Toronto Star column – published February 28, 2015
The snow was up to my knees: so much the better for reaching the tallest branches. Last weekend I pruned my apple trees. I have over 50 of them in my 10-acre garden. It sounds like a lot but they are under 10 years old so they still have lots of time to grow.
You may be thinking that the gardening season is a long way off. Or you are just not thinking (of gardening) at all. Well, for those of us keeners, here are some reminders:
Reminder #1: This is the perfect time of year to prune fruit trees. Standing on the deep snow is only one reason why this is a good idea. Most fruiting trees, apples in particular, enjoy a trim while they are dormant. When the sap begins to flow in April, the newly trimmed trees will produce more and better quality fruit if they’ve had a winter pruning. It is a counter-intuitive thing. The more you cut off the more fruit you get. Until you cut too much.
There is the rub (and why you need me): more domestic tensions are created around the issue of tree and shrub pruning than most anything. Naming your kids and deciding where to send them to school is quite easy by comparison. Pruning is up there with wallpaper hanging for stress-induction among otherwise happy couples. The answer about ‘how much’ to remove is up to (but no more than) one third of the existing branches. If you have never pruned your tree and it is reasonably mature, a third would be ok. I prune out about 20% each winter.
The goals in pruning an apple, plum or peach tree are twofold:
1. Open up the top of the tree to allow sun to filter in to ripen the fruit evenly.
2. Remove lateral branches in an effort to encourage air and wind to circulate through the tree to minimize disease and insect infestations. Yes, a breezy day is your friend in the fruit business.
Reminder #2: Perhaps this is the year that you start your tomatoes from seed rather than waiting for the transplants to arrive at your local retailer this May. Good for you! You will save money and (more to the point) you will have a much broader selection of varieties to choose from at the seed racks or through seed catalogues.
The great Canadian seed house, McKenzie, in Brandon Manitoba, reminds us that you can indeed save a lot of money when you grow veggies from seed. Here is a summary of the math:
From one packet of seeds you can harvest up to 30 lbs of tomatoes. Cost for seeds: $1.99 (or less).
Cost for equivalent volume of tomatoes at the farmers market or super market: $1.30/lb or $39.
Savings: $37 (minus the costs of soil, fertilizer and a pot, if you don’t have a garden).
This is an oversimplified calculation, of course, but the savings are much greater for peppers and peas and about the same for lettuce and cucumbers.
If you factor in the ‘value’ of your time, you have missed the point. The experience of growing your own is so rich that the payback is precisely that: the satisfaction that comes from the experience. If you don’t get that, please move on to the next point of my article.
Value of Gardens
Reminder #3: In the U.K. the National Ecosystem Assessment found that pollinators such as honeybees are worth over $800 million to the British economy. According to The Garden magazine, rare wetland habitats contribute over $2.5 billion annually to water quality.
Furthermore, they concluded that access to a public park is valued at $500 per person each year by contributing to positive mental and physical health.
Accounts will be kept of ‘natural capital’ alongside Gross National Product to put the environment at the heart of the discussion and government accounting. A Natural Capital Committee monitors the country’s natural assets and suggests how to increase benefits.
‘Bout time, if you ask me. Now, how about Canada doing the same?
Reminder #4: Feeling a little bit draggy? February blues got you down? Now is a great time of year to grow your own sprouts. It is easy, fun, the kids get a big kick out of it as they grow soooo fast, and they are good for you. You might even get some energy back. All you need is a couple of mason jars and bean seeds, which you can buy at your local market.
Alfalfa sprouts are ready for harvest in 5 days; buckwheat in 3.
To grow your own, soak the seeds in water over night, place them in fresh potting soil or peat moss (pre moistened) and remove the sprouts as they grow using a pair of clean kitchen scissors, leaving the roots and soil behind. These are called seedling sprouts.
You can grow sprouts using just water (hydroponically) using a mason jar, cheese cloth and clean water. Soak the seeds in the mason jar overnight, drain the water through the cheesecloth and lay the jar on its side in the sunshine. Repeat 2 to 3 times a day until you have edible sprouts. Details in my weekly blog at www.markcullen.com.
If this is so easy, entertaining and good for us, why aren’t we all doing it?
Canada Blooms March 13th to 22nd
Reminder #5: Canada Blooms. My gardening buddy, Denis Flanagan, reminds me that there are only 13 more sleeps till the first day of the biggest garden festival in the land: Canada Blooms.
The theme this year is ‘Let’s Play’. The landscape designers and architects that have been planning the 20 feature gardens for this year’s event have been having a lot of fun, to say the least. Look for the new edition of the Bienenstock garden which is always a favourite.
I will be there on opening day (Friday the 13th of March – it will be a lucky one this year!) and the following day, plus Monday and Tuesday. Denis and I open the festival with an overview and some sage advice from the oldest of the pair (guess who) to wear flat-soled shoes as there is much walking involved, plan your day by visiting the Canada Blooms website (www.canadablooms.com) before you arrive , bring your camera, a small notebook, and all of your friends.
The festival is located at the Direct Energy Centre at Exhibition Place and it occurs in conjunction with the National Home Show, which is now owned and operated by BILD. This is an exciting time for both organisations and I am confident that it will be a great show. Your ticket to one event gets you into both.
The ‘garden’ portion has been moved to the north half of the building where garden builders have more control over the lighting. This will intensify the natural experience for visitors, providing more fragrance and a better view of the professionally designed gardens. Look for the Canada Blooms portion of the event by walking straight north as you enter the building. There is an alley marked with gorgeous palm trees to show you the way.
The Marketplace is your best opportunity to learn about garden design and plant trends and to get revved up for the season that is just ahead.
And finally, of all the junk e-mails that I receive from well-intended friends, this one struck me as funny. Titled, “Why Teachers Drink” it included the following:
On a test question, “Where was Hadrian’s Wall built?” one youngster answered, “Around Hadrian’s garden.”
These are gentle reminders, dear readers. It may be the last day of February but it is the best day to look ahead and plan your gardening calendar.