AUTUMN NEWSLETTER 2016
By Marjorie Harris
My apologies to you dear readers: I missed sending out the Summer Quarterly altogether and this will be my last newsletter.
When I recently hit 79, it slowly occurred that I needed to slow down a bit. I keep thinking I’m 60 but believe me nineteen years onwards this old body is resisting. So I am closing down Marjorie Harris Gardens, my design business, and I’m going back to writing and plant consulting full time.
This will mean a bit of belt tightening and since the newsletter costs me, I will have to suspend it. But what I will do is put it out as a blog. It won’t be as dishy in design as Anna Pemberton’s have been in these years. But it will have the information I think you’ll need for the season. Subscribing will mean being able to look at all the old newsletters and we will inform you when a new one is on the blog.
The front garden looking up the street :
This is the blend between my neighbour’s garden and mine. I designed it so that as you walk up the street you get this choreography of plants, hiding the recycling, and when you come down the street you get this completely different perspective.
The front garden coming down the street:
I promise not to whinge about the drought, the relentless heat and the fierce winds we’ve been experiencing here in Toronto. Nope but I could go on and on about the havoc this has wreaked in our big old trees.
People didn’t bother to water their city trees. It only happened as they tried, foolishly, to keep lawns green. But with those stressed out old trees, what will happen in the first cruel winter storm is that limbs will shatter and fall, and we’ll have an even smaller canopy to protect us.
The city removed a 104 year old silver maple from the front garden. And what a difference made to our home: the AC was on way more often; and the formerly shady garden did its best to stand up to relentless sunny days. Most of them did incredibly well as you can see. But it has meant re-thinking what can grow in this new climate.
The strange thing is that people keep saying to me: “You must be so glad to get rid of that old tree.” Not at all. I looked after it for almost half a century so I felt quite attached. I learned how you can garden under a demanding maple tree. And there is no experience like hands-on experience in gardening.
What can we do? Well, right now get buckets of water into the base of your city trees. What few storms we have pound down so intensely, it runs off without being absorbed. I watched this run-off on a newly constructed house on our street. The landscapers got out their heavy machinery to dig a little postage stamp-sized garden. They deposited a bit of topsoil for the “prep” and planted seven grasses where four would do and left a patch exposed. A heavy rain washed away most of the decent soil exposing the construction sand and local clay below. Then they seeded it with clover which was a smart idea since it will fix nitrogen in the soil and hold it in place until they decide to plant. They owe us a half decent garden but the planting of too many grasses does not give much hope for that.
A “modern” garden:
Prep is so crucial to the health of plants that there is no point in cutting corners to save a few bucks. You must excavate properly to a minimum depth which will change for every kind of soil profile. Then add great soil (not a peat moss mix) usually with some sand for drainage, lots of organic matter, but mostly good unadulterated black soil. It should be top dressed with compost, then mulched once planting is complete. To do any less is foolish because plants are increasingly expensive and they deserve to be treated properly anyway.
At this time of year, you can start thinning out your garden. When things look too rambunctious the cautious trimming of perennials will make things a little neater as we go into autumn.
My garden design company planted all through the desert-like weather because we know how to prep and plant properly but I wouldn’t recommend it for a neophyte. We also get ironclad guarantees from our clients that they will water regularly and they do. It’s one way of learning how to garden well—this gardening in dire times.
I find I am much more observant when I’ve spent time watering plants in a rain shadow (that’s underneath any other plant, even their own foliage), or looked carefully at the base of a tree. I am more aware of how they behave toward each other.
Most plants find cedars a bit of a bully. These gross feeders snatch every nutrient out of the soil around and suck all the moisture from the ground with incredible speed. So feed the soil with compost once or twice a year and make sure they are all watered deeply. And mulch.
It’s a good time to trim back Japanese maples and other small trees and shrubs. Let the light into the middle of the plant and you’ll be surprised at how well they bounce back.
Alas, this year has been brutal for Japanese maples. Spots, holes and frizzled leaves. There’s nothing to do but the usual weed (don’t let things grow around them too closely) and don’t over-water either. Somewhere in the middle there is a happy place for these magnificent plants. And if your Japanese maple is looking a bit sad, don’t worry, chances are very good it will look great next year. Compost and mulch will make a huge difference.
There is an alien ant invasion that has gone way beyond annoying almost into the surreal and terrifying. One of our gardens was so crawling with vicious biting red ants that it became close to impossible to work there. Huge lashings of Borax didn’t help. However, a combination of sugar and borax in a pint of water (9 tsp to 1tsp) did make a difference. Let it sit in a cut-off plastic container and hope the ants will feed it to the queen.
In spite of the harsh conditions, our gardens are doing well. They were mulched deeply in early June and this has really helped them get through the worst of the drought by holding in what moisture there is. But I have never seen such a year for weeds. Any open ground (i.e. not mulched) immediately grew everything that floated in from the neighbourhood.
But a well-planted garden is always going to look great and here’s mine in what’s supposed to be the down time of the year. Careful selection and even more sensitive placement of plants are always going to create something gorgeous.
If you do have problems let me know. If you need a plant consultant, I work in Toronto.
Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org