Articles & Tips





Classes  &  Workshops
"Dirty Knees" newsletter
Shop York Region
Our Garden Services
Who We Are
Articles & Tips
Drought Tolerant Gardens
Seedy thoughts






Some helpful articles scattered around the pages here -

Coping with the 
dastardly Lily beetle.

Shrub Pruning Tips

Winter Garden Protection

Correct planting of 
new trees & shrubs

Increasing Drought Tolerance.

"Low"maintenance gardening?

                            Other pages with lots of tips for gardeners - Collected Wisdom Gathered Seeds - Quotes...............

... ...


.. .

For more gardening tips for York Region gardeners, also browse the "Dirty Knees" pages.  I no longer email a newsletter, but there's lots of helpful tips there from past newsletters.

Archives / Index
in calendar order.

~ April 6th, 2009
Cheater Bulbs. My secret spring weapon!
~ Dec. 2008
SNOW! The best insulator.
April 5th, 2007
first signs of menopause?!
~ March 13th'07
Good Planting Design
Freeze/Thaw rescue
Feb.15th '04
Give Me More Snow!
Feb. 8th '04
Forcing Branches
~ Jan. 24th '04
winter solstice.
~ Dec. 28th '03 keeping your Poinsettia healthy.
  Dec. 15th '03
winter catalogues
Nov. 30th, 03
leave frost killed plant debris ...
Nov. 9th, '03
chop leaves for garden mulch - don't bag 'em!




































































































































































































































































































































































































































Here's a collection of how-to, when-to, or just-for-fun articles I've written over the past 20 years, to inspire your 2018 gardening efforts.      Enjoy! Evelyn Wolf

Gardening in the northern York Region area. 
North of around Hwy 7 we're on the colder side of zone 4/5 and gardeners have more challenges than our GTA colleagues to the south.  Fewer frost free days and extreme temperature swings at the beginning and end of winter often frustrates those of us who like to challenge the zone boundaries in our plant choices.  

At some point I'll get these articles organized in some kind of seasonal fashion for easier access, but for now, browse through the list to the right, and I know you'll find a few useful tips to take out to your garden. 

 A collection of articles
I've written over the years on this 'n that, and collected here.  Scroll and browse, or use the Index to the right.  




Hyacinth "cheater" bulbs. Hyacinth, April 6th, 2009.   I bought them potted and ready to bloom and "planted" them.  A bit worse for wear once the snow melted the following week, but they kept going and will bloom again at their natural time in spring 2010.

April 6th, 2009
How to get bulbs blooming earlier than usual?  Cheat!

In the fall when it's the correct time to plant all the wonderful spring bulbs, it seems just too far away for me to get excited.  (I'm not a very patient gardener.)  My creative juices are generally too pooped out by September to work up any enthusiasm to think through the possibilities, and besides - it was a full 6 months ago when whatever bulbs I have already bloomed, and I can never remember where they are, or more to the point, where more are needed. 

What do I do instead?  Well, when excitement and anticipation is high in early spring, the grocery stores and garden centers are right there to fill the need with lots of Hyacinth, Tulips, Daffodils and more - already up and ready to bloom.   You can do much more with these spring treasures than put them on the kitchen table to tide you through the last few weeks before your garden starts to pop!  

During those teasing warm spells in spring I purchase lots of these ready to bloom pots, chip a hole in the semi-thawed ground and plant them!  Sometimes they are knocked down in just a couple of days by the return of winter weather, but just as often, I get at least 2 weeks of something colourful in my garden when all else is tan and brown.  Worth every penny of the $7.99 it cost me, and although I've been very cruel to these poor guys by subjecting them to this extreme, they will regroup and be fine next year to bloom when they should.  (The Hyacinth in the picture were planted two weeks ago and although their struggle is evident in some of the leaves, they quickly adapted and are putting out an additional bloom or two and most of the leaves stayed strong enough to do the job of feeding the bulb for next year.).  They use terrific top sized bulbs for these spring pots, so rather than the $7.99 being a self-indulgent waste, it was actually a bargain! 

I call this my Cheater Bulbs routine and get a little thrill from the thought that neighbours may think that I'm some kind of garden magician with the power to manipulate even the natural spring blooming schedule!  (Unless they catch me planting them of course!).

Happy spring everyone!  Evelyn


April 5th, 2007  Evelyn Wolf
Is Mother Nature entering Menopause?!

Perennial plants NEED a cold winter to stay safe during their dormant period.  We had record cold temperatures for February and so far, April has been well below normal.  Whatís the problem then?  The record WARM temperatures we had in January and March! 

In central Ontario our early spring weather is usually erratic but 2007 saw temperature extremes more severe than any in my gardening memory.  A warm spell in January lasted long enough to cause alarm among horticultural experts with reports coming in from all over southern Ontario of buds beginning to swell on trees and shrubs and even a few spring bulbs popping.   

When winter finally arrived in mid January we quickly dipped down to normal temperatures and had good snow cover, and I thought we just may have nipped disaster in the bud.  (excuse the pun Ė I couldnít resist!)  

The February thaw we always experience just plain didnít happen.  Instead Mother Nature kept all her warm thoughts bundled up and concentrated on a late March warming that, again, lasted much longer than usual, sending the signal to plants that spring had firmly arrived.  Wouldnít it have been wonderful had this been true!   

But alas, it was too good to be true as it is also routine for us to experience many last blasts of winter in April.  But our plants didnít know this so in the sunshine and +10ish temperatures of late March flower buds on trees and shrubs broke dormancy and perennials started showing themselves above ground. 

