Monday, March 30, 2009

Moving a big spiky Agave

How do you move a big spiky Agave? Very carefully.

This wonderful Agava americana 'Variegata' is the big mother plant from which we (actually, my husband John) have propagated many daughter plants. Agava is obviously not hardy for us so we over-winter our plants in the basement under a big mercury vapor light. They spend the summer in our entry courtyard.

For the transition from early spring when it's still quite cold (it's around the freezing mark today), we put the plants into our hoophouse. Yesterday was their moving day. John's safe and easy moving method for this big pot is to use two straps so we can carry it by holding onto the straps, instead of the pot. This makes moving a very heavy container plant like this much easier - plus we don't get our hands anywhere near the sharp spikes.

Even though the hoophouse is just past the barn, it's easier to use the car to move this big plant over there.

Agave americana 'Variegata' safely transplorted to the hoophouse. These plants will have to sit in the shady parts of the greenhouse for a week or so, otherwise they could get sunburned. They need a bit of time to acclimatize to full sun again. Fortunately for them, it's supposed to be a grey and cloudy week.

Mother and the kids last fall before we moved them into the hoophouse for the transition to winter. It takes effort to keep non-hardy plants going!

© Yvonne Cunnington, Country Gardener

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Every gardener needs this pruning guide

If you have shrubs in your yard, you need to know something about pruning.

My favorite pruning book is Cass Turnbull's Guide to Pruning: What, When, and Where and How to Prune for a More Beautiful Garden.

I've been a fan of Turnbull's ever since I read in Horticulture magazine that she had started Plant Amnesty, a Seattle-based nonprofit organization devoted to educating gardeners how to avoid the senseless mutilation of trees and shrubs.

Turnbull has been teaching correct pruning practices for more than 20 years. She writes well, and just plain knows her stuff. Her book shows you all the how-to with clearly written and illustrated instructions.

Nothing about pruning is obvious, Turnbull explains; in fact, most of it is downright counterintuitive. For example, gardeners prune to try to control growth, but mostly they end up promoting more of the kind of growth they don't want.

Although this pruning guide is published by an American regional publisher based in the Pacific Northwest, most of the plants discussed are found in gardens and backyards throughout the US and Canada.

So if you're looking for a readable book about real-world pruning, this one is humorously written and reasonably priced: Highly recommended! Available at and

© Yvonne Cunnington, Country Gardener

Friday, March 27, 2009

Read this before you prune that Forsythia

Photo credit: by Arielle (via Flickr)

Forsythia shrubs are enormously popular for their cheerful early spring flowers. If you have this shrub and are confused about how to prune it, you're not alone. This is one of the most mal-treated shrubs around.

The reason – it's a shrub that gets big, but it's usually planted in a spot that's too small. The result: you shear it or whack it back and hope that will make it smaller. But nature has the last word. (Doesn't she always?) Pruning stimulates more growth, and plants grow to a height and width that's genetically programmed. For forsythia shrubs, that's 7 to 10 feet tall and wide.

So what do people do to forsythias that are shoehorned into just 4 or 5 feet of ground? They prune them into unsightly balls, squares or hamburger buns, when in fact this shrub's growth habit is naturally arching and vase-shaped.

For better-looking forsythia shrubs, here's how and when to prune the right way.

© Yvonne Cunnington, Country Gardener

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day: Green fuse now lit

Snow Crocus

Our Bloom's Day offering is quite meager: our first specious crocus flowers came out a couple of days ago. These lonely little flowers will soon be joined by many others. The snowdrops started blooming a week ago.

Looking forward to the official start of spring at the end of the week. Best of all, we have a few mild days ahead, and it's Canada Blooms week. My hort-buddy from Michigan is coming for a visit. Mini holiday!

Dark blue snow crocus

Cute little snowdrops

© Yvonne Cunnington, Country Gardener

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Signs of Spring Part 2: flooding

Here's what it looked like as the creek at the front corner of our property over-ran its banks today. We always get flooding after heavy spring rains. The reason: the golf course ponds are high to save water for the summer, so there's bottleneck. And before the water even gets to the golf course, there is a too-small culvert at the tree farm road where the creek runs. Fortunately, the worst flooding is on their property, not ours.

