Marjorie's eLetter for WINTER 2012

winter 2012 E-Letter
By Marjorie Harris

winter weirdness


Finally finally it actually looks like winter. But it's been a strange one. Here in Southern Ontario, between bouts of rain and warm weather, buds are developing on shrubs and trees. Now the killer winter weather has hit, followed by more rain and rising temps chances are they'll get blasted. We might not have quite the floriferous Spring we'd like to see in a few months.

At the rate confusing weather patterns are proceeding, we will probably have to revise our ideas about Zones. Zonitis, as the late great gardener Geoffrey Charlesworth dubbed it. It drove him crazy when

people fretted about "my Zone 4" garden as though there were walls around their private plot.

Of course, there are dozens of factors that affect a plant's ability to survive not the least being its individual DNA. A climate zone is only a rough idea of the lowest temperature a plant can survive in most people's experiences. In Canada we consider other factors including height above sea level and designate cooler (ZXa) and warmer (ZXb) areas in our zones (we include the number of frost-free days, minimum and maximum temps; wind and how much snow cover is expected for calculating each sub-zone).


This has to the shot of winter 2012. We have all seen this going on in our gardens. It’s both a welcome and a poignant sight. This hellebores is H. ‘Josef Lemper’ which is rapidly turning into one of my favourite plants—especially because it bravely blooms in perfectly miserable weather.


The deep magic of gardening is in its microclimates. Once that's understood you can push the zones as hard as possible. A microclimate can be a very small area, very close to the house where lots of heat stores up; or near a stone wall alee of the prevailing wind; shelter belts from trees make a huge difference as do buildings (high rise and otherwise); and how the killer winter sun hits (freeze-thaw cycles).  This kind of careful observation is what will provide the most accurate information about what comprises an individual garden. How much light, the kind of soil you may have along with its drainage will probably affect a plant more profoundly than almost anything else.

In the current issue of the Canadian Organic Gardener there is an article on growing fruit trees in Quebec. In an area where the weather plummets to –37C, clever farmers can still grow pecans, peaches and nectarines. Steve Leroux’s (of best tip: protect fruit trees from the wind. The vulnerable part of a fruit tree is the graft and the new growth. “If the new growth freezes back, it’s no big deal....But if the graft freezes your tree will die above the graft elminating the fruit variety it was intended to be.” That meansan unknown parent will emerge in the spring. Emulate heavy snow if you haven’t got any: mulch deep enough to cover the graft for the first few winters. ;Or plant it near a south facing wall which will act like a wind break. He also suggests wrapping the base of the tree with plumbing pipe insulation after it’s hardened off (usually after a week of freezing temperatures). This will protect the tree from wind and the gnawing of any little critters. With the trend heading toward growing at least some of our own food, fruit trees are an ideal solution: they aren’t huge, the blossom and of course eventually fruit. If you want to grow fruit in your urban garden, chances are you’ve got a sun spot that’s protected and you’ll be successful. Look at (link??) for lots more information or join up. I enjoy every page of their regular magazine.

The Catalogues:

The best bet you can have when buying plants from catalogues and the nursery is to talk to other gardeners in your area (botanical gardens, hortsocieties and friends along the street). Who knew you could grow agapanthus all year round if you have four feet of snow cosseting them in winter? Well ask. And if you are buying from US catalogues or plants imported from the States, add a zone to the one on the label. A US Zone 5 plant is a Zone 6 in Canada. And vice versa if you buy a Canadian plant in the US.

Since I live in Z6B with absolutely no chance of a reliable snow cover, I’ve almost given up thinking about zones and have made my peace with the fact that I cannot and never will be able to grow plants that are designated Z8. They are annuals or houseplants at our place. But something that has a Z7 (US Z6) is like waving a red flag, it’s a challenge I cannot resist. I’m prepared to give it plenty of protection, a deep mulch and special attention is paid to its watering needs for most of the first year. And I will only try it out three times before giving up. If you aren’t prepared to take extra precaution then stick to your general zone and give up flights of fancy.


So much is going on underground right now, the colours in the bark are amazing and there is just a hint that the witchhazel might be coming into bloom in a couple of weeks.

  • If you have vulnerable evergreens or broadleaf evergreens (rhodos and azealeas), now is a good time to check out where to put up a screen against the harsh March sun. As things warm up and there's no protective foliage around, enormous damage can be done to plants. Use evergreen branches saved from the Christmas tree. Or make a simple screen from burlap attached to bamboo stakes.
  • Start to clip branches from dogwoods, forsythia and other spring flowering plants to force them indoors. Don’t smash up the base. Make a cut on an angle with a clean, sharp knife and keep the water changed regularly. Experiment with all sorts of flowering shrubs. You never know what will unfurl in front of your eyes. Birch? Willow? Beech?
  • Photograph the garden in black and white and see where all the holes are for re-imagining the garden this year. It’s time for a serious new fantasy life.

The Italian Trip:


I’ve been remiss in sending out this newsletter. In October I went on the Italian Tour which was absolutely incredible. I’ll send you some shots of our trip and if you didn’t get thesneak preview of this year’s itinerary, click on the banner of the web site and you’ll get it. It’s an extremely personal tour and it was terrific fun to organize. What a great group of people gathered this past tour. And Linda Clay was absolutely divine as a tour leader. I was walking with a cane the entire time and as soon as we returned I had total knee replacement. Great surgeon, Dr. Sebastian Rodriguez but it still hurts (you know ice picks stabbing at your knee kind of hurt). But I can walk normally and for that I am grateful.

From now on I’ll be able to have what might pass as a more normal schedule and get blogs and a newsletter out regularly. If you pass them on to people tell them to get in touch with me at and I’ll add them to my list of people I know are truly interested in getting them. I hate sending this to people who don’t want it, and you can rest assured that I’ll never pass names on to anyone else either.

If you need my services:  email me.


Yours Marjorie



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