Where Flowers Come to Thrive

The question: Just how are you supposed to create that magical go-to space in a city where snow is never really a distant memory?

Photograph supplied

Edmonton, believe it or not, has all the elements required for plants to thrive. Due to our late-spring frosts, we start later in the gardening season, but that doesn’t mean our short growing time makes the city inhospitable to green thumbs.

Compared to Calgary with its chinooks, fluctuating temperatures and hills, Edmonton has a lot of stability to offer its residents. Being frozen and staying frozen all winter gives plants a protective shield until spring. Consistent temperatures throughout the growing season reduce the amount of watering required, while the flat topography keeps moisture and plants where the owners intended them to be.

“You can’t grow cedars easily in Calgary so we planted a bunch when we moved to Edmonton,” says Elisa Humble, who relocated from Calgary in August 2011. “Things grow better in Edmonton: They’re more full and I don’t have to water as often.” The transition to Edmonton, its climate and growing season is still a work in progress, but Humble and her husband are happy to find the grass is actually a little bit greener here.

It’s the soil that helps the grass, trees and plants all thrive in Edmonton, says Thean Pheh, a retired horticulturalist who has written a few gardening books and is known as a reliable go-to source for Edmonton gardeners. “We have the best soil in Alberta, if not Canada.”

Pheh’s 14 years working in Malaysia for that country’s department of agriculture does not diminish his excitement for what can grow right here. He’s lived in Alberta since 1983 and worked for Alberta Agriculture for more than two decades. “There are about 50 types of fruit trees that can grow here,” he says, citing apple, pear, plum, apricot and cherry as some of the successful options. It might not be possible to grow tropical vegetation like lemon trees, but goji berries – they’re possible, says Pheh. And if vegetables are your thing – like Pheh, who says, “If I cannot eat it, I don’t plant it,” – most of what you find in the grocery store is a possible plant for you to try out in your garden.

It’s a personal preference for Pheh to only put edible plants in his garden, though that also includes ornamentals like roses – he eats the flowers and makes tea with the hips – and daylilies. Calendula (field marigold) is another flower he’s planted among his vegetables, along with ginseng.

While planting edible plants is very practical, growing plants that are ornamental next to those that might later appear on your kitchen table can be beneficial to both species. You can plant African marigolds in your vegetable patch (companion planting) or alternate planting them and then vegetables the next year because the marigolds secrete a chemical that keeps nematodes (plant-eating pests) under control, says Pheh. 

Companion planting is far from a new concept – it dates back to as long as people have been growing their own crops. The evidence is in the three sisters technique, which was used by indigenous North and South Americans where squash, corn and beans are planted next to each other. The corn provides a support beam for the beans, the beans secrete nitrogen that’s used by the other plants and the squash provides a covering preventing the growth of weeds. They’re the perfect trio.

Meanwhile, some plants are good to have in your garden, period. Chives and dill, for example, are excellent for attracting beneficial insects because the plants continuously flower and the pollen is easily accessible, according to Pheh.

 “The more you know, the more success you’re going to have,” says Peter Oudijn, owner of The Root Seller, a northeast Edmonton garden centre. “Ultimately, people who love plants will do what they need to do. Everybody has their own level,” says Oudijn.

He agrees with the idea of companion planting and suggests planting lettuce between flowers. The lettuce doesn’t necessarily help the flowers, but it can thrive in shallow amounts of soil, so it can work in flower pots. It grows quickly, so you could chop it off about an inch from the ground and have another batch in a couple of weeks. Then, show off to friends that the salad you served is really fresh.

For Edmonton, typically the growing season allows you to plant until the end of June and enjoy the results until the end of October – depending on the plants you have and the hardiness of the roots, Oudijn says.

“Your best sources of information are members of the community,” Pheh says, “because they are in the same location, have the same climate and soil.”

Even within the city limits, there can be slight differences in what grows well due to subtle weather differences. The west end, he says, is affected by hail and frost earlier than the east, for example.

So, the differences in what can grow changes not just from province to province, but even within the city limits. It’s easier to grow pumpkins and cucumbers in Clareview than in Castle Downs. “I don’t know why, but I think most of the prominent wind comes from the west end; they get the cold weather before we do,” says Pheh.

Edmonton is considered a Zone 3a, according to Agriculture Canada’s Plant Hardiness Zone Maps, but Pheh begs to differ. He says it’s a Zone 4 because plants that supposedly should only grow in that warmer zone (such as goji berry and sour cherry) do very well here.

Either way, Polly Yu, a Laurier Heights gardener who once frequented The Root Seller and now works part-time at the store, remembers her method of trial and error – putting plants designated for climates warmer than Zone 3a in her yard and sheltering them. It led to some experimentation that she encourages others to do.

It’s not uncommon for new gardeners to give up too soon, says Yu and Pheh. They’ve seen friends do it and can only encourage them to try again and be persistent. The results will be worth it.

Here are some tips for your own garden

Peter Oudijn

Be prepared to do most of your -gardening up until the middle of June and then do it all over again because you killed the plants or don’t like them. Keep planting and gardening until the end of June, then reap the rewards.

You should garden not because you have to, but because it’s a form of -entertainment. It’s fun, good exercise and relaxing all at the same time.

More is not better. Plants need room to grow. Balance your pots and your flower beds with complementary heights, colours and the total number of plants in each space.

Find a garden centre with employees who are helpful and have answers to your questions, and stick with that location instead of box stores to buy plants and get advice. Garden centres have more knowledge to share and their plants typically have stronger roots, which are essential to preventing transplant shock and improving performance throughout the growing season.

Only plant bulbs in the fall if they have to be planted in the fall, as per the instructions provided with the bulbs.

When bulbs are planted in the spring, there’s less chance of hungry rodents digging them up and eating them, as is common in the fall.

Polly Yu 

If you don’t have much experience, stick with “old-fashioned” plants – -bergenias, hostas and lilies – because they are hardy and grow in many locations. It’s all about building confidence.

There are no instant results in gardening, except if you plant annuals. Just note that you have to do it again and again each year. She’s not a big fan of purchasing pots already in bloom at garden centres because it’s all about the planting experience for her. But they are an option for even more instant results.

In flower beds, it’s good to grow equal amounts of green foliage, annuals and flowers so that when the flowers die, the yard doesn’t look sad.

Plant a combination of annuals and perennials together so something blooms every month for the whole season “like a symphony starting with one note and then moving onto the next note.”

Share gardening experiences, extra bulbs/cuttings and manual labour abilities with friends – it will come full circle.

She takes pictures of her front and back garden each year at different stages of growth to compare and determine if plants are thriving, need pruning or relocating.

Thean Pheh

For watering, he follows a rule he heard that was “go to bed dry.” He stops -watering three to four hours before sunset. This helps avoid mildew problems as plants won’t dry at night.

  He’s not against using poison to get rid of rodents, but notes he doesn’t have pets to worry about in his yard. He says this problem should be dealt with throughout the summer and not only in the winter because, by then, it’s too late as they’ve burrowed deep into the snow and your yard.

Edmonton has less of a problem than its surrounding areas with bugs, he says. But, you can attract ground beetles to eat the slugs that eat your vegetables.

Every spring he spreads a layer of compost over his garden. A successful compost does not include meat (it attracts animals). You must aerate it to add oxygen, which prevents rotting. You need to keep it moist (but not soaking) to help the decomposition take place.

Planting seeds can take place right up until the frost appears. This is called continuous sowing and can give you an early and successful crop next year.

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