The Beleaguered Gardener

The only garden that doesn't have some sort of growing challenge is someone else's.

Nature, it seems at times, likes nothing better than to knock us humans down a notch or two, particularly when we purport to "improve" her handiwork by gardening or landscaping our properties.

Mother Nature can throw any of a variety of challenges, most having to do with soil, climate or unwelcome visitors. I know this for several reasons. For starters, I live on spring-fed clay and rock, on a windy hill overlooking the foggy upper Bay of Fundy, so I have a lot of experience dealing with some of the challenges.

Secondly, and more importantly, I receive regular emails from loyal readers, asking questions like "How do I keep the deer from eating my tulips?" or "What plants will tolerate clay soil?" or "How do I get rid of the goutweed infesting my garden?"

Since winter is the season of indoor gardening, which includes, as we discussed in the last issue, planning for the coming outdoor season, this is a great time to examine some of the challenges that plague gardeners in Atlantic Canada. It doesn't matter if you're growing a border of award-winning annuals, an edible kitchen garden, or a mixed garden of everything you can possibly plant. We all face dilemmas at times, dilemmas that can be at least managed, if not resolved.

As always, that's my caveat: there will always be dilemmas with gardening, whether you're tending a plot of vegetables or three African violets on your windowsill. The only time there will be no soil issues, pests, diseases or other challenges to deal with will be the time you opt for growing artificial plants instead of real ones. (My one wish for the gardening fairy is to find a cure for goutweed that doesn't involve moving or nuclear annihilation.)

From the Ground Up

A garden is only as good as the soil it's planted in. It makes sense, therefore, to nurture your soil and make it as amenable to plant life as you possibly can. It can't be said enough: before you spend a lot of money on soil amendments and plants, have a soil test done. Each province has a laboratory where you can send samples and have them analyzed for a modest fee, so that you know if you're dealing with soil that is acid or alkaline, richly fertile or in need of major amendments. For the most part, soils in Atlantic Canada tend to be a little on the acid side, just a tad too acidic for many plant species to do well.

Very few of us have naturally occurring garden loam in our yards, soil that is a good mixture of sand, clay, organic matter and other components so that it sustains plant life well, drains well, holds moisture in a suitable manner. I live on clay, as noted earlier, which holds nutrients well but also holds water very well. Clay is heavy, dense soil, slow to warm up in the spring and very slow to drain. Other gardeners have the opposite problem with sandy soil, which drains far too quickly and doesn't hold water or nutrients well.

Did you know that there's one solution that helps improve both clay and sandy soils? That solution is to add organic matter to the soil, especially compost. Without getting too technical, compost binds sandy soil particles together so that they retain more moisture and provide more nutrients to plants, while it "fluffs up" the dense consistency of clay soils so that they drain better. Regular yearly applications of organic matter in the form of compost, well-rotted manure, leaf mulch and other materials will go a long way to making for happier plants (and happier gardeners).

Not so Deerly Beloved

The most common question I am asked has to do with goutweed, of course. The second most common question is: "What do I do about the deer eating my…(insert plant name here)?"

In both cases, the answer isn't always satisfying. Hungry deer will try just about anything, and that includes many plants that are recommended as being deer resistant. Just remember that plants can be deer-resistant, not deer-proof, and decide whether it's worth the hassle to grow things they particularly like.

Deer aren't just a problem in our region, of course, and they often tend to be worse in urban rather than rural gardens. Since we humans insist on multiplying, moving out of cities and destroying habitat so we can build houses, it's not really the fault of the deer. At our very rural locale, we're deer-free in part because our ancient attack donkey thinks that deer are long-legged coyotes so she keeps them away.

A search of the Internet, or a discussion among a number of gardeners, will offer up a slew of products and recipes that are meant to be repellents. The problem with remedies that are applied to plants is that they usually have to be reapplied after a rain. That can get expensive if you have a large area to deal with. You will also need to rotate your deterrents because deer will become acclimatized to the scent or taste of many repellents. What works in one situation may not be effective at all in another garden, so you may go through a variety of solutions before finding one that works for you.

Fencing can be expensive, and fences need to be built high enough that deer can't jump them, but you may choose to protect your vegetable plot with fencing and netting, and let the deer snack on your ornamentals.

While hungry deer will try almost any plant, there are some that they particularly love, including rhododendrons, tulips, hostas, daylilies, and roses. They tend to avoid plants with fuzzy/furry foliage, toxic plants, those with thorns, and those that have scented foliage such as wormwood (Artemesia), many herbs, alliums, ferns, and cranesbills (Geranium). You can try planting some of these deterrent type plants in front of deer favourites, or opt for growing the more preferred deer delights in containers where they can't reach them, such as on a deck or in window boxes.

Avoiding a Slugfest

The 2009 gardening year will be known as a year of bumper populations of slugs for many gardeners. Conditions were just right for a huge proliferation of slugs and their relatives, garden snails, and these creatures were voracious. You can imagine the speeches made by my long-suffering spouse when he was weed whacking and puréed more than a few slugs in the process. The mini-tantrums actually made up for holes chewed in hostas and other slug favourites, in my opinion.

Not everyone shares my laissez-faire attitude when it comes to sharing the garden with slugs. As with deer, there is no drought of supposed slug-repellents out there, from copper mesh wire to beer traps to diatomaceous earth, and - as with deer - the efficacy of these repellent measures varies. Handpicking slugs and either cutting them with pruning shears or drowning them in salt water is about the most effective method of killing them, but can be time-consuming, tedious work, to say nothing of messy.

If you prefer to take preventative measures, garden hygiene is the place to start. Slugs and snails like cool, damp places to hide, such as in unused containers, in debris piles, under boards or stones or other supplies used in building projects. They're also fond of mulch, but there you have to decide whether the good features of mulch outweigh the annoyances of having slugs hide out in it. Although we can't control the amount of rainfall and fog our gardens receive, if you use supplemental watering systems, consider using soaker systems that deliver water directly into the soil around plant roots, to keep damp areas to a minimum.

There may be no slug-proof plants in existence, but certainly there are species that deter dining slugs - toxic species such as foxgloves (Digitalis) and monkshood (Aconitum), as well as those with strongly scented foliage, much in the same manner as deer avoid such plants. There are varieties of plants that are bred to be slug resistant, including some hostas having waxy leaves or those with blue foliage. Slugs will also avoid plants with fuzz or down-covered leaves, such as rose campion (Lychnis), lamb's ears (Stachys), mulleins (Verbascum).

Sadly, neither deer nor slugs seem to have much of a palate for goutweed.