Origins of Cannabis

Origins of Cannabis

by Jim Hole

I’ve always been fascinated by the science of plants. It’s the main reason why I studied plant science at university.

But during those university days, I didn’t believe that cannabis would ever become legal in Canada. Cannabis was, basically, just fodder for a lot of jokes with my friends. I spent a lot of time on the science of how to kill weeds grow rather than how to grow weed!

Well, fast forward to 2018 and the legalization of adult-use cannabis has come and gone. Now a lot of my time is spent talking about the science of cannabis and answering questions about this fascinating plant. And the people who want to know more about cannabis are in one of two camps: those who use it—or plan on using it—and those who just want to know more about it.

So, whether you are pro-cannabis, anti-cannabis or cannabis “neutral”, here is a little bit of a primer on the heritage and character of this fascinating plant.

Species of Cannabis

When it comes to the cannabis family, plant scientists aren’t unanimous on its region of origin, nor the number of species that are under the cannabis umbrella. However, evidence suggests that a somewhat scrawny central Asian plant called Cannabis ruderalis was the ancestor of modern cannabis. And likely, it gave rise to two species: Cannabis sativa and Cannabis Indica.

C. sativa, generally, has thinner leaves and is taller than C. indica, and takes longer to reach full maturity while C.indica has rather broad leaves and has a squatty-er stature.

To make things a bit more complicated many plant taxonomists argue that there really is only one species of cannabis, not two or three. And to take the family story a bit further, both C. indica and C. sativa have been so highly interbred that just about every cannabis plant is a genetic blend of the two species. Often the best one could say about most individual cannabis plants is that they are either “sativa dominant” or “indica dominant.”

Still, I suspect that most people really don’t care much about botanical classifications and prefer a more pragmatic division: Psychoactive Drug containing cannabis and non-psychoactive drug containing cannabis. Therefore, any cannabis plant that is very low in psychoactive compounds (less than 0.3% of the plants weight here in Canada) is just referred to as hemp. Everything else is cannabis!

Now, that the classification is somewhat clearer, I’d be remiss if I didn’t explore the fascinating sex life of cannabis! It’s not just interesting but also essential for growers to understand how they reproduce.

Cannabis Reproduction

Many people are surprised to learn that there are male and female cannabis plants. Plant species that have both male and female plants aren’t all that common in the plant world but it obviously works well for cannabis. While the vast majority of plants generate “perfect” flowers with both male and female reproductive structures contained within each flower, cannabis is dioecious, meaning that it produces separate female and male plants. And in the world of cannabis, it’s the female plants that are prized for their high concentrations of psychoactive and medicinal compounds.

Male plants are strictly used for breeding and although they synthesize the same compounds as the female plants, their yield is dramatically lower. Male plants are removed from production facilities the moment they can be identified. Of course, male plants are critical for pollinating females—if a superior seed variety is the goal—but beyond reproduction requirements males are not wanted anywhere near female plants… pollen is not welcome!

Another really interesting trait that cannabis shares with a number of plants is day length sensitivity. Cannabis is an “obligate short day” plant which means that it requires a number of consecutive days where the hours of uninterrupted darkness is equal to or longer that the hours of daylight.

If cannabis plants are exposed to days that are longer than the nights, they will continue to grow bigger, but not flower. Once the nights are longer than the days, the flowering cycle is “triggered” and flowers will form in a few days. A familiar plant that shares this trait day length sensitivity is the poinsettia.

This is just a taste of what I will be exploring with cannabis in the weeks to come and I’ll do my best to “weed out” the facts and the fiction about cannabis (sorry, couldn’t resist!)

Poinsettias Are For the Birds

Poinsettias Are For the Birds

by Jim Hole

No question, poinsettias are incredibly showy plants. The poinsettia’s Latin name Euphorbia pulcherrima alludes to its gorgeous display, pulcherrima means beautiful in Latin.

But the truth is that the flowers really aren’t all that spectacular. Instead, it’s the large colourful leaves called bracts that catch our eye and get us in the Christmas spirit. The poinsettia’s real flowers are the tiny, yellow structures located at the central hub of each cluster of bracts—nice, but I wouldn’t describe them as spectacular.

Still, beauty is in the eye of he beholder, and from a poinsettia’s perspective our judgment of its flowers is irrelevant. The only judges poinsettias really care about are birds—hummingbirds to be specific.

In the wild (i.e. the regions of Central America and Mexico) hummingbirds seek out poinsettias. These tiny birds feed on the sugar-rich nectar produced by the flowers and inadvertently spread poinsettia pollen when flitting from plant to plant. This dispersal of pollen transfers each individual plant’s genes far and wide, ensuring that there will be future generations of poinsettias (some insects do transfer pollen but they play a much smaller role).

A White-bellied Sunbird (a relative of hummingbirds) perches on a wild poinsettia

A White-bellied Sunbird (a relative of hummingbirds) perches on a wild poinsettia

However, before hummingbirds will deign to visit poinsettias, the plants must undertake a splashy advertising campaign. Since the flowers are small they don’t catch the bird’s eyes, so poinsettias have cleverly adapted and modified some of their upper leaves to display bright-red pigments.

This advertising strategy works because all birds have a keen sense of colour; not that far removed from our own. Also, since birds, including hummingbirds, don’t have much of a sense of smell, poinsettias don’t waste their time producing aromatic compounds. In fact, most bird-pollinated flowers have little fragrance for this vary reason.

But if poinsettias depend on their bright red bracts to attract hummingbirds, one might ask “why do white poinsettias exist then?” Even though a poinsettia’s normal bract colouration is red, occasionally, a plant will mutate and produce pigment-deficient bracts. Normally, this would spell doom, reproductively speaking, since hummingbirds tend to ignore white bracts. But whenever a poinsettia sprouts a mutation—white or otherwise—we humans find the beauty of these new types irresistible and begin propagating them.

So while hummingbirds might find white poinsettias uninspiring, there are a lot of people who love them—me included. White poinsettias don’t last too long in the wild but they do just fine with the help of amateur and professional plant breeders.

— Jim Hole

Houseplants: Energy-Free Humidifiers


During the dry, cold months of winter, you can easily and naturally improve your indoor air and climate with houseplants! 

Not only do houseplants clean the air, but they also emit more than 90% of their water into the air via the stomata in their leaves. Plants that need a lot of water—such as fig trees, azaleas and hydrangeas—are particularly effective humidifiers. That said, all houseplants will add humidity, so fill your home or office with your favourites!

Increasing the humidity level in your home with plants also decreases the number of dust particles floating around in your home.

Dust particles are frequent carriers of pollutants; with an increase in humidity levels, the dust particles become heavier and settle onto surfaces, making them easier to clean up. This is extra important in offices where the ventilation fans of computers constantly blow dust into the air. 

When you have a proper humidity level in your home or office, you not only live healthier and feel more comfortable but you can also save on heating costs! How? Well, studies show that we unconsciously perceive living and working areas as warmer and cosier when the humidity levels are higher.

In summary, houseplants are not just for looks: they are important additions to making your home or workplace a healthy environment. 

Remembering Uncle Jim

I would like to thank everyone for their kind words about my uncle, Jim Hole, who passed away last week. He was the youngest of nine children in the Hole family, and he and my father, Ted Hole, were very close.

jim jf hole.jpg

As many people are well aware, Uncle Jim was a great leader in our community and he loved his home city of Edmonton. Anyone who got to know him quickly learned that he was a smart and astute businessman and that he also had a very keen sense of humour.