Between tree farm and golf course, we're caught in the middle, but we haven't had any really serious problems. The flooding usually resolves in a day or two. But you never know what would happen if we had days and days of rain.

© Yvonne Cunnington, Country Gardener

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Favorite sign of spring: redwing blackbirds

They're back! Today's wonderful sound: the trill of the red-winged blackbirds. The green fuse is igniting. But first, we have to get through another couple of days of rain. We're under a heavy rainfall warning - again.

Thanks to dobak at flickr for bird photo.

© Yvonne Cunnington, Country Gardener

Monday, March 09, 2009

Signs of Spring Part 1: snowdrops and robins

Here they are, huddled against the cold, our first flowers of the year, the stalwart little snowdrops. Yesterday, there was no sign of robins, but our dog walk this afternoon was filled with birdsong. The robins are here again: spring is on the way.

The Germans have a nice word for this time of year, much nicer than our "mud season". It's Vorfrühling, which means pre-spring (the prefix "vor" meaning "prior to"). That's where we are right now.

© Yvonne Cunnington, Country Gardener

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Plant Driven Design at Toronto Botanical Garden

Went last night to an excellent presentation by Scott Ogden and Lauren Springer Ogden, the husband and wife authors of Plant-Driven Design: Creating Gardens That Honor Plants, Place, and Spirit(Timber Press, 2008).

I've been a fan of Springer's since I heard her speak in the mid-90s (she referred to herself as "plant whore", which got a knowing laugh from the audience of dedicated gardeners).

I enjoyed her previous books, The Undaunted Garden, and Passionate Gardening: Good Advice for Challenging Climates, co-written with Rob Proctor, and found lots of great ideas in them, even though she gardens in a climate very different from ours. She and Ogden are garden designers, and they have personal gardens in Colorado and in Texas, where they have homes.

The theme of the book and talk revolved around the concern that garden and landscape design has become divorced from plants. As they point out in the introduction:
Over the three decades of our professional involvement with plants, gardens, and garden design, we're seen increasingly outward-directed, shallow, overdesigned spaces promoted and idolized in the popular horticultural press and on television. Our frustration at this galvanized us to write this book, as did our sadness at seeing natural areas, agricultural land, and older neighborhoods relentlessly devoured by a voracious mass of man-made generic spaces and architecture from coast to coast. Plants and gardens have been made second-class citizens and yet they remain one of the next generation's few hopes for communion with living things and the fascinating beauty intrinsic to the natural world. By reclaiming gardens as a home first to plants, above all other elements, desires, and vanities, we return a life-affirming vitality to gardens and garden design.
In the book, not only do they take on landscape architects who devalue plants over hardscape, but also the homogenized suburban McMansion look of vast swaths of green lawn, a few shrubs and a tree or two, and native plant zealots who "regard typical garden flora as threatening alien vegetation."

Many of the slides they showed were of the kind of gardens I love: full of exuberant plants, particularly grasses which offer texture and movement. They pointed out what I've so often observed, that one of the design factors with grasses is light, and opportunity to have backlighting increase the drama of these plants.

Good ideas:

Revive the mundane - Try combining traditional perennials such as bearded iris and Japanese tree lilac with grasses. You see the irises and tree lilac in a completely new light.

Gardening where you are - Use plants that grow well for you. Garden regionally.

Work with natural patterns - Keep a good balance between spontaneity and control. "Plants should be allowed to be naughty," said Lauren, as she showed a slide of a formal garden that wasn't perfectly manicured.

Take home message - Celebrate surprise, discovery, playfulness and abundance.

© Yvonne Cunnington, Country Gardener

Sunday, March 01, 2009

First outside gardening job of the season done

Well, it isn't really gardening, but the job of the weekend was mowing down our wildflower meadow. We like to get this job done when the snow is gone, but the ground is still hard frozen.

It's cold and dusty, and I'm thankful that John sacrificed himself to do a half on Saturday, and the rest today. To get it all down, he had to go over each area twice, as the dried stems are quite tough.

The button seedheads are beebalm Monarda didyma and the grass is little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), which is a lovely copper color all winter.

© Yvonne Cunnington, Country Gardener