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Insider Insights: Articles

Adventures in Gardening: Pruning and good soil

By Suzanne Leonard
Weather Broadcaster
Friday, May 17, 2013, 5:36 AM

For Canadians, the May long weekend is the unofficial start of summer. Like a kid anticipating the end of the school year, I’ve been counting down the weeks to this weekend since January. Across Canada people are firing up their bbqs, planning camping trips, dusting off bikes, opening up cottages - and of course, spending more and more time in their gardens!

Garden growth is starting to explode - warmer weather means northern growing zones are starting to catch up with southern zones. There’s a lot to do, and taking care of your garden’s ‘foundation’ is critical - more on that in a moment. In the last two columns we looked at how to prune ornamental grasses and woody perennials. Unlike annuals, perennial plants come back every year - have you cleaned up or ‘cut back’ all of them? Have a look at this video:

  • Use sharp hand pruners and make clean cuts.
  • Don’t touch the new growth that’s emerging (the ‘basal foliage’)- remove old stems close to base.
  • As a general rule, reduce height for perennials to 2-3”/6-8cm.
  • Make a note of those plants you want to prune again later in the season to control height and encourage bushier growth.

In my garden: recently pruned Sedum

In my garden: recently pruned Sedum

Pruning perennials

Perennials like Sedum and Chrysanthemum sprout new growth from the base, so you want to cut out old stems in their entirety. The general rule of thumb for most perennials is to cut the plant down to a height of 2-3”/6-8cm. Remember that woody perennials are cut down to about 6”/15cm.

On the subject of when to prune, my Dad once told me, “You can’t hurt a plant if you leave it until spring to prune, but you could hurt it by pruning in fall if cold weather sets in.” Point taken! To save a lot of head-scratching and avoid potential disaster (ie, plant loss) I've found it very useful to make a list of which of my plants to prune in fall, and which to prune in spring. The latter contains tender plants like ferns – Coreopsis, Sedum and Ornamental Grasses that I left for ‘winter interest’ – Echinacea and Gaillardia that I left for seed heads for the birds, and so on. Remember, your fall list should contain anything that blooms in spring – because if you cut those in spring you’ll have no blooms! Start making your own lists, add to them as you add to your garden - you’ll find it saves a lot of time, wondering “Should I or shouldn't I?”

In my garden: Alchemilla after rain

In my garden: Alchemilla after rain


“90 percent of success in your garden is the direct result of proper soil preparation.” Mark Cullen, The Canadian Garden Primer

Take it from ‘Canada’s Gardening Guru’ Mark Cullen - it’s key. Soil is the foundation of your garden - quite literally. Understanding and enhancing what you have is vital.

Your soil is a combination of sand, silt and clay – together, these are called ‘loam’ - and organic material. Find out how to do a soil test – and ‘amend’ your soil to add what you need. That often includes a lot of the latter.

My garden soil is largely clay, which easily retains water – other gardeners deal with sandy soil, which often doesn't retain enough water. While choosing plants that ‘like to have their feet wet’ for the former and drought-tolerant plants for the latter will help, you still need to prepare soil properly, otherwise you risk wasting a lot of time, money and effort. When I put in my garden (ie, created new beds where there had been none) I was advised to put down at least 8-10”/20cm of organic matter to ‘create the right foundation.’ That’s a LOT of dirt! A pile of dirt the size of a Honda Civic was dumped on my driveway – talk about an adventure… Many, many wheelbarrow and shovelfuls later my new garden was ready to receive plants. Yes, it was a ton of work – but I have the peace of mind in knowing my future gardening work won’t be wasted effort.

Northern or southern growing zone, large or small garden – wherever you live in Canada all gardeners want the same thing - so start with your soil. Healthy soil makes for healthy plants – less need for fertilizer, less risk of disease, and lots of blooms.

In my garden: Periwinkle & Forget-me-nots

In my garden: Periwinkle & Forget-me-nots

Spring ‘to do list’

  • Amend your soil! Even established gardens benefit from regularly adding organic matter.
  • Tip: cows eat weeds along with grass, sheep don’t - so I prefer to add sheep manure to my garden.
  • Get rid of debris from last year’s annuals.
  • Prune perennials as needed but remember to avoid spring bloomers.
  • If grubs are a problem in your area, treat your lawn with nematodes.
  • Perfect time of year for dividing and transplanting your existing perennials.
  • Snip off dead blooms on spring bulbs (daffodils, tulips, etc) but leave foliage to die back.
  • Enjoy the happy combinations that spring up together, like these Periwinkle and Forget-me-nots.

Favourite Weather Network viewer photo

This comes from Van Christou near Lethbridge, Alberta. Many of us love seeing the early blooms of yellow, purple and white Crocus push through late season snow in our spring gardens – these are the wild Mountain Crocus variety, beautifully set off by the snowy peaks of the Rocky Mountains. How lovely it would be to stumble upon these when out on a hike.

I look forward to hearing your gardening stories and suggestions. You can add your comments below, upload your photos to our website, or tweet me an update and photo of your garden at @SuzanneTWN. Be sure to also join me on TV weekday afternoons and early evenings for the latest weather news and forecast.

It’s May in Canada and the outdoors is beckoning, what are you waiting for? Happy gardening adventures!

“The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.” 
Wendell Berry

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