Uncle Jim loved to tell me that when people thought that he was the “gardening guy” from St. Albert, he would gladly provide them with advice on how to grow plants even though he was a professional engineer and not really a plant person!

Uncle Jim was truly one of the greats and he will be deeply missed by his friends, family, and the community at large. But exceptional people like Uncle Jim are never forgotten. I will deeply miss his kindness, generosity, and sense of humour, but his legacy will endure for eternity.

-Jim Hole

Plant Easy-To-Grow Garlic Now

By Lois Hole

Love it or hate it, almost everyone knows the taste of garlic but few people realize how easy it is to grow.

Over the years, we have discovered that the secret of growing the largest garlic bulbs is to plant in late August for a harvest the following year. These plants need a long growing season - five to six months - in order to mature to a good size. You can also plant garlic in spring but the earlier, the better. They will not be harmed if the weather turns cold again; garlic can freeze and still grow when the weather warms.

Each clove of garlic grows into a bulb containing 10 to 20 cloves. The largest cloves produce the largest bulbs, so save the small cloves for use in the kitchen. Plant only the firm healthy cloves.

Garlic is so easy to plant as it is to grow. Separate bulbs into cloves and choose a sunny site in the garden. Simply push each clove into the ground to about the depth of your second knuckle, firm the soil around it and water. The pointed end must be up, or it will not grow.

If you’re planting in rows, allow two to three inches between cloves. Try to find a spot where garlic or other members of the onion family were not recently grown.

The cloves can also be planted in a flowerbed by poking in amongst growing plants. Garlic takes up little space while growing and its tall, onion-like leaves add interest. It has been reported that roses benefit from interplanting with garlic, but I have found that the garlic plants are often the ones that do better. This is most likely due to the sunny location and constant watering and fertilizing that roses usually receive.

Garlic is, however, reputed to be a good companion to other plants for its insect-repelling qualities. Scientists have been unable to prove this, but they do know that garlic naturally contains some fungicidal chemicals and feeding deterrents. A woman I know plants garlic throughout her vegetable garden and tucks a few plants in her flowerbeds. She uses no insecticides and has very few problems with bugs. I am sure that one of the reasons is the interplantings of garlic.

In the spring when leaves begin to grow, fertilize the plants with a high nitrogen fertilizer (fertilizers are labeled with three numbers- the first indicates the percentage of nitrogen.) Pull out any weeds to reduce competition for moisture and nutrients.

When flowerstalks appear next summer, nip them off to allow the plant to devote more energy to the developing bulbs. Use the flowers for a pretty and zesty addition to salads and vegetable dishes.

Allow tops to fall over on their own. Bending them down in late summer can cause new shoots to form and delay rather than promote early maturity. Stop watering the plants toward the end of August. Allowing the soil to dry out around the maturing bulbs will improve storage quality.

Dig the plants out and leave them on top of the ground for several days if weather is warm and dry; otherwise, allow the plants to dry in a warm, dry basement or garage. The roots can be rubbed off when dry if you like although it is not necessary.

Once your garlic plants have become extremely dry, store them in braids or bunches, or cut off the stems about two to three inches above the bulbs. Do not wash or separate cloves until you are ready to use them. Store the majority on slatted shelves or screens.

In the kitchen, keep a small supply of bulbs in a wire basket, garlic pot, or any container that allows air circulation. Do not keep garlic in the refrigerator as humid conditions cause bulbs to sprout.

To make garlic easier to peel, press against it with the flat side of a knife. And one of the best ways to counteract ‘garlic breath’ is by chewing a sprig of fresh parsley immediately after eating.

Fall Savings on Spring Flowers

Fall Savings on Spring Flowers

By Lois Hole

One of the best ways to save money on spring-flowering bulbs is to choose top-quality varieties that naturalize.

Bulbs that naturalize spread from a single plant into many, producing more flowers each year from a single planting. Species-type tulips, for example, do this, while hybrid tulips tend to fade out after a few years, and new ones need to be added in order to continue the spring floral show. Species tulips, on the other hand, will spread to the extent that eventually you may want to divide and replant some of them in another area of the garden.

Hardiness is another factor to keep in mind. All crocuses naturalize, but the large-flowering Dutch types will not survive unless provided with a protected location in the garden, such as in a east or west-facing bed against the house. The early-blooming wild crocuses, however, can be planted anywhere in the yard. The species Chrysanthus often blooms while snow still reamins in shaded areas of the garden.

Daffodils and narcissus also naturalize. Keep in mind, though, that with novelty types with pink, ruffled or double blooms, you are trading stunning flowers for hardiness. The small-flowered, rock-garden types of narcissus are also very hardy, and have fragrant, long-lasting blooms.

Offset Cheery, bright yellow daffodils with the blue flowers of grape hyacinths (Muscari) and Star-of-Bethlehem (Ornithogalum umbellatum). Star-of-Bethlehem bears dense clusters of white or blue starry flowers on long-stems.

Squills are another hardy spring delight. Siberian Squills (Scilla) survive for years and years, and march through the garden with clusters of star-shaped, intensely blue flowers on thin stems.

The Striped or Lebanon Squill (Puschkinia) is a striking bulb with clusters of bluish-white flowers that hug its stems. Thin stripes of bright blue divide each petal.

The Checkered Lily (Fritillaria meleagris) has extravagantly checkered flowers in bronze, rose or white. This bulb is also known as the Snake’s Head Lily, for its slender, twisted stems rising about narrow leaves, like snakes dancing to a charmer’s tune. When the solitary flowers appear, the stems straighten out, and the flowers nod above like large bells, with their distinctive checkered pattern resembling that of snake skin.

The earliest bloomers are Snow drops (Galanthus), white flowers nodding above grassy clumps of leaves; Snowflakes (Leucojum), small, delicately-scented, white bells nodding flowers with petal tips spotted bright green; Glory-of-the-Snow (Chionodoxa), stalks of tiny flower clusters in pink, solid white or white-eyed blue; and Winter Aconite (Eranthis), usually the earliest of all, with yellow buttercup-like flowers that pave the garden in sunshine almost overnight.

Plant your bulbs now (September), to allow them time to grow roots before winter’s cold sets in. In a warm year, bulbs can successfully be planted until fairly late fall, but the later that you leave it, the more chance you are taking with the weather. Be sure to water well when planting late.

Bulbs tend to look most natural and produce a more spectacular splash of colour in odd numbered groups of five to ten or more, and in clumps or drifts rather than straight lines.

As a rule of thumb, plant bulbs three times the depth of their height, and twice their diameter apart. For example, bulbs which are two inches (5 cm (high and one inch (2.5 cm) across, should be planted six inches (15 cm) deep, measured from the base of the bulb, with two inches (5 cm) between each bulb. The pointed end must be up or they will not grow.

Mix in 1 tsp of Earth Alive Soil Activator and 1 tbsp of Bone Meal into each planting hole when setting in the bulbs to help roots become established more quickly.

In late spring, allow foliage to wither and die back, as that is when the bulbs are storing the energy that they need in order to bloom the following season. Give them an added boost with a shot of water-soluble fertilizer with a high middle number, such as 10-52-10. Use other plants such as daylilies or irises to hide the withering leaves.

Houseplants Clean Indoor Air

Houseplants Clean Indoor Air

Lois Hole

As winter time nears, doors and windows of most homes are well sealed and tightly shut against the cold outdoors. Along with the cold, however, we are also keeping out fresh air. With so much more time spent indoors, the quality of the air within is more of a concern in the fall and winter.

