Practical Spring Gardening Tips You May or May Not Have Heard

There are spring gardening tips and lists out there in books and in the blogosphere, as well as everywhere else.  If you need to know what to do next, go ahead and refer to any of those many sources.  Or check out my posts, like this one, on the same sorts of topics.

Spring flowers

This is my list of other tips: practical things I’ve learned that may or may not be standard advice, but that I think are worth considering.  I had intended to publish this post earlier in the Spring, but better late than never . . . .

1.     Spring comes on suddenly in much of Canada (Victoria readers skip to number three 🙂 ), and your back and knees have been relaxing and losing strength and tone all winter–three to six months’ worth!  So take it easy.  Like a marathon runner, gymnast or weight lifter, pace yourself by beginning your garden work in small doses so as not to end up hurt and forced to watch the weeds grow from indoors.

2.   For the same reasons, take care of your skin.  Cancers have been on the rise since people had easy access to flights and could go from no sun exposure in a Canadian winter to  full day, all-out U.V. exposure in three or four hours.  Gradual exposure again is the word here.  Gardening is a great way to get a little colour and Vitamin D, but an easy way to get a terrible burn, especially the first few times you go out sleeveless.  (What did I do on the weekend?  Not telling.)

divide bulbs3.  Now down to the garden stuff!  Everyone tells you to divide your bulbs in the fall.  I am good at following directions.  The only problem is that year after year I would never get the job done because how would I ever know which patches of bulbs were which height and colour, or even where they were after three months of gardening and the disappearance of the decayed leaves?  So I decided to rebel:  I divide mine soon after they are out of bloom whenever possible.  That way I still remember what colour each patch was,where I need to locate the extras and which patches were larger.  Do they still come up?  They sure do!

prune shrubs4.   If you’re going to prune forsythia, hydrangeas, spirea or any other leafy shrub for that matter, note that you can really only see the stalks properly, and where they are too crowded, weak, crossing or badly formed, before the leaves are all on.  So run, run, run and take your heavy loppers out there before everything grows in and you can no longer see the form of the shrub!

5.  If you know me at all, you know that I love mulch!  I have mulched at almost times of the year, for sure.  However, the best time is right now!  I’m sorry to keep contradicting numbers one and two, but if you do this job now, you will be able to see where all your plants are because they have just come up.  Still, they are small enough that you can work around them and right up close to them, covering all the bare ground that you may not be able to reach when everything is fully out.

remove dandelions 6.    Dedicate the time you need to dandilions the minute they pop their intense little flowers.  Spring is the easiest time to get them; time spent when they first come up will reward you.  They are easier to pull now, before the ground dries out and they grow deeper roots.  They will quickly seed, and we don’t want each one to turn into a hundred more!  I love the Fiskars Stand-Up Weed Remover for lawns, an eco-friendly way to get those little monsters out whole.

7.    Get rid of your spent indoor bulbs by putting them in the garden while you still remember what colour they were.  For daffodils and crocuses, you can put them under the lawn if you like (put some bone meal in with them), so you’ll have a little interest next spring, before it turns green and needs mowing.  Why waste?

divide hostas and goatsbeard

Hostas and Aruncus, Goatsbeard, divide best before they are fully leafed out. Use bloodmeal to keep rabbits and squirrels from feasting on tulips.

8.   We put blood meal on our gardens in fall to scare away pests that like bulbs.  But in spring, it can be lucky if anything comes up–winter has washed the horrors of blood meal away, and bunnies have made a salad of your tulips, while squirrels simply dig them right out and toss them on top of the soil so that they die.  Unless you have a starving outdoor cat, you need to put blood meal on your garden again in spring, as soon as you see growth from your tulips!  Re-apply after rain.

9.   Looking ahead a little at things that happen every year:  it gets hot!  Really, really hot in the Toronto area, actually.   Who wants to be out there slaving in a hot garden in July?  July is the time to loll around your garden with an iced tea admiring your handiwork, so get on top of the heavy work (weeding, mulching, transplanting, etc.) between now and the end of the school year so that you can relax a little during the inevitable summer heat.

But if you don’t, then remember to drink lots of water.

divide solomon's seal early in spring

Solomon’s Seal will tip over if transplanted too late

10.   Seed, transplant and take cuttings now.  This includes any re-seeding of your lawn.  It is far easier to keep new growth and cuttings alive in the cooler part of the growing season than it is when it becomes very hot.  Then, hopefully by the time it gets hot,  they will have rooted and established themselves sufficiently to survive the harsher weather.  Little known fact:  it’s a LOT easier to grow new shrubs from  cuttings in a humid climate like Toronto’s than it is where summers are dry, like they are on Vancouver Island.  So look:  we do have something to be thankful to our climate for when it comes to gardening!