 Thereís no doubt weíll see the effects of these extremes on many early blooming plants such as magnolias, forsythias, elderberry, and rhododendrons with lots of flower bud damage.  It may have been a deadly situation for some roses, viburnums and newly planted shrubs.  Even a few of the late spring bloomers such as crabapples, lilacs, and some fruit trees may have experienced some flower bud damage.   

It isnít just gardeners that may be affected by this unhappy situation though.  Flower bud damage on fruit trees may show up in the price weíll pay for fresh fruit later this summer since reduced flowering, of course, leads to reduced crop yields.  Depending on cultural practices (winter mulch protection, or not), the strawberry and other small berry harvests may also be affected.  The extent of the damage depends on plant species and the stage of plant development just before the cold April temperatures hit with a bang.  Letís cross our fingers!  Not much else to be done. 

In my Newmarket garden, thankfully no shrubs had yet unfolded their leaves and flowering perennials for the most part had poked their noses up only fractions of an inch, but sunny exposures in gardens to the south may have prematurely warmed enough for leaf damage to also occur.   

Overall your spring plants may behave poorly this year with dead flower buds and perhaps freeze burned foliage, but donít panic and rush out for any plant-problem-fix-its.  The culprit is simply Mother Nature in a particularly bad mood this spring and your plants will recover and leaf out again.  You may need to wait until next year to see a good full blooming on some shrubs again though.   If any of your plants have been severely affected, extra TLC this summer during drought spells and perhaps a few shovel fulls of compost will help them recover.   

Iím not normally one for burlaping or otherwise protecting shrubs during the vulnerable period of March & April, but this cross-my-fingers attitude will cost me dearly this year!  In the rush to plant up my new garden last fall, plants were put into the ground without the appropriate care and I didnít get a compost mulch on until just recently.   This test-the-limits approach teaches me a lot about plant adaptation and survival techniques that serves me well in the gardening classes I teach, but boy Ė this year my gardening lesson probably bears a hefty price tag.  Iíll see just how many plants succumbed to this extreme see / saw winter in a few weeks, but the heaved root balls and browned buds all over my new garden certainly donít look promising.  Check in with me later this month when Iíll yet again pass on words of wisdom learned from hard experience! 

                                                                   Happy Spring!  Evelyn   



March 13th, 2007
Steps to Good Planting Design 

Designing a mixed perennial and shrub garden bed is easier to feel confident about if you think of it not as a collection of individual beautiful plants, but as a collection of vignettes Ė smaller groupings of plants that compliment eachother through contrast or harmony to create a single picture within the larger canvas of your garden bed.   

Each vignette should have plants with different flowering times and seasons of interest and also have as much contrast in foliage texture or colour as possible.  For each flower favourite try to find a foliage companion with a different bloom time.    

Hereís one classic example.  Early tulips (late April), late tulips (May), with forget-me-nots (late May) as an underplanting.  A white edged Hosta and ferny leaved Astilbe close by will be only inches out of the ground but will be ready to take over the space for June when the forget-me-nots can be removed and tulips cut back.   

Hosta and Astilbe will be your July bloom while their foliage phase alone makes a lovely duo in the meantime.  A white flowered Japanese Iris added to this group will bloom in June and echo the white in the Hosta leaves and add another element to the foliage contrast.  

By August all flowering is finished in this group but the foliage contrast alone is keeping this spot looking good.  A clump of Purple coneflower added as a backdrop will offer August and September bloom and some height.  The Coneflower seedheads and the foliage of the Japanese Iris will stand tall all winter through the snow for winter interest.    

In this one tightly planted group you have a miniature garden within a garden looking good at all times.   Surrounding it could be a low groundcover plant like Dianthus to help the vignette pop.   Youíre aiming at creating plant groupings that stand out.   

To create a harmonious larger picture, the garden bed itself, a few all season vignettes like these should be repeated through the bed.  Each group becomes a focal point that gives the illusion of the garden being larger, but the eye still moves comfortably from group to group to take the whole picture in.  

Developing an eye for planting design comes step-by-step and grows with your expanding knowledge of the huge assortment of plants available today. Train yourself to look at a plantís form (mound, upright, fountaining) and foliage texture (ferny, fuzzy, bold, strappy), not just its flower colour.   

When you get dressed in the morning, you choose the main item you want to wear and then choose either a contrasting or matching item to wear with it.  Then perhaps a bit of jewelry in scale with the outfit completes the picture.   

In a garden youíre using the same sense of matching, contrasting, decorating, etc. to design individual pictures that come together to create the whole.  Make notes as you go and think of mistakes as learning opportunities and move on. There is no right and wrong to art, and garden design is art.  Like all art, it takes practice, keen observation, and learning more about your tools Ė the plants.   

                                   Evelyn Wolf





January 10th, 2007, © Evelyn Wolf 

El Nino, Climate Change, or Jack Frost took a Nap!  Whatever the reason, this warm weather is definitely not good for our gardens! 

Iím of two minds about how I feel about this unusually warm weather so far this winter.  As a winter hibernating, cold weather hater, what can I say? - loving every hatless and gloveless day!  As a gardener though, Iím already lamenting the death of many perennials and shrubs I planted last fall. 

Hardy perennial plants donít tolerate winter, they NEED to go through a dormant period in the climate conditions they are adapted to, and that means tucked in under a blanket of snow with roots safe and stable in the frost locked ground.  Sure doesnít look anything like that out my window! 

Here it is, middle of January, and not only is the ground free of snow, it isnít even moist from melted snow.  And ground frost?  Certainly none in my garden!  Normally when we experience a winter warm spell (usually late January), weíve already had many weeks of below zero temperatures to get the frost well settled into the ground.  Soil surface then thaws to create a muddy mess (that is, if you havenít mulched), but refreezes quickly before much crown rot damage can occur.  