Many homeowners are surprised when they realize the number of air-pollutants that are commonly found in most of our homes. New or newly-renovated houses especially, with their freshly painted walls and bran new carpeting, can have a high level of potentially harmful pollutants.

It is, however, fairly easy to compensate for that fact by simply filling your home with attractive houseplants. Studied by NASA have found that certain houseplants actually “clean” the air of harmful chemicals, such as benzene trichloroethylene and formaldehyde.

Benzene is a petroleum distillate commonly used as a solvent, and is found in gasoline, inks, oils, paint, plastic and rubber. It is also used in the manufacturing of detergents, pharmaceuticals and dyes.

Trichloroethylene is a commercial product used in some printing inks, paints, varnishes, adhesives and dry cleaning. Formaldehyde is found in virtually all indoor environments. Sources include foam insulation, particle board, pressed wood products, furniture and carpeting. It can also be found in grocery bags, waxed paper, facial tissue and paper towels.

Many common houseplants combat these pollutants. For a bright light situation, choose an attractive flowering plant. Both Pot Mums (Chrysanthemum) and Gerbera Daisies (Transvaal daisy) bloom in a variety of colours to brighten rooms as well as purify indoor air.

The Bamboo Palm (Chamaedorea siefritzii), English Ivy, Fig Tree (Ficus benjamina) and several types of Dracaena (Dracaena massangcana, Dracaena marginata, Dracaena ‘Janet Craig’, and Dracaena warneckei) are helpful, handsome plants that do best in a medium to bright diffused light.

Low light areas will support Chinese Evergreen (Aglaonema modestum), Peace Lily (Spathiphyllm ‘Mauna Loa’) and Mother-In-Law’s Tongue or Snake Plant (Sansevieria laurentii). The snake plant is one of the easiest houseplants to grow.

In almost any location, grow Spider Plants. These houseplants have green or variegated leaves and do well in bring or low light situations. The “spiders” that form on trailing stems can be repotted or simply plunked into a jar of water; they will grow for years- even with no soil.

The Container Grocery Store

The Container Grocery Store

Whether you’re a young couple that’s just starting out or a couple facing retirement, you know that you often have to stretch your budget to cover all of your expenses. You may need to move to larger accommodations, there’s furniture to buy, there may be student loans or a wedding to pay off. Well, you can cut a lot out of your budget, but everyone needs food to live that’s one cost you can’t eliminate. However, you can make a dent in your grocery bills by growing fruits, vegetables, and herbs in containers.

Containers are great because you can use them whether you’re living in an apartment or a house; plants will do just fine in containers perched on balconies or sitting on patios. Just make  sure to put them in a location where they’ll get as much sun as possible; vegetables need at least six hours of direct sunlight per day to develop properly, and herbs need five. A south-facing location is best, but if that’s not possible, a west-facing one is almost as good.

Vegetables growing on east- and north-facing balconies and patios will still provide some produce, but the yields won’t be as high. Herbs growing indoors should be cultivated close to the windows that get the most sunshine; it’s also important to grow them in high-humidity areas, like the kitchen.

Choosing the right pot is crucial. For vegetables, I never use pots smaller than 25 cm wide for container vegetable gardening; 30 cm wide is preferable. These plants need space to grow, and pots smaller than this just don’t provide enough volume. For materials, I prefer glazed ceramic, plastic, or fibreglass; all hold water well and are easier to handle than clay pots. Large hanging baskets and troughs are good choices for patio or balcony vegetable gardening, too; even whiskey half-barrels will work. I’ve seen people use all kinds of cheap but effective containers—old milk cans, toilets, bathtubs, trash cans, even washing machines. Just make sure that whatever container you choose has enough volume to provide the plant with enough room to grow. Herbs can be grown in pots that are slightly smaller, though; feel free to keep them in the 10 or 15 cm pots that you buy them in for a while. When they’re big enough, move them to larger pots or a trough. You can plant more than one plant in a large pot; stuffing half a dozen herbs into a 30 cm container or a long trough would be a fine way to grow them, as long as you’re careful not to mix aggressive herbs with the less competitive varieties.

Potting soil is the root medium of choice for potted plants, chiefly because it doesn’t compact like garden soil does—potted plants need rich, well-drained soil to promote healthy root growth. Potting soil has another advantage: it’s free of the soil-borne diseases and insect pests common to regular garden soil. I incorporate a controlled, time-release 14-14-14 fertilizer that will feed the plant for many weeks. This non-leaching fertilizer becomes a reservoir backup that prevents the plants from yellowing and cuts down on maintenance.

I always say that watering is the most important job a gardener has to do. It’s a simple task, but that doesn’t mean that it can be done without thought. Since containers can’t hold much water, you may need to soak your plants twice a day during heat waves—once, thoroughly, in the early morning and once more, if needed, in the evening. Hanging baskets should be checked more often for moisture; the wind can dry them out quickly. To seal in moisture and keep down weeds, you can cover the soil with a mulch of shredded bark. As for fertilizer—I usually just add a pinch of 20-20-20 to the pot each time I water and give the plants a heavier feeding once a week. All vegetables need these extra nutrients, especially heavy feeders like tomatoes and cucumbers, so don’t skimp.

Speaking of tomatoes and cucumbers, just what kinds of plants should you be growing in containers? I’ve drawn up a list, and there are a couple of products that merit special attention.

The first of these is mesclun. This is a mixture of “instant salads” created by the French that’s really catching on in North America. The idea is wonderfully simple: a number of different greens are grown together in one pot. Sound complicated? It isn’t. All you have to do is buy a packet of mesclun seed, sow into a container, and watch the greens spring up. Every two or three weeks, when the plants reach a few inches in height, all you have to do is take a pair of scissors out, cut off the greens, and throw them into a salad bowl. You should leave about two inches of growth in the pot, since mesclun can be harvested several times. Over the course of a growing season, you can expect to harvest five or six meals—meals big enough to feed three or four people, so plan to invite another couple over each time you harvest.

The second item of note is the potato barrel, a British invention that I think is the best way to grow container potatoes. It’s a Victorian style barrel made of polymer with sliding “windows.” Instead of digging up the soil to harvest the potatoes, all you need to do is slide open a window, reach in, grab the spuds, and slide the window shut. Sweet potatoes or other tubers can be grown in this innovative device, too.

There are other benefits to growing your own vegetables. For one thing, there’s something very arresting about vegetables growing in containers; they make great conversation pieces, especially for repeat visitors who can see the plants slowly come to fruition. Plants like cucumbers have long vines that can be trained to grow around balcony railings, adding some life to your apartment.

If you’re really adventurous, you can try growing peanuts on your balcony, or figs, dwarf lemons or limes, or even coffee indoors. These are novelty crops—you’ll be lucky to grow enough beans for one cup of coffee, for example—but they’re fun to have around. The most important thing is that you enjoy yourselves, whatever you choose to grow.

Vegetables (and one fruit) That Grow Well in Containers

Leaf lettuce
Bush-type melons (in large patio containers only)

Herbs That Grow Well in Containers

Try growing oregano, marjoram, thyme, and chives in the same container as your tomatoes—these plants grow quite well together, and broiled herb tomatoes make a delicious snack.

Edible Flowers That Grow Well in Containers

Daylily flowers—especially new multiple blooms, e.g. Stella d’Oro

The Office Jungle

The Office Jungle

A lot of us spend half of our waking hours in an office—often an office with drab walls and colourless furniture that creates claustrophobia. I always feel much more comfortable in an office that has a few plants in it. The simple beauty of plants is more than enough justification to fill the office with them.