Note that you have a short window of time to divide or move taller perennials if you want them to stand up on their own.  If you do it when they have just come up and aren’t too tall yet, they will grow in nicely in their new homes; if you wait until they are more or less completely grown in, you’ll find they tip over and will require  more staking.

By the time I have this published, you will be in full-out garden mode, running to keep up with planting annuals and making things look nice.  Take care of these details “ASAP” in spring to make this summer’s gardening easier and more fun.

spring garden chores

Lots to do in this garden: dandilions, hostas to divide, bulbs to protect–before you can relax like my cat.

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Famous Flowers!

This is just a shortie post to encourage you all to run out and purchase the June issue of Gardens Central Magazine.  Not that I want you to go out in the SNOW FLURRIES!

gardening magazine


Because, in addition to the fantastic gardening advice tailored to our climate, this magazine features the summer gardens of yours truly in a beautifully-photographed article!

snow in summer

What snow in summer is supposed to look like!

And yes:  Just north of Toronto there were snow flurries this morning.  Our annuals are sitting inside our houses and there could be frost again tonight.  It does not warn you of this in the gardening books.

Have a lovely weekend, and stay warm inside with a good magazine.  Unless, of course, you  feel compelled to go out in your garden, and then I will completely understand.

Click the “follow” button in the right margin to get my tips and posts by email, or “contact us” above to reach me for garden design.

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Thriving on Neglect: Easy Plants for Beginning Gardeners

white crocuses

A small white crocus

Many gardeners are beginners.  I see this from the number of gardening bloggers who say so, and from my experience living in and about a large city where people work constantly and are afraid to plunge into having much of a garden, because they don’t know how to put one together or how to look after a garden once they have it.

People constantly say that they don’t want to be tied to the maintenance of a garden–they work, they are away in the summer–and that is why they give up the joy of having their own personal piece of paradise.

One easy way to have a garden look after itself is to know what the conditions of the various areas of your property are and to plant only plants that love to be in those conditions.  An experienced garden designer would never do otherwise!

Another is to choose mainly perennials:  these plants grow back every year and do not need to be replanted annually.

Having said that, the following is my list of top plants for the beginning gardener.  These are plants that are visually rewarding to grow, seldom if ever susceptible to pests or disease and thrive with little or no care.

muscari grape hyacinth Grape Hyacinth  Tiny but tough, this one will multiply very prolifically and can get carried away.  However, it looks best in masses and is easy to pull out if necessary.  Extras may be thrown into your spring planters as well.

easy care crocus

Carefree crocuses illuminate earliest spring

Crocus  The easiest to care for of all the spring bulbs.  While tulips and other beauties may weaken over time, crocuses will multiply (politely, though: not so as to become a nuisance).  You can plant them in gardens or under your lawn for spring drifts of flowers before lawn mowing season begins.

lily of the valley

Highly fragrant Lily of the Valley

Lily of the Valley  The heavenly scent of this shade-loving classic will have you looking forward to their nodding, white bells every spring.  They are charming and fragrant if cut for indoors, but keep children away from them, as they are toxic if ingested.

lilac with bleeding heart

Lilac underplanted with various bleeding hearts
Photo from Fine Gardening Magazine

Lilac  Plant lots of varieties for their beautiful and aromatic blossoms in May and June.  Your children will forever associate their presence with the coming end of the school year.  Once your plants are large enough you will look fondly forward to cutting them to bring their scent indoors each spring–and cutting flowers simply encourages more blooms next year!  (However lilacs don’t generally require pruning to bloom.)

white bleeding heart

White bleeding heart, Dicentra Spectabilis “Alba” begins its reliable show in a shady spot

Bleeding Heart  Lush and lilting by May or June, with a long period of bloom, these classic beauties look delicate but belie their carefree nature.  You can clip them for arrangements alone or as a complement to dramatic flowers like peonies or lilacs.  They are extremely winter-hardy, thrive in shady spots and their languid leaves provide contrast to other foliage after the main bloom period eventually ends.  As long as they don’t completely dry out, the only care they will need is to have their dead stalks cut back for tidiness after they turn yellow in autumn.  Bonus: they are also easy to divide once their root systems become large.