So far this winter, it has been one step forward and two steps back, with the ground freezing only an inch or so before yet another set of warm days thawed it out.  In this indecisive weather, plants become just as indecisive and canít make out whether itís time to grow or stay tucked in.  Reports are coming in of - crocuses trying to bloom, robins sited, tulips up, ravens building nests, pussywillow buds out, worms active in surface soil, violets blooming, elderberry buds swelling, grass still growing.  Confusion everywhere!  Some plants are so out of synch they may not sort it out in time to prevent damage.  

If buds break dormancy or spring plants start to, well Ö spring, theyíll be turned to moosh once we inevitably get down to sub-zero temperatures.  New plantings are susceptible to literally heaving out of the ground when ground frost isnít stable.  Aside from crossing your fingers and hoping for a good dump of snow to finally come, hereís a few protection tips - 

1)  Donít prune Maple or Birch until itís consistently sub-zero since this warm weather may have triggered an early start to their sap run.  Better yet, wait until early summer when theyíre leafed out and the spring sap run is over.  (Sap flow is triggered by air temperatures fluctuating above and below zero, which is normally what March is about, not January!). 

 2)  In dry garden areas where the ground is still completely frost free,  give shrubs, evergreens in particular, a good root soak to make sure that when the ground finally does freeze there will be moisture at hand for roots to take up during the critical spring thaw time when plants are breaking dormancy.  

3)  Check anything you planted last fall to see if theyíve been pushed up by the coming and going of frost.  Donít do further damage by pushing them down right now Ė do that in spring.  For now pile enough soil, compost, evergreen branches, or whatever you have, around the heaved plant to protect exposed roots. 

4)  Mulch, mulch, mulch!  Mulching with compost (compost, not top soil) is the answer to many garden problems and December is the usual time to protect the soil surface from exposure to sun and periodic winter warm spells and the resulting freeze/thaw cycle.  If you havenít done this yet, do it now!  Insulating garden soil with mulch is about the only thing we can do to moderate the effects of more temperature swings, and using compost will feed the soil at the same time. I usually use the course grade ĹĒ compost from Miller Compost, but for now use anything you have around Ė leaves, evergreen branches, whatever.  Just get that soil covered before more crazy temperatures take their toll. 

At time of writing, yet another hit of warm weather is predicted for the weekend, and then a plunge to cold in the coming week.  If you listen closely youíll here your garden crying out ďhelp me, help me Ė Iím soooo confused!.  Your neighbours may think youíre a bit nuts, but get out there and do some gardening!

happy winter gardening!  Evelyn


Dirty Knees, from Feb8th04  by Evelyn Wolf
Reap Bloominí Rewards from Winter Pruning!
Forcing spring bloomers to bloom early indoors.  

I love spending February in the garden pruning.  I could do it in March, but itís hard to wait that long before getting up close and personal with my plants again.  As one of the first necessary outdoor gardening tasks, it is another calendar checkmark that moves us with increased anticipation toward spring.   

February pruning not only breaks the winter blahs but is also the time when you can really see the structural framework of your trees or shrubs and prune for repair and improvement.  With a few exceptions, this is the best time for general maintenance pruning.   

If the plants youíre pruning are spring bloomers, there's a bonus to be had!  Putting the cut branches through a simple treatment to trick them into blooming early indoors is another wonderful way to get some winter gardening gratification.  Hereís what to do.  

Forsythia, Magnolia, Cherry, Crabapple, Lilac, Pussywillow, Witch Hazel, Dogwood, Apple, etc. Ė any tree or shrub whose natural flowering time is early to late spring is a candidate for forcing.   

It's a pretty straightforward procedure with the only critical ingredient for success being timing.  Candidate branches must have at least six weeks of freezing temperature before the embryonic flower buds formed the previous autumn at the leaf nodes, will be willing to break dormancy.   This brings us to more or less now Ė February, as the earliest cut branches can be forced to flower.  March is fine, and probably better for late spring bloomers like lilac, but earlier than mid-February may result in shriveled barren branches instead of blooms.   

Select young but strong branches approx. ĹĒ diameter and cut them to a desired length.  Look for ones that have lots of plump buds.  Flower buds are rounder and fatter than leaf buds, but if theyíre too small to tell the difference just trust that by choosing branches that arenít too small or too old youíll have flowers.   

Cleanliness is important since, just as with cut flowers in the summer, it is bacteria allowed to enter the wound area that shortens vase life.  Dipping your bypass pruners into a weak bleach solution before trekking outdoors will do the job.  Keep cut branches outdoors and out of the sun until youíre ready to put them through the following treatment. Tucked under a blanket of snow is perfect, and as long as they are protected like this they can wait a day or two. 

Back inside where itís warm, fill a sink or tub with water as hot as your hands can take.  Bring in only as many branches at a time as will fit in your sink and put them immediately into the hot water.  Keeping the cut ends underwater at all times, re-cut them at an extremely slanted angle to maximize the interior surface area exposed to water.  For very plump or very long branches make a 1Ē cut up the middle of the stem end to expose even more interior surface area.   

Use a clean sharp knife and remember to keep at least the stem ends underwater at all times.  Immersing the entire branch during this procedure is ideal, but not often do-able. 

While your branches are waiting in their soaker bath, fill a clean bucket with warm water and mix in floral preservative as per label instructions and 1 tbsp of Listerine per quart of water.  This will promote water uptake and slow down bacteria growth.  Adding a few drops of essential oil of Lavender will assist the bacteria killing action and make the whole experience that much more pleasant.  