Due to the nature of most working environments, plants in the office will almost always be grown in containers. Indoor container gardening requires procedures and planning a little different than regular outdoor gardening; for the best results, there are a few simple points to keep in mind.

First, choose containers that will match the office decor. Colour, shape, and size should complement, not compete with, other elements of the office design. Ceramic pots are an attractive choice; they’ll be at home in most office environments. Plastic is lightweight, durable,
and retains water well, but often the selection of styles and colours is somewhat limited.

Anything grown in containers should be planted in potting soil, not regular garden soil. Ordinary soil gets packed solid in containers, which can choke roots; potting soil is looser, giving roots room to breathe. Since potting soil is actually a soilless mix, it’s free of most soil-borne diseases common to garden soil.

Careful attention needs to be paid to the feeding and watering of office foliage. Most indoor plants like a dose of 20-20-20 fertilizer once every two weeks during the growing season. During periods of slow growth or dormancy, fertilize at 1/2 rate every two to four weeks. At
Hole’s we often feed plants with Nature's Source 10-5-3.

Transplanted potted plants should be started off with 10-52-10 at a low concentration of 2.5 ml per litre of water, repeated every two weeks for up to one month. The high phosphorus content (represented by the middle number in 10-52-10) is important for root development.

Different plants have different watering requirements; check with your garden centre when you buy the plants to find out the particulars. In general, the most important thing to remember is to prevent the plants from drying out. Consistent watering is much better for the plant than droughts followed by overwatering. For most indoor plants, wait until the soil surface is dry; then water thoroughly, enough so that the excess starts to flow out of the pot’s drain holes. On a related note, most indoor plants require high humidity. If the office is dry, pots should be placed in water-filled trays that have a layer of pebbles for the pot to rest on. (This prevents the water from entering through the pot’s drainage holes and saturating the soil.) The water from the tray will evaporate over time and raise the humidity level of the area around the plant.

Indoor plants are often prone to attack from insect pests. To combat this, you may have to spray with insecticidal soap every so often.Plants should be checked regularly for bugs to prevent them from being overwhelmed. Plants with smooth foliage should be syringed or gently rinsed once a month to get rid of dust and grime; buildup of these materials can inhibit plant respiration. Larger plants with sturdy leaves can be wiped with a damp cloth or sponge. For stubborn dust, try a very weak tea solution; it will keep the foliage nice and shiny.

It’s important to choose the right spots for your plants. All plants need some sunlight, even if it’s indirect; try giving them spots near windows, or be prepared to supplement natural light with grow lights. If you use hanging baskets, avoid spots where they could interfere with foot traffic or access to supplies. Plants should never be placed to close to machines like computers or photocopiers; these devices give out heat that dries out plants very quickly. There’s also some danger to the machines; it’s not difficult to imagine spilling some water or fertilizer into a delicate piece of office equipment while tending to the plants. Drafty spots need to be avoided, too; air movement will dry out plants, so avoid spots next to air conditioners or fans.

Probably the most important decision you have to make is what to plant. Are you more interested in bright splashes of colour, or low maintenance? You might not have a good deal of time to invest in your office garden—in that case, look at choosing low-maintenance plants like cacti. You might even want to grow a few herbs to add some zing to those bag lunches or microwaveable soups.

Before you buy any plants for the office, do a survey of your coworkers to discover their preferences—some might have allergies, so this too must be taken into consideration. It’s also a good idea to know who will be responsible for the plants; indoor plants need consistent, regular care. Watering, fertilizing, checking for insects—none of these tasks can be ignored while the primary caregiver is on a two-week vacation, so it might be necessary to select only low-maintenance plants.

Whether you choose a simple cactus or an indoor palm, a single pot or a dozen, plants bring a touch of nature to the office that makes work a lot less stressful.

Office Plant Varieties

There are a staggering number of plants suitable for office use. Here’s a breakdown of some of the popular varieties.

Plants for low maintenance • For offices on the go, there are several choices • cacti, Sansevieria (Snake Plant, Mother-in-Law’s tongue), spider plants, Bromeliads, Aspidstra (Cast Iron Plant, Barroom Plant), and succulents (aloe, jade plant, burro’s tail) are but a few. Plants in terrarriums require very little maintenance after the initial setup; terrarriums may be the best choice of all for some hectic offices.

Plants for fragrance • Jasmine, Gardenia, and Stephanotis all have lovely fragrances, but they require careful attention; if you must have fragrance in the office, be prepared to spend some extra time looking after them.
Plants for colour • Poinsettias, Crotons, and Pot mums all add bright splashes of colour to the office.
Plants for low light levels • For spaces that receive no direct sunlight or are more than 3 metres away from windows or skylights, there are a number of tropical plants that can adapt to this kind of environment. Asparagus fern, Aspidistra, Chinese evergreen, Kentia Palm, Neanthe Bella Palm, Peace Lily, and Sansevieria are all good choices.
Non-tropicals • Herbs are great for flavouring, and they also make attractive greenery. Make sure they’re placed in an area with plenty of light.
Holiday plants • Easter lilies and poinsettias are lovely additions to the office, and can be enjoyed for longer than just the duration of the holidays. Easter lilies only last three or four weeks, but properly maintained poinsettias bought in December are known to provide colourful leaves until May.
Plants for desktops • African Violets are perfect for desktops—they’re small, easy to care for, and grow well under artificial light.

Raised Bed Gardening

Raised Bed Gardening

By Lois Hole

If there’s one thing about gardening that I don’t like, it’s the sore knees and back I sometimes get after stooping over my plants for a while. Fortunately, there’s a technique that can take some of the pain out of gardening—and it’s an especially great way to make the joy of gardening more accessible to seniors and the handicapped. It’s called raised-bed gardening, and the idea is simple: plants are grown in beds that are lifted to a height that makes it possible to garden from a seated or standing position.

It’s easy to create a raised bed. First, figure out a comfortable height for the bed. If the gardener uses a wheelchair, the bed should be approximately 76 cm high for ease of access. This is also a good height for gardeners who find it easier to work while seated. If you think you’d like to work standing up, about 90 cm would be a good height. The other dimensions are up to you; width and depth are dependent upon how much space you have in your yard, garden, or greenhouse. Just make sure that you don’t make your beds too wide to reach the middle without straining.

Alternatively, you could combine raised-bed gardening with square-foot gardening. Square-foot gardening is an orderly way of growing plants in a small space. The garden is divided into blocks, 4 feet on a side. Within each block are 16 one foot square areas; a different plant is planted in each square. One square, for example, might contain one tomato plant, while another might be home to 8 carrots.

Once you have decided on the dimensions of your raised bed, you need to select materials. Old tires, wooden blocks, bricks—all would make good walls for a raised bed. Arrange the building blocks in the pattern you’ve decided on (a simple square is the most common, and it’s the obvious choice for square-foot gardening) and fill up the empty space with a light peat moss/soil mixture. It’s important to use potting soil rather than regular garden soil for raised beds; potting soil has better drainage, won’t get packed, and warms up faster than garden soil. It also contains fewer weeds and soil-borne diseases.

The difference between caring for plants in an ordinary garden and caring for those in a raised bed is slight. Water regularly, early in the day; fertilize according to the needs of specific varieties (this is especially important when you use potting soil); and weed when they become a problem. Indeed, one of the nice things about raised beds is that since they are containerized, weeds are less of a problem than they are in traditional gardens. Those that do appear are easily taken care of with that indispensible tool, the garden fork. Raised-beds are just one way of showing that gardening is open to everybody.