Peony  If you don’t have these large-flowered stunners in your garden, you don’t know what you are missing.  Cut them and bring them indoors for drama and scent.  You will be in love for life.  Deadhead them after blooming, but if you don’t, they don’t care!  You will still get huge, fragrant blooms again next year.  Various pinks, red or white, you will want to cut off their spent stalks in fall, just to tidy.

white peony

Huge, fragrant white peony

Peonies are incredibly long-lived and the number of old farmhouses in Ontario with hundred-year-old peony beds blossoming away are a testament to how easy these perennials are to maintain.

snow-in-summerSnow-in-Summer  The reason I love this Ontario favourite is that its tiny, fuzzy silver-green leaves are a foil or complement to all the taller plants, and it fills in the edge of a garden beautifully.  It will not seed all over your garden but creep vigorously in the area you plant it.  Covered with a mass of brilliant, white, tiny flowers in June it s low-growing but still dramatic at a distance.  Virtually no care is required, but you may have to pull it out around the edges if it creeps too far into other plants.

Creeping Phlox   Similar to Snow-in-Summer but with greener leavescreeping phlox, this is a ground-hugging mass of white, mauve or pink blossoms in late spring to early summer.  It typically re-blooms without provocation with a less intense show of flowers later in the summer.  Use them to edge a perennial border or mass various colours on a slope, always in a sunny area.

hardy Iris

Irises are hardy, stunning and easy to grow

traditional blue iris

These enormous blue irises tower about four feet tall but other varieties are as small as eight inches tall.

Iris  Another “wow” flower in your garden.  There are so very many colours, heights and varieties of iris that they cover a multitude of uses in the garden, and they are also beautful cut (if short-lived).  They grow from a thick rhizome and multiply slowly.  Divide them every few years for more, and to keep them healthy.  Graceful Siberian Irises are a tough and resilient top choice.

Day Lilies  These casual favourites look great in clumps beside hostas or other complementary plants, or in large, undulating drifts for great drama.  There are many cultivars available now for bloom at almost any point in the summer, with plain or ruffly leaves and in many, many day lily

Ruffled day lilies

Day Lilies come in many colours and leaf shapes

colours, so try a few.  You can mix them together for a longer show in one area, and their straplike, arching leaves look great beside many other plants even when they are out of bloom.

day lilies in gardens

Pale day lilies bloom in gardens on either side of this pathway

Hosta cultivars  Plant them in shade.  Older varieties are typically most reliable but it is hard to go wrong, and the range of sizes (from plants you could lose your pets under like “Sum and Substance” or “Titanic”, to tiny, rounded or pointy-leaved varieties), colours and leaf patterns is truly staggering!  Want more?  Simply drive your shovel through the middle of your larger plants and re-plant new sections (subject to patents of new varieties).  They look especially lovely under a row of hydrangeas!

Tip:  plant hostas near grape hyacinths, tulips and other bulbs and their leaves will grow up and cover the leftover, dying debris when the bulbs finish blooming!

solomon's seal in bloom

“Cool and Green and Shady”, large, arching Solomon’s Seal in bloom forms and backdrop to Hosta, “Big Mama” and Hosta Undulata “Variegata”

Solomon’s Seal  This could be may all-time favourite plant, although saying that is a bit like choosing a favourite child.  If you want your garden to look lush, as though you have the greenest thumb in town, then start with one or two of these.  Each year, they double neatly in the number of stems, but never reach out of their spot to compete with neighbouring plants.  I have grown them in sun or shade, and even under the evil, toxic black walnut tree next door.  Arching like a fern, yet more lush and drought-resistant, they complement any other plant you want to put next to them.

sedum autumn joy

Sedum, Autumn Joy blooms with grasses in this late summer garden. For more on this garden, click here.

Sedum “Autumn Joy”   Regular readers will probably roll their eyes:  I show you this plant in every season:  cute, fleshy clumps of leaves in spring; fresh, green

sedum autumn joy in august

Sedum “Autumn Joy” shows a hint of pink with butterfly bush and Pink Diamond Hydrangea in August

flower heads forming in summer and pink flower heads darkening to a burgundy-brown throughout late summer and fall, followed by their substantial, brown heads holding up pretty formations of snow throughout the winter!  How could I not?

Need more?  Pull off any leaf or piece of plant, put it in soil and water it!  Full sun to light shade, this plant is a performer!  Cut back in late winter or early spring to let new growth show.

sedum autumn joy cut flower

Sedum “Autumn Joy”–very dark in October–cut for indoor use


So, those are the plants.  Of course, start your garden with a good bed of quality topsoil for best results.  You will need to weed but if you mulch bare soil you can minimize weeding.