As quickly as you can without making a huge mess, move your prepared stems from the tub of hot water and put the cut ends into this bucket of preservative laced warm water

.  Your branches are now ready for use but will take two to three weeks to fully open their flower buds.  You can leave them in the bucket of preservative in a cool place until the buds begin to open, or arrange them in a sturdy vase positioned in a prominent place where all can watch the beauty of spring unfold.   

To maximize vase life keep your bucket or vase out of sunlight and change the water every few days for a fresh mix of preservative and warm water.  Mist occasionally, keep them as cool as possible, and enjoy!     

© Evelyn Wolf 2004


Dirty Knees, from Feb. 15th, 2004

SNOW! SNOW! Give Me More Snow!  by Evelyn Wolf

I am not a winter person.  I donít ski, I don't skate, I donít skidoo.   I donít build snowmen with the kids.  I arrange for someone else to take them tobogganing.  If the snow piles up in the driveway I just crash through with my car rather than shovel it.  

Generally I just gripe and growl my way through winter.  But as a gardener I recognize that snow is a necessary evil.  I know it is the best insulation to keep my plants safe in a cold winter Ė the thicker the blanket, the better. 

We often point to our double-digit sub-zero temperatures as the culprit when we face plant fatalities in spring, but it isnít the severe temperatures, it's the severe temperature fluctuations.    In particular, a premature warm period that is just long enough to thaw the top inch or two of ground and prompt dormant buds to break dormancy, followed by a return to sub-zero.   

In a hardy perennial plant all is well as long as they are dormant since they are perfectly capable of surviving cold temperatures to a particular point (their zone tolerance), but as soon as warm weather cues them to break dormancy and begin their new growth cycle they are as vulnerable as a new born baby.   Woody plants suffer the most since warm weather triggers a cell alteration and draining of the antifreeze that has protected the branches and buds from freezing so far, and perennials sensitive to crown rot are forced to sit in the mud and often don't make it.   

I often hear complaints of spring flowering shrubs with plenty of flower buds that begin to swell with the promise of plenty of blooms, only to have them shrivel and die.  The flower buds made it through the -20 degrees of December/January, but once they broke dormancy in a premature warm spell, the modest -5 degrees that followed did them in. 

This is 50% of the reason that mulching is a good idea in our climate Ė as an insulating protection that moderates the effects of the freeze/thaw cycle of late winter.  For the most part our gardens are thickly insulated with snow right now, and as long as it stays that way, all should be well.   

Good snow cover canít be counted on in our part of the world however..  With the influences of our unique geography, it is normal for south central Ontario to experience severe swings in temperature that make it one of the most difficult places to garden in all of the temperate world (zones 7 Ė 4).   

This is the only time I can be dragged out with borrowed gloves and boots to shovel snow.  The thaw is only a week or two away if patterns hold true, and if I pile enough snow on top of the existing layer in the garden beds, it just may end up being a thick enough layer to keep the frost in the ground, where it belongs, even after many days of above zero temperatures that melted the snow on the lawn and driveway.  

The best thing you can do to help your garden jump vigorously to life once spring arrives is to get out there now and pile on as much snow as you can.  Gather it from wherever it is, and pile it high.

If you salt your driveway or walks, be careful to leave that snow where it is.  The salt build up can severely burn plants.  Also, the snow that is near a busy road may have accumulated toxins from all the car exhaust fumes, so leave it be as well. 

Iíll never forget the look on a neighbour's face one winter when he saw me shoveling the snow off my lawn and into the garden.  I know he wanted to ask me why I was shoveling the lawn instead of the driveway, but I had already established my reputation as a nutty gardener so I guess he figured I was just winter crazed! 

As Iím writing this, big fat flakes of snow are falling, and Iím smiling.  As long as my car can still make it through the snow ridges and valleys that are the geography of my driveway at the moment, and I donít have to go out and shovel it, Iím content.  Maybe, just maybe enough snow will fall so that I donít have to do even that one plant rescue shoveling! 



Dirty Knees, from December 2008 e-newsletter

SNOW !  The Best Garden Insulator.  
Perennial plants NEED a cold winter to stay safe during their dormant period.  What they definitely donít appreciate though is winter indecision on Mother Natureís part! 

Come January we can expect temperatures to fluctuate enough to cause all our early season snow to melt,  The bare ground is then exposed along with the sensitive crown area of our perennial plants.  Not good.

In an ideal hardy plantís world, when temperatures drop they stay dropped, and when temperatures rise again in spring, they stay risen.  Unfortunately, in our unique climate zone pocket of the northern GTA, January and early February temperatures swing us around on a thermostatic roller coaster ride.  Perennial plants aren't designed to tolerate this freeze / thaw.


Early season snow that stays put is the best insulation for your garden.  In our usual January or February thaw though, the snow cover melts away.  If the warm temperatures continue for even just a few extra days, the soil surface begins to thaw too.  Melted snow can't drain away since a few inches down the ground is still frozen. This can mean death for some perennials and small shrubs since their crown then sits in a muddy mess and rots. 

The best thing you can do for your garden in December is pile on the early snow high - around roses and any broad leaved evergreens in particular.  When the mid winter roller coaster ride starts, with just a bit of luck the snowís depth in your garden is thick enough to not completely melt away. Plants stay safe in their frozen and insulated nest until spring.


Who knows what the balance of this winter will bring.  Winter 2008 we had the best snow cover in memory.  Winter 2007 we had the worst see/saw temperatures in memory.  (Update: Winter 2009 was a happier medium.   2010?  Well in 2010 we didn't have much of a winter at all!)  When it snows, pile as much snow on your garden as you can.  When it thaws too early, try shading the ground with evergreen boughs or whatever you can until more snow comes. 