Gardening Safety

Gardening Safety

By Lois Hole

Gardens aren’t terribly dangerous places, but there is no place on Earth that is completely free of danger. Taking a few simple precautions to protect you and your family can provide a lot of peace of mind.

Sun Protection

Everyone is sensitive to the ultraviolet radiation of the sun, so make sure that you’re properly prepared for the outdoors to avoid sunburns. A hat is essential. Long sleeves are best for sun protection, but the heat may make this impractical; if so, use sunblock with an SPF of 15 or higher. Apply frequently and generously, as sunblock can be diluted by perspiration. Sunglasses will protect your eyes, but only if they capable of filtering out at least 96% of UV radiation. Check the label! Make sure to protect yourself, too—adults can be sunburned just as seriously as children.

Lawn Safety Tips

Never mow in bare feet or reach into the exhaust chute to clear grass while the mower is running—this is just common sense, but I mention it again because too many people have lost fingers and toes to mower blades. I also recommend taking a quick walk over the lawn before mowing to clear any dangerous debris away; such debris can be hurled at high speed by a whirling mower blade. Believe it or not, I’ve seen people lifting up their mowers and using them to trim hedges and shrubs; this is not safe and should never be done. If you are using a riding mower, mow up and down slopes, not side to side; this way, you reduce the chances of rolling the mower.

Trimming can be just as dangerous as mowing; again, a pair of good shoes or boots can protect feet from the rapidly rotating nylon wire used in most trimmers. Eye protection should be worn, as well; trimmers have a tendency to fling gravel and soil around indiscriminately.

When applying herbicides to the lawn, read all instructions carefully. Some weedkillers are toxic and can cause skin irritation, so be careful when you spray.


Keep all pesticides out of the reach of children, preferably in a dark, dry, well-ventilated storage cabinet that you can lock. Read all package labels carefully and follow the manufacturer’s safety instructions to the letter. Make sure never to mix pesticides in containers
that someone might eat or drink out of, and mix the sprays outdoors for better ventilation.

The Right Equipment

Cost doesn’t always refer to money. Cheap equipment can be a real hazard in the garden, whether it’s a shoddy hoe that snaps off in your hand or a cheap garden tractor that breaks an axle. We’ve always been sure to buy the toughest, most reliable tools, even back when that meant we’d suffer a little short-term economic hardship. Using top-quality, well-maintained machines is one of the most important things you can do to ensure that your yard and garden are safe environments. Even if you’re buying something as seemingly simple as a lawnmower or hedge trimmer, quality tools can make an important contribution to your safety. Perhaps the best way to keep yourself and your family safe is to simply exercise common sense. If your instincts seem to be telling you that something you’re doing isn’t safe—follow them!

Teaching Kids to Grow

Teaching Kids to Grow

By Lois Hole

Every year, I give away thousands of Tiny Tim tomato plants to children
who visit the greenhouse with their parents. There are a couple of reasons why I do this: one, it keeps idle hands busy, and two, it gets kids excited about vegetables and gardening. After helping bring one of these plants to fruition, children are actually eager to eat the vegetables they’ve grown. Fresh vegetables are so much tastier than those bought at the store that your children may never develop the distaste for vegetables that so many kids have.

I think that it’s very important to be aware of every child’s initial level of interest in gardening. If all they want to do is water and watch the plant grow, for example, then let their involvement stop there. There’s no sense in trying to push. When my mother introduced me to gardening, she never forced me to weed or water. She let me discover the joy of gardening gradually. Children like to explore on their own, so give them the freedom to do as much or as little as they want to in the vegetable patch. Let them observe you as you weed or lay down mulch; curious children are sure to ask why you’re doing certain things. That’s your opportunity to give them a chance to try tasks out on their own.

You don’t have to give a child a tomato plant to start them down the garden path; any easy-to-grow vegetable with interesting characteristics will do.

Try kohlrabi; it’s probably the weirdest-looking vegetable around, with its otherworldly collection of stems growing from a green or purple globe. Raw kohlrabi tastes like water chestnuts, a light taste that won’t upset picky young taste buds. It’s also easy to grow.

Carrots are another good choice. They, too, are easy to grow, requiring minimal attention to produce a heavy yield of tasty vegetables. Pulling carrots out of the ground was a special joy of mine when I was a child; there’s something delightful about unearthing the long, orange roots.

If carrots aren’t of interest to your little ones, give peas a try. They are a little more difficult to grow, but in my experience, peas are the one vegetable that kids love to eat more than any other. It’s lots of fun to pry or snap open the pods to discover the sweet seeds within. Plus, their meandering growth habit is fascinating to watch, whether they sprawl over the earth or wind their way through a supportive trellis.

Pumpkins and squash are ideal choices for more patient young gardeners. The sprawling vines and huge leaves make finding the bounty quite a treasure hunt come harvest time; my grandchildren love to join me when I go out to track down the ripe fruits. Squash can grow so quickly that you could measure the fruit each day and see a real difference in size! Both pumpkins and squash require a lot of space, though, and they have a long growing season, so keep this in mind.

I know they’re not vegetables, but if you’ve got the space, sunflowers may be the best plants of all to have your children grow. We had dozens of sunflowers spring up in our garden this year; I just love them. The flowerheads are bright and beautiful, and kids can look forward to a harvest of delicious seeds. As an added bonus, these flowers also attract birds.

When I was a little girl in Buchanan, Saskatchewan, my mother set aside a space behind the house for me to grow some sunflowers. Before too long, the plants were much, much taller than I was—big beauties with flowers more than a foot across. Mom and Dad used
to cut off the flowerheads for me; I’d walk around with one of these huge things in my hand, eating seeds from it like I had a bag of peanuts. I got pretty good at cracking open the shells with my teeth, spitting them out, and swallowing the tasty seeds within.

Sunflowers are easy to grow. Seed can be sown in the early spring; just give them a sunny spot, water regularly, and watch them shoot up to the sky. Smaller varieties like Big Smile feature full-sized flowerheads on shorter, 1 m plants, making them more accessible to children.

There are many leisure activities open to kids today, and that’s a good thing. However, I can’t think of an activity that provides healthier, purer fun than vegetable gardening.

Plants I Recommend for Children’s Gardens

  • Beans

  • Carrots

  • Kohlrabi

  • Peas

  • Pumpkins

  • Squash

  • Sunflowers

  • Tomatoes

All the Garden Stages

All the Garden Stages

By Chris Hamilton

Stage One: Develop a Long-Term Plan

Designing and planning a landscape for your yard can be a daunting task. So much space to fill, but with what? Choosing from over 600 varieties of shrubs alone could take an entire summer! But don’t despair—the truth is, designing a great yardscape can be done within one day.

Growing the landscape, however, will take years. There are many aspects to consider: maintenance time, budgets, the presence of pets and children... for a yard that will last a lifetime, you need a long-term garden plan. Think of your yard as a changing, dynamic entity that evolves over time, rather than as a static creation that endures for years without change. As you age and the composition of your family changes, so too should your yard change.

Stage Two: Provide a Framework

I’ve done a lot of landscape designs for newlyweds and new homeowners, and whether they were moving into a new home or an older one, they always seemed to have some common desires: low maintenance, lots of colour, not a lot of lawn, no weeding, no pruning... demands that would make a seasoned gardener chuckle. In response to these suggestions I always want to say “Condos are nice...”