Avoid fussing, staking, heavy fertilizing and losing blossoms next year if you neglect to deadhead this year:  Start your garden with these plants and you will enjoy your success and your free time.

What are your favourite easy-care plants?  If you have special favourites to recommend, please share below.

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Is it Spring Yet?

April 19 it looked like this:

April 20:

spring weather

But at least it wasn’t like this.

Today, April 21 we’re back to this:

spring crocuses

I love scenes of rebirth like this one.

I love scenes of rebirth like this one of crocuses in Christmas Fern leaves.

spring crocus drift

honey bee and crocuscrocus facesgroups of crocuskitten in a garden

Is it Spring yet?

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My Mum’s Spring Garden

I published this post last summer, long after these photos were taken.  However, with spring a few days away and North American gardens beginning to wake up, I keep thinking of them.  The post seems far more relevant and topical now, so I am re-publishing it for spring inspiration.


My mother’s large and ever-evolving garden is tucked between mountains in the “supernatural” paradise of Vancouver Island.  Climatic conditions allow for a wide range of vegetation compared to that in Southern Ontario.  Soil is moist, full of organic material and rain is prolific at times; however, summers are dry and constant watering is a challenge.

The garden blends seamlessly with its natural setting, and rhododendrons often grow to the size of small trees in the rainforest setting.

I have always loved my mum’s sense of humour in her garden–she is not constrained by the same unrelenting seriousness that sometimes prevents a less-exerienced gardener from his or her full self-expression.

A close-up of this vignette, with the fountain, hollowed-out stone and sculptures:

Below, a newer area with rustic trellises and screens designed by my mother.  Something more traditional would be out of place with the strength of this natural backdrop.

A water feature coaxed out of the natural features of the property, and planted to enhance, rather than compete with, the setting.

Another view of the textured hillside along the pond, with its rich mix of foliage:

A glimpse of the contemporary house in its garden setting, also designed in keeping with the organic sensibility once so well expressed, “No house should ever be on a hill or on anything. It should be of the hill. Belonging to it. Hill and house should live together each the happier for the other.”

What moves me about this garden is the strength of self-expression that it reflects, while balanced seamlessly with the majesty of nature on the Island.  

While every garden should ideally be created after careful reflection of its context, it can be difficult for even the most skilled gardener to respect the context down to the finest details. I feel that I am constantly striving to achieve this, though I am unlikely to come up against a setting with such a powerful voice of its own as the one in these photos.

Many gardens have inspired my own pursuits, but as I’m sure is obvious, none nearly so much as my mother’s unique piece of paradise.

What garden has inspired you?  Please share your inspirations in the comments below.  

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Planter Evolution

It’s nearly time for hydrangeas and Easter bunnies to clutter my foyer, but first, one more change to my large indoor planter.

I took out the spent bulbs from the arrangement in my recent post, as well as the faux snowy evergreen boughs.  In spite of the lingering winter situation in my garden, I am making this next arrangement more spring-like by replacing them with a division of an over-wintered tender fern that I grew through the winter months.

foyer planter and bunny

Fresh blue hyacinths accent the blue foyer colour, and yellow tulips invoke Spring and are the ideal colour complement.

planter close-up

Unfortunately, I have been unable to get out and pick up some interesting pussy-willows, which would dramatically improve this arrangement, so I am still working around the red-twig dogwood from last fall.  If you are doing this for your own home, pussy-willows will be lovely and should take you through Easter.

Be sure to add either Spanish Moss or some other bagged moss to cover up the soil for a really finished look.  These are available in garden centres and craft stores.

spanish moss

Tip:  Prolong the beauty of indoor arrangements by turning down the thermostat in the area where they will sit, if possible.

indoor planter bunny

How do you decorate for Spring and Easter?  Do you have tips to share?

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Could It Get Any Snowier?

After my last post, reflecting on last year’s early spring and the spectre of global warming, I was certain that winter would be coming to an end.  Yesterday, my dear sister informed me that the annual Flower Count had begun in her fair city, which strives annually in this festival to make the rest of the country jealous.

This morning.  Just north of Toronto.


Warning:  you may have the urge to curl up by a roaring fire with tea after viewing the following photos.


So this is what I woke up to this morning.  It looks nothing like George Clooney.

frozen north

snowy scene 4

The view of red-twig dogwood through my bay window:


front yard

winter wonderland 7

Wiarton Willie?  Excuse me?  You were saying? #stupidgroundhog

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