Growing Things: Native plants weathered this summer’s drought with ease

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Earlier in the summer, I wrote about pollinators and the native plants they thrive on. I received a letter about it recently from Marie Walker and included a photo of her garden with this column online.

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I enjoyed your column on native plants in the Journal. I encourage people to grow native flowers whenever they can. I have sometimes run across a misconception that one is sacrificing beauty to save a section of the bed for natives. I’m sending you pictures of my own garden to show the beauty that is available in these plants. Even this year, with the drought we had, my native plants have not suffered as much as my non-native plants. I have watered them very little and they are still blooming.’

A local garden of native plants thrived through this summer’s drought.
A local garden of native plants thrived through this summer’s drought. Photo by Marie Walker /Postmedia

Softening up soil

Q Our garden plot is 38 years old.  Each year we put all our grass clippings and the oldest of five compost bins on it. The soil compacts down so hard I can’t get a fork into it so I have to use a shovel. It’s not just the paths in the garden that get hard, the carrot rows are pretty hard too. What, if anything, can we add to loosen up the soil?

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A Normally, putting the compost and grass clippings on the surface of the soil and letting the organic matter work its way down into the existing soil is the way to go. However, in this case it sounds like the soil is too hard and compacted for that technique to be effective. I normally am not a big advocate of using a rototiller, but in your case digging the soil and turning it would be back breaking work. The tiller, if not used properly, can actually create a hardpan condition where the ends of the tines hit the soil.

To avoid the tiller creating the hardpan, set the tiller at its shallowest depth and make a slow pass over the bed. Then set the tiller to a depth of 20 cm, increase the speed and go over the bed again. At this point you can add your organic matter to a depth of  15-20 cm. You can now turn this into the soil using a fork or spade.  Do this in the fall. Once tilled the first time you should be able to add your organic matter without having to till each year.

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A few other tips for garden beds:

  • Consider adding paving or stepping stones in your garden bed paths. While the stones will compact the soil slightly, they also distribute your weight more than just walking directly on the soil. They also give a place for earthworms to hang out under the stones.
  • Try to keep your garden beds no wider than two arm lengths. With a walking path between two beds, you can easily reach into each.

Transplants won’t flower

Q Prior to us moving two years ago, we gave our daughter and other people some of our purple irises. We also removed and planted some in the garden at our new location. The plants given to others have adapted well and are blooming. The plants at our new home have been disappointing. While the plant leaves are 25 to 35 centimetres high, only one of the 12 plants blossomed. They receive full sunshine for half the day and are watered every day. Would you please advise me on what I should do?

A While irises can tolerate half a day of sunshine, it’s not ideal. This might be the reason for the lack of bloom. It’s also possible the irises were planted too deeply. Check to see if you can see the top of the rhizome in the soil. If you can’t see it then it’s too deep. I also wonder about the rhizomes themselves. If you didn’t take enough of the rhizome it might need to grow for a few seasons before blooming.

Learn more by emailing your questions to filipskigerald@gmail.com, reading past columns or my book Just Ask Jerry. You can also follow me on Twitter @justaskjerry01.

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