But seriously, the first thing to do is provide a framework for the yard. The first step in building that framework is get the big stuff in! A landscaper and his client have to decide on the best spot for the deck, the patio, a fire pit, pathways, large trees, swingsets, evergreens, and shrubs. Not all of these features will go in at the same time, but you should know where and when you will install them. Keep an eye out for powerlines and other potential obstructions. Map out shade patterns in the yard; that will give you an idea of where to put a shaded bench or the sun-loving annuals. One more tip: don’t pinch pennies when choosing building materials. You’re in this for the long haul, and remember that your return on investment for a well-landscaped yard is large—anywhere from 100-200%! Once you’ve decided where all of this stuff goes and when it’s going in, it’s on to the next stage.

Stage Three: Maintain a Great Lawn and Simple Yard

Some of the homes I visit are “owned” by kids. The parents are there too, of course, but the kids run the show! Keep their habits and needs in mind when growing your yard. Most yards aren’t too complicated at this point—a lot of lawn space is essential to provide ample room for horseplay. For the petunias’ sake, don’t plant between the goal posts! Your main jobs during this period will be mowing, fertilizing, watering, weeding, and pest control—routine tasks. Any plants you put in should be able to withstand a little damage from wayward kites, frisbees, etc.

Stage Four: Time to be Ambitious and Experimental

Once the kids are older (and able to do the mowing), there is generally more time for gardening. That’s a good thing, because this is also the stage where the yard requires more work to really look good—this is where true gardening often begins. The pleasure of weeding your prize rose garden, the amazement at the incredible size of your Atlantic Giant pumpkin, the heartbreak of fire blight on your apple tree...the garden is full of drama! Some grass can be removed to make room for perennial borders and beds, and perhaps a small vegetable garden. It might be a good time to add a gazebo or pond, since the kids are on hand to provide a little extra help. This is the best time for planting annuals—you still have lots of energy and there are plenty of hands around to help water and weed. (All joking aside, I’d always recommend encouraging, not forcing, kids to help in the garden—they’ll be far more enthusiastic if gardening is something they do by choice.)

Stage Five: Reduce the Workload

Soon enough, your babies are off to college, and the annuals have never looked better! It sure helps not having the soccer ball crushing the blossoms. As you struggle to pay the university bills, you might find that you have less time for gardening; annuals may become scarce in the yard, to be found only in pots; perennials continue to grow faithfully in established beds. Your children might be married by now, and they may have figured out that perennials can be divided. When they come knocking for your plants, make a deal—if they do some weeding, you’ll hand over your cuttings.

Stage Six: Relax and Enjoy Gardening

Finally, blissful retirement arrives. Nothing to do but putter around all day in the garden. Most of the “senior gardens” I lay out focus on low maintenance. That means fewer annuals, and perhaps a rock garden (or even a parking stall for the r.v.) in place of the vegetable garden. That deck you built back at stage one sure comes in handy now as you sit back, sipping on mint juleps while admiring your simple, but attractive, garden.

Herbs on the Balcony

Herbs on the Balcony

Herbs are perfect for balcony gardening. They’re easy to grow, many smell quite nice, and they provide ready-to-use flavours for your meals; just harvest them right out of the containers. The selection is almost unlimited; there’s mint, chives, basil, summer savoury, dill, lemon balm, coriander, parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme... the list goes on and on. There are a few important things to remember before cultivating herbs. For instance, most of them are quite
vigorous—especially mint, chives, and summer savoury. Because of this, I always keep each variety in its own container. Herbs should be grown in very clean soils with good drainage; high-quality potting soil is best. For basil, I recommend a soil-less mixture; there are fewer problems with disease when basil is grown in this medium. Basil is prone to a stem rot
that garden soils can encourage; clean soil can help prevent this occurrence.

To get the best herbs, I fertilize them with 20-20-20 once every two weeks. Of course, I keep my watering consistent to promote strong, even growth and to inhibit disease. Adding rich compost to the soil gives herbs (except basil!) a real boost, as well.

I always harvest soft new growth to promote branching in the plants, and produces a greater overall yield. When winter arrives, you can bring the smaller herbs like bay, basil, savory, chives, parsley, sweet marjoram, tarragon and sage indoors for year-round production. Just make sure that they receive at least 5 hours of direct sunlight per day (you will probably have to use grow lights in the dead of winter). Indoor herbs will be smaller than those grown outside, but they are still quite tasty and well worth cultivating. With containers full of fresh herbs at your disposal, you’ll have a blast preparing meals with an extra bit of dash.

Good Bugs. Bad Bugs.

Good Bugs. Bad bugs.

By Lois Hole

A lot of gardeners have a fit if they catch a glimpse of some creepy-crawly slithering over one of their plants. Not me. Not all bugs are vicious beasts intent on devastating your garden; the vast majority of insects are either beneficial or have no effect on humans. Of the 15,000 insect species that interact directly with humans, only 3,000 have been identified as pests, a definite minority. Knowing the difference between good and bad bugs can save you time, stress, and money.

Insects play an important role in Earth’s ecosystem. Here are just a few of the vital products and services insects provide: they pollinate many of our food crops; they break down dead, decaying matter; they help to keep soil healthy by aerating, decomposing, or adding nutrients; they serve as food for larger animals; and they provide silk, honey, shellac, and dyes. Insects are also important in research, acting as experimental objects in many fields, including genetics, physiology, ecology, and behavior. Clearly, we would be in real trouble without insects.

Good Bugs

The ladybug, for example, could be called the gardener’s best friend. Almost everyone recognizes these beneficial insects; the adults are hemispherical, red-orange to yellow, with varying black spots or bands, while the larvae are elongate and dark-coloured with black or orange lateral spots. Both ladybug larvae and adults prey on soft-bodied insects like aphids; in fact, ladybugs are incredibly voracious, eating many times their body weight in aphids in a single day. If food is limited, ladybug adults will fly off in search of greener pastures, though some ladybug strains, available from commerical sources, have had this trait bred out or addressed during rearing so that the ladybugs stay in one area.

Lacewings are great friends to the gardener, too. They are pale green, slender-bodied insects with lacy wings extending over the abdomen and beyond. Their larvae—elongate, hairy, and dark—are what will take care of your aphid problem. Like ladybugs, lacewing larvae love aphids and will gobble them up with gusto.

Parasitic insects come in a wide variety of forms; there are many species of wasps and flies that lay their eggs in or on their preferred host. The eggs hatch and the host insect is consumed from the inside out, a gruesome but effective way of dispatching the prey. Parasitic wasps and flies attack a wide range of insects; soft-bodied pests like aphids, caterpillars, and beetles are legitimate food, though a particular species of parasitic insect generally attacks only one species of prey. A wasp from Europe, Lathrolestes luteolator, is doing a superb job of attacking the birch leaf miner.

Flowerflies in the adult stage bear a striking resemblance to bees. Like bees, flowerflies are important pollinators of flowering plants; they feed exclusively on nectar and pollen. Their larvae are elongate, legless maggots that feed on aphids and their relatives.

There are a number of other creatures that feed on garden pests. Yellowjackets and hornets may be annoying, but they won’t attack you unless provoked; they would much rather spend their time searching for prey, namely medium to large insects. Spiders of all kinds are exclusively predators. Orb-weaving spiders will capture moths, flies, and beetles in their webs, while other spiders will simply lie in wait inside flowers and attack any unwary insects that happen along. Finally, predatory mites feed on spider-mites, fungus gnats, and thrips. They are tiny creatures, but efficient; some are active on the foliage, while others work in the soil.

Although we have seen that most insects are beneficial or harmless, there are some that pose a serious threat to crops. Fortunately, there are ways to deal with these pests.