Or, do what I do - simply cross your fingers and hope the tenacity for life built into most of our best garden plants sees them through!  If crossed fingers don't work, well ... gardeners are inherently optimistic spirits - if a plant succumbs to difficult conditions ... well ... it's not so bad in the end.  It opens up a space for that new plant you always wanted!


                                             Evelyn Wolf, Garden Consultant & Seminar Speaker
                                             GARDEN POSSIBILITIES SERVICES.




Dirty Knees, from Jan. 24th '04

The real beginning of spring has already past!

Buried deep in all the harried exuberance of Christmas, there was a different sort of marker date for gardeners - a beacon we look to for reassurance that green growing things will, in fact, return one day.    Dec. 21 -- the winter solstice.   

It may sound a bit nuts, but this just might be the most exciting day of the whole year for gardeners since it is the first day of the new gardening season.  On this day, the shortest day of the year, our cups (or watering cans, I guess), become half full rather than half empty. We can look forward to a new garden, not backward at the old.  Daylight hours are beginning to increase and are unfailingly leading us toward the first stirrings of spring. 

Gardening in January is all about the joy of anticipation. Seed catalogues are arriving in the mailbox; early spring issues of favourite gardening magazines are going to press loaded with news of new plants to try;  the annual horticultural convention that kicks off the business season for garden centers gets the industry in gear for the new season; and wholesale nursery growers are switching on their greenhouse lights to start production of all those colourful annuals we'll be buying in just a few months. 

It may be -20 C outside, but we're at the post and the countdown is on!   That's right -- spring is on the way! 

Another one of my futile attempts to lessen the agony of the long wait till spring?  Maybe. But in many ways the gardening season actually has begun, since the excitement of planning  is at least 50% of the pleasure of gardening.  

Seed orders have been mailed;  plastic pots sterilized;  bags of potting soil wait in the laundry room.  Cannas, Geraniums and Calla Lily can be brought out of the cold cellar soon and potted up. Charts, new planting plans, need/want checklists are being drawn up, and at least two revisions have already been made to the design sketches for the new perennial border ... which, of course, will be revised again once those early spring issues of the gardening magazines hit the kitchen table extolling the virtues of all the new plants coming to market in just a few months. (Has there ever been a more perfect garden than the one imagined in the dead of winter?)

A gardener's spring is not around the corner - it's already here!

Will any of this planning, plotting and seed-starting actually result in a more beautiful and bountiful garden this summer?   Probably not.   Most of the plans will be revised yet again once the frenzy of the active gardening season arrives in spring, and there just won't be room for the 3 trays full of seedlings you were sure you needed. 

There will be stronger plants at the garden centre promising earlier bloom than the ones that struggled on our window sill from seed, and all the new vegetable varieties will probably sound tastier than the ones chosen from the seed catalogues.  Inevitably there will be an even deeper purple Heuchera that we just have to own, and the lively chartreuse of yet another new Hosta may inspire a completely different planting scheme than the one you so painstakingly sketched out over winter.

Is all this January planning a wasted effort?   Not at all.  All of this sketching, researching, seed starting, and catalogue gazing is keeping the vision of colourful flowers and glossy greens alive during the bleak monochrome of winter  -  a lifeline for the plant addicted.  Carpets may get soiled and the windowsill stained, but scanning the catalogues, starting plants from seed, or fussing with overwintered tubers keeps our fingers in the dirt where they feel most at home.  We're maintaining that vital link of being active participants in the awe-inspiring journey through another full circle of the miracle of life. 

Now what can be nuts about that!

© Evelyn Wolf, Jan, 2004


Dirty Knees, from Dec. 28th 2003, on
rescuing a fading poinsettia for next Christmas,

Q.  I saved my Christmas poinsettia from last year and while it is strong and healthy, it doesn't have any blooms.  What did I do wrong? 

A.  While you can give your Poinsettia a new life as a foliage shrub for the summer garden, frankly, getting it to bloom again for another Christmas is not worth the trouble.  (Closet darkness, black plastic bags, daily doses of an exact amount of light, for an exact amount of weeks, high temperatures followed by cool temperatures, fertilizing, repotting, special pruning, magic wands, eye of newt, etc.). 

Getting a Poinsettia to bloom again isn't as simple as with other types of plants, since the huge scarlet heads are not actually flowers, but bracts Ė coloured modified leaves that surround the tiny cluster of bud-like flowers in the center of the rosette of red leaves.  Who knows why this alternate method of attracting pollinators was devised by Mother Nature, but there you have it Ė another example of nature's wondrous diversity. 

Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherimma) is a large shrub native to the sunny ravines and hillsides of Mexico.  Commercial growers use a wide assortment of special treatments to adjust bloom time; keep them compact;  produce larger blooms than would naturally occur; and in recent years producing them in white, pink, spotted, etc.  Poinsettias, as we know them, are virtually a man made plant that bears little resemblance to the plant as it appears in the wild. 

If you want to keep your Poinsettia alive and healthy as an outdoor shrub, or as a houseplant, it is a straightforward procedure, but it will become a plant that looks very different from the compact colourful potted plant you originally bought.

In the wild, Poinsettia enters a dormant period after bloom time, triggered by the warm dry season.  Its bloom time is tied to the shortening daylight time of autumn and winter.  Your task now is to mimic these drought conditions and trick your plant into taking the dormant rest period it needs to come back strong, and to shake off the effects of all of the artificial treatments it went through in its youth.  (At the blooming end of the lifecycle, 14 hours of absolute darkness per day for 8 weeks is necessary in the autumn for it to produce its colourful bracts.  This is the part that seems more trouble than its worth!)  

