil and thought I’m going to recover out here,” she says.

Five minutes of gardening a week turned into five minutes a day and when she finally recovered from her illness — which took years — Rose says she realized she didn’t want to stop gardening or writing about it. She wanted to help others experience the same benefits she has.

“Even if someone is just feeling the winter blues, or having a bad day, or experiencing grief, loss or mental illness, it can be helped by playing with plants,” she says.

Rose is drawn to plants that have healing properties, she says, although she believes all plants are healing.

“Instead of planting ornamental perennial plants , trees and shrubs, I’m including plants that have either medicinal, culinary or skin care benefits, she says. So lots of different types of herbs, like four different types of calendulas, four different types of camomiles, and different types of stevia plants,” she says.

 Hydrangeas in the garden of Stephanie Rose.

February and March are the best months to start planning for spring planting, whether you have an acreage or patio to work with, says Janis Matson, of Shoreline Landscape Design.

You have to be careful not to rip into the soil while it’s still cold or saturated (from rainfall) as you can do root damage, but preparing the soil, by adding fertilizers or manure, can be done at any time, she says. And though many people are tempted to pull everything dead looking out of their gardens, and start over, it is actually worth waiting to see what plants will come back to life given a bit of time.

About 50 to 75 per cent of plants will come back to life, says Matson. “A lot of people see black leaves and think the plant is dead. I don’t want them to think that yet. Wait until April and see if any of that green comes back. The roots will be established.”

March is also a good time to visit the nursery.”Most of the nurseries start getting in their fresh stock by the end of March, beginning of April, so let’s say for example you want to create an English cottage garden, it’s an ideal time for selection. Fruit trees and small fruits like strawberries, blueberries, grapes, apples, they start coming in late March and April, so for selection it’s a good time,” she says.

 Potting soil tests

Though this is also the time people traditionally want to clean up their gardens, says Rose, by disposing of any fallen foliage, leaves or garden waste, it is actually better for your garden if you leave it; following a more “regenerative” model.

“Nature has intended these plants drop their leaves and compost in place to feed the soil so the next generation of plants can grow. If we learn to do it that way we’re going to garden with a lot less work and a lot more success and a lot less stress. It’ll cost less money, take  less time and we’ll also have much more beautiful gardens,” she says.