Bad Bugs

The Colorado Potato Beetle is one of the most notorious pests in the garden. The adults are 6-15 mm long, oval in shape, with 10 longitudinal black stripes on a yellow background. The eggs are elongated and orange, and are laid on the underside of leaves. Eventually, they will hatch into crescent-shaped orange larvae with lateral black dots. Both adults and larvae chew on leaves, and they usually feed in groups; plants can be stripped of their leaves in no time. As the name implies, these insects prefer potatoes but will also attack tomato, eggplant, pepper, petunia, and thistle.

To manage this pest, check your plants every spring, searching for adults and eggs. Handpick all that you find, and you should have few problems for the rest of the season. Adults can survive over the winter by burrowing into the earth, so rotating crops can help alleviate the problem by leaving the emerging beetles without a food source. If you need to spray, use House & Garden Protector.

Aphids are tiny—only 1-3 mm long—but they can cause large amounts of trouble. They are soft-bodied insects that range from yellowish-green to black in colour. They reproduce at an incredible rate; most aphids don’t even require a mate to give birth during the summer months. When food quality declines or overcrowding occurs, a winged generation is produced. This more mobile crowd of aphids migrates to another area of the garden or greenhouse to begin the cycle anew. It’s easy to see how aphids can quickly infest entire crops. They spread viruses, too.

Aphids attack nearly all vegetables, sucking the juices out of the plants. You’ll find them feeding on buds, stems, or, most commonly, on the undersides of leaves. If your plants are wilting, if they have malformed buds, stunting, yellowish leaves, and a sticky, shiny substance on the leaves (the aphid excreta), then you’ve probably got an aphid infestation to deal with.

One method of managing aphids is to spray your plants with cold water, preferably in the morning. The jet will blast many aphids off the plants and drown a good deal of them. If that fails, you may need to spray with Trounce or House & Garden Protector.

Cabbage and onion maggots will also cause you a good deal of grief if they get into your vegetable patch. The adult flies resemble small houseflies, about 5 mm long and gray. They emerge in late May to early June and will start laying eggs near the base of the host plant after a rain, when the soil is moist. (Egg laying coincides with the flowering of Saskatoon bushes.) When the eggs hatch, the maggots that emerge will burrow into the roots of the host, where they feed. Cabbage maggots primarily attack plants in the mustard family—cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, radish, and turnip. Onion maggots, naturally, like onion, but they will also infest garlic, leek, and chives. Damage symptoms include wilting and yellowing of the outer leaves. Cabbage and onion maggots like moist soil, and they’re less of a problem in drier years.

One of the best control methods is to lay down newspapers or commercial root maggot collars around the base of the plants. The adult flies will lay their eggs on the surface, where they will dry out and die. Keeping the garden free of weeds will also help. 

If your vegetable leaves have dozens of holes in a “shotgun” pattern, you may have flea beetles. Flea beetles attack potato, cabbage, turnip, cucumber, lettuce, cauliflower, radish, bean, tomato, or pepper. Adult beetles are quite small, about 1-2 mm long. They are dull black to metallic blue, or orange and black.

The best way to fight flea beetles is to control weeds that act as spring hosts—stinkweed, shepherd’s purse, and wild mustard. If chemical controls are used, spraying should be done when the plants are emerging from their hills and have reached a few centimetres in height, usually around the end of May or the beginning of June. If you spray, use House & Garden Protector. Also, check the label (on any pesticide) to see how many days you should wait before it’s safe to eat any fruit or vegetables you harvest.

Tarnished plant bugs are flat, oval-shaped insects about 4-6 mm long; their larvae resemble aphids. They attack alfalfa, canola, and most vegetables, fruits, and flowers. The adults emerge in the spring, feeding on weeds at first and then migrating to crops and gardens in mid-May to mid-June. In addition to eating your plants, they will also lay eggs on leaves and stems. Tarnished plant bugs may cause plant leaves to become deformed, stems to be scarred and discoloured, and buds and fruit to be dwarfed or pitted.

Removal of broadleaf weeds will help to reduce the build-up of this pest. Also, be aware of any alfalfa or canola crops grown near your garden; a large influx of these pests can occur after such crops are sprayed or harvested. House & Garden Protector will kill tarnished plant bugs.

The best way to control insect pests is to take good care of your garden. That means regular, consistent watering, careful weeding, rich soil, proper fertilizing, and a good location with plenty of sun and good air circulation. Insects are less likely to attack healthy, hardy plants.

Insects might not be pretty, but they are important. So the next time you’re tempted to squash one, remember that you just might be stepping on a friend.

Rooting Around in Peat Moss

Rooting Around in Peat Moss

By Linda Affolder

What you add to your soil can be as important as what you plant in it, and springtime preparation of gardens and beds often involves the addition of peat moss. Most gardeners know the basics and benefits of peat moss:
• It is an organic soil supplement that improves plant growth by increasing the air and water surrounding plant roots.
• It saves water. Peat absorbs and gradually releases up to 20 times its weight in water.
• It improves the physical structure of soil. Peat loosens and aerates clay soil and binds light, sandy soil.
• It reduces leaching. Peat absorbs and slowly releases nutrients present in or added to the soil.
• It is a valuable ingredient in gardening compost, curtailing odours in the compost pile.
• There are over 100 species of moss worldwide.


The peat moss you add to your soil comes from the gradual, incomplete decomposition of sphagnum moss, which accumulates in peatlands (or bogs). The development of peatland depends on a complex combination of climatic and other physical conditions. Generally, peatland forms in very moist and poorly drained environments. When the water table stabilizes and the growth of plant material exceeds decomposition, a layer of organic residue results - fibrous peat moss. This layer is excavated, dried, shredded and pressed into bales.

Of the many species of peat mosses, sphagnum peat moss is the most suited to horticulture because the large cell structure of sphagnum moss enables it to absorb, like a sponge, large amounts of air and moisture. The different species of sphagnum vary in their absorptive capacities but remain substantially higher than any other fibrous peat moss.

Most of the world’s peatlands are found in the northern hemisphere and in particular, Canada and the northern United States. Natural peatland accounts for roughly 12% of Canada’s landbase, covering approximately 275 million acres. This figure represents more than one quarter of the world’s estimated 1 billion acres of peatland and covers an area equivalent to the combined size of Washington, California, Oregon and Nevada.

Peatlands cover 20% of Alberta’s landbase. Due to climactic and geological factors, peatlands are chiefly located in boreal wetland regions and the concentration of peatland resources in Alberta is therefore higher in the northern areas of the province.

The value of peat moss lies in its high absorptive capacity, resistance to decomposition and deodorizing quality and a variety of applications for peat moss have existed outside the garden. Historically, peat moss has been used as livestock bedding, surgical dressing and building materials. In fact, by the early forties several thousand Alberta homes were insulated with peat moss manufactured into an insulating material. Peat moss can absorb just under 6 times its weight in oil and currently sectors of the oil and gas industry use it to clean out oil receptacles and absorb accidental oil spills.

Canadian gardeners have added peat moss to their soil for generations. Prior to the Second World War, however, commercial peat cultivation in Canada was small, although sphagnum peat moss existed in every province. At that time, Canada and the United States imported the bulk of their peat moss from Europe. When the Second World War disrupted and cut off these shipments, the Canadian commercial peat moss industry expanded and established Canada as a substantial and high quality source of peat moss.