To start the process of rescuing your plant, slow down on watering, letting it almost dry out in-between, until it has dropped all its leaves.  At this point stop watering altogether and cut the stems back to just 3 -  4 inches above soil level.  Store the plant as-is, in a dark corner at average room temperature, keeping the soil just one notch up from bone-dry.  (A trick I use to keep just that bit of moisture in a plant's environment while dormant, is to put it in a paper bag and put an unbruised apple in the bag along with it.) 

Around late March you'll see it try to put out new growth, signaling the end of the dormant period.  It's now time to help it "wake up".  Repot in fresh soil with good drainage;  bring it gradually into the brightest spot you have, but not direct sunlight;  start watering - only a bit at first and more as it grows faster.  Once growth is rapid, fertilize with a general plant food at half the recommended strength and keep the soil evenly moist but not too wet.  

At this point it's ready to put out in the garden, but you have to wait until all danger of frost is past.  Keep the light as strong as you can to ensure that branches don't get stretched out and leggy.  If you have the time to fuss, put it outside on warm spring days and bring it in at night.  

Once the danger of frost has passed, you can plant it out in your garden in a partial shade to full sun position.  Expect a 3'-4' shrub with deep green leaves tinged with a bit of red at the veins by mid-summer.  It won't "bloom", but it makes an attractive foliage backdrop for some favourite flowers. 

Now here's the magic wand bit.  If you want to try your hand at getting it to bloom again, here's the general instructions, but you're unlikely to get "blooms" anywhere near the size you're familiar with.  

Follow the above procedure, but plant your poinsettia in a pot instead of in the garden.  Fertilize regularly at half the recommended strength to ensure a vigorous and strong stemmed plant.  In June give it a hard pruning back to produce a more compact plant.  In late September start the 14 hours of darkness per day treatment for 8 weeks.  I have never tried this myself, but I'm told that this really needs to be complete and uninterrupted darkness, which is where the black plastic bag comes in.  It needs to be in a consistently warm place during this time.  Once it is "blooming" keep it in a coolish place out of direct sunlight, and don't overwater.  

There you go!  The cycle complete. 

                                          Cheers!  Evelyn

© Evelyn Wolf, Dec., 2003


Dirty Knees, from Dec.15th 2003,
on catalogues, poinsettias, etc

For the time being, active gardening is on hold while we prepare for Christmas.  It will be a long wait, but our gardening catalogues, books and houseplants will get us through.  

It seems garden seed catalogues are arriving earlier and earlier each year in their bid to get your attention before the competition, but their arrival in the middle of the distraction of Christmas preparation only spoils the fun and excitement of their arrival for me.  

These usually full colour, enticing catalogues are much more welcome in January when the snow is deep and spring still months away.  In fact they are not just welcome, they're essential to winter sanity.  With hot toddy in hand and a sketch pad by my side I can immerse myself in planning next years possibilities, and the world feels right again.      

If you don't receive any gardening catalogues you're missing a real treat.  While I have spent my entire adult life protecting my address from any company that may put me on a mailing list, I happily give my address out to any garden related business.  

In your flurry of Christmas shopping, take a few minutes to watch for the Dec./Jan issue of CANADIAN GARDENING Magazine or ONTARIO GARDENER Magazine.  They both put together excellent lists in this year-end issue, of companies all across Canada who offer seeds, plants and products through mail order.  

Probably the best one spot source of anything to do with gardening is the annual gardener's journal TORONTO GARDENER'S JOURNAL & SOURCEBOOK 2004.  It is a privately produced and published journal whose "yellow pages" section is updated each year and includes everything from gardens to visit and recommended magazines to specialty plant nurseries, organic products, or unique garden ornament in the greater Toronto area.   

Armed with any of these three source guides, the gardening world is at your finger tips!  Get yourself on as many lists as possible, and spend an afternoon with a gardening friend in January pouring through the catalogues.  You can save a lot of money sharing an order with a friend since most seed packages contain far more seed than you can use, and often there is a discount for larger orders to take advantage of.  (It is also good to have a friend on hand to prevent you from ordering enough seed to plant all the beds in Newmarket as can easily happen with all the enticement!). 

One word of caution though.  Seed package instructions for the timing of planting cannot always be relied upon for accuracy.  If you're going to try your hand at starting your own plants from seed, get yourself a good book to guide you.  Every plant has its own unique needs, and getting the timing right for each particular plant is the key to success.  

In my early years of getting bitten by the gardening bug I spent over $100.00 on my first seed order, had a total of 16 feet of grow lights glowing from January through to April, and by the time May came around I had only a dozen or so Tomato plants that actually made it into the garden successfully.  

I had started virtually all of the seeds too early, and didn't know about the precautions I needed to take to prevent damping-off disease which can wipe out whole trays of seedlings. 

And now to a few current plant matters.  

No houseplant likes the drafts and dry heat of a typical Canadian home in winter, but your Christmas Poinsettia in particular will droop and die quickly if it can't be given a spot with a fairly even temperature and kept out of drafts.  No cold window sills, or tables above heating vents.  Keep it just barely moist Ė about the state of a wrung-out sponge is ideal, and let it dry to the touch between waterings.  

Your other houseplants may be beginning to pout a bit at the indoor climate, but just like your outdoor plants they are naturally slowing down their growth for a period of winter dormancy and will liven up come early spring.  As a rule, cut back on watering, especially if the plant is pouting badly or dropping leaves, and NO FERTILIZING should be done at this time of year.   (More about houseplant care next month.)   

                    Cheers! Evelyn    

© Evelyn Wolf, Dec. 2003                                    


Dirty Knees, Nov. 30th, 2003, on fall clean-up - "best to LEAVE DEBRIS over winter..."