Today, Canada is one of the world’s largest producers and exporters of sphagnum peat moss for horticultural use, producing more than 98% of the peat moss imported by the United States. The majority of the production is located in eastern Canada, primarily in New Brunswick and Quebec. Peat production also occurs in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland.

Training Trees to Fantastical Forms

Training Trees for Fantastical Forms


There’s something magical about a tree that’s been carefully trained into the form of a graceful beast or an intriguing abstract shape. A trained tree or two in the yard attracts attention like no other feature. Creating formed trees involves pruning, shearing, grafting, wiring, training, staking, or combination of these. Some forms, such as those involving grafting, need to be started  while plants are young, while others—pompons, for example—may be undertaken once the plants have reached maturity. Trained forms require constant maintenance to maintain their shape. Imagination and perseverance are the only limits to the kinds of forms that can be created, though most fall into one of the following groups:


Also called “sculptured” by some artists, topiary forms include anything you can imagine. One interesting topiary scene features a dancer and an admirer who watches her while quaffing a glass of beer. Naturally, there are simpler topiaries, too—baskets, spheres, cubes, pyramids…topiaries can be as simple or complex as the creator desires. They can often be spotted on large estates and in city parks. Yews, spruce, and broadleaf evergreens like laurels and boxwoods are particularly suited to this art form.


Many people associate bonsai with small shrubs, but larger plants can also be trained in the traditional Japanese manner. However, cabling or staking may be required to train parts of the tree to various heights. Any tools and equipment used to create traditional bonsai may be used to create the larger forms—the scale and plant variety is all that changes.


Espaliers are typically two-dimensional forms, with branches trained to grow horizontally, nearly flat along a fence or wall. Pyramids and diamonds are common “pictures” drawn with espaliers, though the possibilities extend far beyond such simple shapes. The cordon, a variation of the espalier, is a form often used for fruit trees. In cordons, the branches are often trained to follow a vertical or oblique pattern.

Oriental Pompon

Oriental Pompons usually appear as upright, multi-branched forms, each branch topped with a sphere of foliage. A variation is “Hindu Pan,” which usually (but not exclusively) uses pines and is larger than the typical oriental pompon, which uses most evergreens and broadleaf evergreens.


Spirals are relatively simple forms—a tree is trained to grow in the form of a corkscrew. Spiral forms are excellent for framing an entrance to a garden or driveway. Junipers and cedars are the most common trees used for spirals.


Trees trained into a serpentine form have an upright, snake-like main stem; smaller branches hang or weep down from this main stem. Birch and larch trees are the most commonly used trees for serpentines.


In dautsugi, two or more different cultivars of a plant are grafted onto a single rootstock. For example, a globe spruce may be mated to a weeping Norway for a striking combination of upright and weeping branches.


Standards describe any trees that have been grafted onto a compatible understock. The height of the graft varies according to the desired effect. Top growth is usually spherical, and there are no branches along the trunk. The resulting form resembles a popsicle.

The Cold Equation - Why Plants Die Over the Winter

The Cold Equation – Why Plants Die Over the Winter

By Jim Hole

By the time spring arrives, our gardens have endured a very long and arduous season. Months of sub-zero temperatures can take their toll on even the most stoic gardeners, but at least people spend most of their time on the warm side of the living-room window. Garden plants have little choice but to endure what winter throws their way. They must persevere or die.

Cooling Passions

What is it that allows a tulip bulb to survive extreme cold while a croton is damaged when temperatures drop to just a few degrees above freezing? The secret lies in water management. Plants have a love/hate relationship with water. During the growing season, plants are very enamoured with water, absorbing vast quantities of it to maintain vigour and encourage new growth. But during the winter, the love affair cools. Plants naturally retain some water within their cells. However, the water trapped in these cells is a recipe for disaster—when temperatures drop, it freezes and forms ice crystals. The expanding crystals burst cell walls, allowing the vital contents of the cell to leak out. The cell dies, and when this happens to enough cells, the plant perishes.

Coping Mechanisms

Plants that are native to areas with cold winters have several coping strategies to avoid the ice crystal problem:

  • One simple and obvious adaptation is the movement of the water out of the cells. Some plants transfer the moisture into the space between the cells rather than letting it lie within the cells and the cells do not burst.

  • Certain plants adapt by increasing the sugar or salt content within their cells. Water with higher levels of sugars or salts won’t freeze as readily as clear water —the higher the salt and sugar content, the greater the resistance to freezing. Ironically, plants may also suffer winter injury if their cells do not have enough water. Instead of freezing and bursting, these cells shrivel up and die from dehydration.

Running Hot and Cold

The water content issue isn’t the only factor involved in determining whether or not plants survive the winter. Sometimes, they are simply caught off guard. If temperatures drop rapidly following a warm spell, the plants do not have enough time to prepare for freezing temperatures.

Often, it is not low temperatures that kill plants, but rapid temperature fluctuations. It is much easier for a plant to adjust to gradual rather than brisk temperature changes and the ideal situation is for temperatures to cool slowly in the fall, remain moderately cold all winter, and then gradually warm in the spring. Of course, Mother Nature is rarely this benevolent. We’re all familiar with wildly fluctuating temperatures throughout fall and winter, and these conditions really test a plant’s hardiness.

Combating Winter’s Bite

There are ways to alleviate the winter weather woes:


  • Take steps to protect your more vulnerable garden inhabitants. Mulches of peat moss and compost can stabilize root zone temperatures of perennials, while wind and sunscreen fabrics can be staked up to protect sensitive fruit trees.

  • Finally, give your plants a good soaking a couple of weeks prior to freeze-up. This will ensure that plants strike the right balance between too much and too little moisture. Ultimately, plant survival over the winter is part skill and part luck. Don’t be immobilized by the fear of losing a plant. Take a chance and plant a few of the more tender perennials and trees. A great deal of satisfaction in the garden comes when a gamble turns into a success.

Foliage Shrubs

Foliage Shrubs

By Christina McDonald

Most novice gardeners tend to fill their urban plots with an array of beautiful blooming but short-lived plants. Gardeners who have been playing the game a little longer often take a closer look at what's available in nurseries and gravitate towards plants with long lives and unusual foliage.

Some claim that foliage is uninteresting. Not at all! A great foliage shrub will add inspiration to your garden for a long stretch of the season, as well as texture and large blocks of colour— important elements in good landscape design. Foliage shrubs can even serve as a background that makes those beloved blooming plants stand out even more.

Diabola Ninebark

'Diabola' ninebark is a relatively new foliage shrub from Europe. Its dark stems support deep purple/burgundy leaves with fuchsia-pink buds opening to soft pink blooms in spring. This shrub is outstanding on its own and also pairs up nicely with gold-toned foliage shrubs such as the lacy-leafed 'Golden Plume' elder for a long-lived show of colour and texture. Or try combining 'Diabola' with the soft pink 'Morden Blush' rose—the dark leaves of the ninebark make the roses jump right out at you.

Cutleaf Stephanandra

Another underused new introduction, Cutleaf Stephanandra has finely textured foliage on long, arching stems that tend to root wherever they touch the soil. This shrub is gorgeous when it winds around rocks or when plopped in front of an Emerald Mound honeysuckle—or, for that matter, any one of the old favourite variegated dogwoods.

Silver and Gold Dogwood

Another new introduction, 'Silver and Gold' dogwood is quite striking with its variegated foliage and bright yellow twigs –– perfect for adding interest to a winter landscape. If you love the look of variegated dogwoods, consider trying 'Madonna' elder, 'Emerald n' Gold'  euonymus, or 'Carol Mackie' daphne.