There are still a few things that could be done in the garden, but mostly late November is the time to pat ourselves on the back with a firm "job well done".  We're grateful that our backs will finally get a rest, but the satisfying routine of garden "work" will be missed.   

This is the beginning of what we northern gardeners know will be an excruciatingly long wait before we'll again be able to touch the warm earth and experience the excitement of something new coming into bloom.   

Take heart though!  Like all gardeners, I'm an eternal optimist, so here's the positive spin on the long five months ahead.  Our long winters offer us much more time than our southern neighbours to become better gardeners!  We have more time than they do to read, learn, go to meetings, take classes, write to gardening columnists, etc. and thoroughly research plans for the coming season.  We are the ones that have the advantage!   

(This forced cheerfulness is just one of the games I play with myself to help me cope with the long wait.  I'll give you more tips on staying sane as the winter wears on.) 

So, more than ever, keep your books open and your questions coming!   

Q    Some gardeners just leave frost killed plants in their garden over winter, but others say this promotes disease.  Which is correct? 

A.  The best answer to this is perhaps that happy middle ground of compromise.   Basically, the less tidying you do in autumn the better it is for the plants, but the point of a garden is to be attractive after all, so gardeners feel compelled to tidy.  

Yet again it is being discovered (or perhaps rediscovered) that the immense wisdom of nature's cycles offers the best guidance for gardeners.  Successful gardening is about learning to work WITH nature cycles and events, not trying to dominate them.  

Leaving debris on the garden over the winter may be a hiding spot for diseases and pests, but it is also the nurturing environment for friendly bacteria and beneficial insects.  Old stems protect young buds from frost damage, and seed heads attract birds who contribute droppings and foraging activity to contribute to soil structure and pest control. 

As more becomes known about plant and soil structure, opinions on our traditional routine of cleaning away autumn debris have changed.  It is now recognized that the battle waged between good and evil in the garden stays in a fair balance if we don't interfere too much.  

The more you can leave in place and still feel proud of how it looks, the better.  As with many things in life, it's about compromise. 

This year, instead of cutting and cleaning down to bare soil, remove only what is really unsightly or diseased, and leave at least a few inches of old flower stem.    (Powdery mildew or Apple scab are examples of spore borne diseases that overwinter in the soil.  Burn or trash this debris, don't compost.) 

The benefits of leaving your garden in a more natural state for the winter are numerous. Old flower stems hold seeds above the snow where birds can find them.  Frost damaged stem fibers disintegrate at the base by spring making them easy to just tug away for clean up.  Stems left standing and foliage flopped to the ground act as a mulch protecting plants from frost heave by evening-out extreme winter temperature fluctuations.  

The ground won't freeze as deeply as it otherwise would which means it will thaw quicker in spring bringing plants into an earlier growth period.

Seed heads like the almost black Coneflower or the lovely plumes of ornamental grasses look gorgeous poking up through the snow.  The flat heads of Yarrow and Sedum collect little poofs of snow and contribute to a charming winter scene. 

In very early spring when the view everywhere is still brown and dull, take a peek under the layer of debris in your garden and enjoy the sight of fresh green growth that is already emerging.  

At this point especially, the benefits of your new relaxed attitude toward garden neatness will be the most evident.  The excruciatingly long wait is almost over!

                                                Cheers! Evelyn

© Evelyn Wolf, Nov. 2003



Dirty Knees, Nov. 9th, 2003,
"chop leaves instead of bagging them up..."
by Evelyn Wolf

Q.   I'd like to start using all the leaves we have in our yard at this time of year in my garden, but I've been told that they can rot and create a big mess.  Can I use them directly on my garden beds? 

A.  That's absolute gold falling from your trees!  Gardener's gold!  Yes, you can and should use your fallen leaves in your garden for many reasons.  All you need to do to prevent any rot problems is chop them up a bit to increase air flow. 

The fallen leaves of deciduous trees are a major part of Mother Nature's intricate, self sustaining system.  Through this annual cycle of shedding, rest and renewal, soil is given an annual boost of organic matter to keep it alive and able to feed and sustain plant life.  Somehow though, we have come to think of autumn leaves as garden "waste" that needs to be cleaned away.    

Let's look more closely at this annual gardening ritual.   

Each autumn we put out $25.00 or more to buy extra large bags to cope with the task of bagging leaves.  Special gadgets to help keep the bags open while you rake and stuff can also be bought for a few more dollars.  We then haul dozens of these full bags to sit at the curb for a couple of weeks (a real eye-sore) until yard "waste" pick up day.  On this day your tax dollars go towards paying someone around $2.00 per bag to pick up this "waste".  They then take this precious cargo to a compost yard where it is chopped and piled to naturally decompose.  Next spring when you're working in your garden and realize you need some compost to boost your soil, you can go to the same compost yard where they will be happy to sell your leaves back to you for $5.00 or more per bag. 

Personally, I'd rather spend all this money on new plants!   

Instead of bagging your leaves this fall, put them right where they were intended to go - in your garden to feed the soil, which will in turn feed your plants.  All you need to do is speed along the decomposition process a bit by chopping the leaves to make an attractive and highly nutritious mulch.   

When most of the leaves have fallen rake them into a huge pile in the middle of your yard and go at it with your lawn mower.  Move along in circles working in from the outside edges, aiming the exit hole of your lawn mower to the inside of the pile so that the chopped leaves remain in a pile and are chopped ever finer with each pass.  

Most people think that they have too many leaves for their garden to consume, but you'll be amazed at the small mound that remains when you're done.  From personal experience I know that a pile of 40 or more bags is reduced to just a small pile that would fill maybe 2 or 3 bags.    

Spread the resulting rich and attractive material in a 2" blanket over your soil and around your plants.  If you have enough, also spread a very fine layer over your lawn.   

This is all you need to do for the entire year to keep your plants well fed, and other than the cost of a tank of gas for the lawn mower, this gardener's gold didn't cost you a cent!   

Making sure your garden soil always has a fresh supply of organic material is perhaps THE most important thing you can do in a garden to ensure long term success.   

The organic material portion of the triple-mix your garden started with a few years ago is consumed by now, and without an annual replenishment there is no food for the worms or the millions of other smaller micro-organisms that are an essential part of the amazing underground chain reaction that is a soil's own eco-system.   Plant life feeds on the nutrients that result from all of this busy underground activity.   

Think of the microscopic forms of animal and insect life that live underground as your much beloved pets and garden allies that help your garden thrive.  Just toss them this annual meal of chopped leaves and they will stick around and pay you back handsomely with healthy plants and plenty of blooms.

                                                  Cheers! Evelyn

© Evelyn Wolf, Oct., 2003


from Dirty Knees Newsletter, on correct  planting of newly purchased trees & shrubs. 

Q. My friend and I both bought a cutleaf Japanese maple last summer, but hers is doing fine while mine seems to be struggling. They were both similarly healthy when purchased.   

  A. It isn't easy to diagnose plant problems from a distance of course, but the difference between the current state of health of your shrub, as opposed your friend's, is probably the result of improper original planting. 

Iíll assume you watered well at planting time, but watering after planting often wonít penetrate the tightly congested root ball of a new plant that has spent the first few years of life in a pot. 

Even though nursery grown plants are healthy and treated well, life in the confined space of a pot is not a happy one, especially for woody plants.  Roots on a sizeable container grown plant can become so congested as they circle around the inside of the pot that they canSeparate congested roots, even if it means using a knife and cutting through large roots, then soak in water. become impenetrable - even by water.  If these roots are not untangled at planting time to let soil, water and air reach all of the roots, only the outer roots will ever be in contact with water and the plant will struggle for life until it can establish a whole new network of roots outside of this congested ball.  They can suffer a lot of damage during this period and sometimes will not make it through.  (This sounds like what your young tree might be going through now.)  

If your tree or shrub does makes it through this phase, a different problem can emerge much later in the plant's life if root that circled the inside of the pot weren't untangled at planting.  In a worst case scenario, these roots will grow in girth to literally strangle the tree or shrub's trunk base, eventually cutting off the flow of water and nutrients.  It isn't unusual for these "girdling roots" to be the cause of poor health or death of long established trees.  (To prevent this problem in a mature plant, at year 5 or 6ish, when the tree has established a good new root system, cut any roots that appear to circle the trunk at the base.  Scratch 5 or 6 inches down around the trunk and hunt for any offenders.  Even if you find a large circling root, the stress caused by cutting it will set the plant back a bit, but it will recover.  It won't be able to recover from a girdling root that's allowed to stay and strangle the tree in the future though.)

The correct method for planting all new plants, especially woody plants is as follows.

~ Prepare a hole twice the diameter of the pot, but no deeper.
~ Fill the hole with water and let it drain to thoroughly soak the soil.
~ Remove the plant from its pot (in the shade!!!) and put it in a bucket of water to soak and loosen the root ball.  If the root ball is very congested, the jet spray of your watering hose will help force a break in the armor. 
~ Separate and untangle larger roots, especially any that are circling, even if you have to cut them to do so.  Dunk them in the water again to moisten and loosen them further.
~ Spread roots out in the hole as much as you can without causing damage, positioning the crown at the correct level (no deeper than it was in the pot) then add soil, firming as you go.
~ Leave a bit of a trench around the base to allow water to pool and soak through the root area, and drench thoroughly again to help soil particles settle close to roots.
~ Leave the trench in place for a few days and drench daily for at least 4 Ė5 days. An added guarantee of success would be to provide shade for these few days.  I use an old bed linen to just drape over the plant.  This is especially helpful if you're planting during the warmer days of summer rather than spring. 
~ After a few weeks you should see the plant revive and begin to put out new growth.  This is the time to fertilize with a water soluble booster applied at half strength - again, really well watered in - not just in the top few inches.  However, if you're planting in the fall you really don't want vigorous top growth but you do want roots well established and moist, so water well right through until just before ground freeze up in December, but don't fertilize until spring.  

As youíve experienced, correct planting can mean the difference between life and death for any shrub, let alone a sensitive cutleaf maple. For now, donít fertilize, water well, and cross your fingers!   
Good luck! Evelyn

© Evelyn Wolf, April, 2003






Home | Classes  &  Workshops | "Dirty Knees" newsletter | Shop York Region | Our Garden Services | Who We Are | Articles & Tips | Drought Tolerant Gardens | Seedy thoughts

consultations - design & planting - expert shrub pruning - garden maintenance - workshops and classes. 
Over 25 years experience designing, creating, maintaining, talking about, teaching, and writing about, perennial plants and gardens!

This type of loose topiary, or bonsai-like pruning is the best thing to do with an old overgrown evergreen, instead of ripping it out.Email:

GARDEN POSSIBILITIES  Perennial Garden Services
Evelyn Wolf, garden consultant,  905 478-7395 or cell 289-716-1408
                               your perennial garden expert

20507 Leslie St.  (NE corner of Leslie & Queensville Sdrd.  By appt. only please.).   
Queensville (East Gwillimbury), Ontario, L0G 1R0  

All photos and articles © Evelyn Wolf, 2018.  Please email for permission to use.