Composting — published on April 1, 2008

How to Make Good Compost


Composting is one of the fundamentals of gardening. Anything that was once alive will naturally decompose. Recycling to enrich the soil is a simple way to play a beneficial role in this process.

Here are some do’s and don’ts

DO compost these items: grass clippings, leaves, plant stalks, hedge trimmings, old potting soil, twigs, annual weeds without seed heads, vegetable scraps, coffee filters, and tea bags.

D0 NOT compost these items: diseased plants, weeds with seed heads, invasive weeds such a quack grass and moring glory, pet feces, dead animals, bread and grains, meat or fish parts, dairy products, grease, cooking oil, or oily foods.

Making It Work

To prepare compost, organic material, microorganisms, air, water, and a small amount of nitrogen are needed.

Organic material is leaves, grass clippings, etc. that you are trying to decompose. Microorganisms are small forms of plant and animal life, which break down the organic material. A small amount of garden soil or manure provides sufficient microorganisms.

The nitrogen, air, and water provide a favorable environment for the microorganisms to make the compost. A small amount of nitrogen fertilizer can add sufficient nitrogen to the compost. You can purchase nitrogen fertilizers at many hardware stores, feed stores, or nurseries.

Air is the only part which cannot be added in excess. Too much nitrogen can kill microbes; too much water causes insufficient air in the pile.


Bacteria are the first to break down plant tissue and are the most numerous and effective compost makers in your compost pile. Fungi and protozoans soon join the bacteria and, somewhat later in the cycle, centipedes, millipedes, beetles, and worms complete the composting process.

Surface Area

If the microorganisms have more surface area to feed on, the materials will break down faster. Chopping your garden debris with a machete, or using a chipper, shredder, or lawnmower to shred materials will help them decompose faster.


Compost piles trap heat generated by the activity of millions of microorganisms. A 3-foot by 3-foot by 3-foot compost pile is considered a minimum size for hot, fast composting. Piles wider or taller than 5 feet don’t allow enough air to reach the microorganisms at the center.

Moisture and Aeration

The microorganisms in the compost pile function best when the materials are as damp as a wrung-out sponge and have many air passages. Extremes of sun or rain can adversely affect the balance of air and moisture in your pile. The air in the pile is usually used up faster than the moisture, so the materials must be turned or mixed up occasionallly to add air that will sustain high temperatures and control odor. Materials can be turned with a pitchfork, rake, or other garden tool.

Time and Temperature

The most efficient decomposing bacteria thrive in temperatures between 110F and 160F. Thus, the hotter the pile, the faster the composting. If you achieve a good balance of carbon and nitrogen, provide lots of surface area within a large volume of material, and maintain adequate moisture and aeration, the temperature will rise over several days.

Uses for Compost

Compost contains nutrients, but it is not a substitute for fertilizers. Compost holds nutrients in the soil until plants can use them, loosens and aerates clay soils, and retains water in sandy soils.

To use as a soil amendment, mix 2 to 5 inches of compost into vegetable and flower gardens each year before planting.

In a potting mixture, add one part compost to two parts commercial potting soil, or make your own mixture by using equal parts of compost and sand or perlite.

As a mulch, spread an inch or two of compost around annual flowers and vegetables, and up to 6 inches around trees and shrubs.

As a top dressing, mix finely sifted compost with sand and sprinkle evenly over lawns.

Lawns — published on March 22, 2008

The Green, Green Grass of Home

Having a beautiful lawn is easier than you might think.

Much has been said against lawns. Some even advocate the eradication of grass all together in response to the various harmful chemicals used by lawn maintenance companies. But did you know that lawns do much more than beautify your home? In fact, lawns help to soundproof your house and your street and take the heat-load off your house. Lawns also keep precious topsoil from eroding away. As a hardy groundcover, a well-managed lawn can’t be beaten.

Residential lawns roughly fall into three categories: high maintenance (the neighbourhood showpiece); medium maintenance (the average); and low maintenance (borderline acceptable). Well fear not. Only about two per cent of residential lawns fall into the showpiece, lawn-bowling-look category. Most, about 60 per cent, are medium maintenance, with the remaining 38 per cent in the borderline category.

If you’re into keeping up with the average, all you will need is a modest budget and one to three hours of gardening per week as a medium maintenance lawn will save you time, energy, chemical use and water. It will also tolerate more environmental abuse, more wear and tear, and less care than any other type of lawn, while still providing an attractive and hardy groundcover.

Thankfully, the most suitable grass type is also the most common, a mix of creeping red fescue and Kentucky bluegrass, and possibly some perennial Ryegrass. Sod farms usually produce exactly this blend because of its versatility. Kentucky blue is drought-resistant and forms an attractive, thick carpet of dark blueish green, while the red fescue is tough and tolerates high traffic. Perennial ryegrass is hardy and grows fast, providing shade for the two slower grasses. If you wish to upgrade your lawn, you could top-seed with this blend in early spring or fall. With this combination and a medium maintenance program, you can reduce mowing from once a week to every 10 days. Watering, if properly managed, can also be reduced.

Simple guidelines for a medium maintenance lawn:

Resist cutting the grass until the end of May. Cutting too early (and too short) jeopardizes strong root growth. For the first cut, raise the mower blades to three inches.

Fertilize in May, June and September using a spreader. Bags are usually marked with the proper application times. And remember, numbers on fertilizers stand for:

  1. Nitrogen (green growth)
  2. Phosphorus (strong root growth)
  3. Potassium (general lawn well-being)

Water the grass only in the morning – before sunrise – and give it a thorough soaking. A simple way to test when you have watered enough is to put an empty 5 oz can on the grass within sprinkler range. When the can is full, your lawn has received 2 inches of water, which is a good soaking. Avoid frequent, light waterings as this increases the chance for disease and fungus.

From July to August, set mower blades to leave the grass at roughly 2 to 2.5 inches. Longer blade length allows the plant to devote more of its energy to root growth. A strong healthy root base helps the lawn withstand weeds, pests and drought. Height keeps the roots shaded and helps protect them from drought. Do this and you can reduce watering frequency to as little as every 10 days, depending on type of soil, weather and the amount of shade.

Keep an eye out for infestations of crabgrass and act quickly to remove it – do not let it go to seed. A strong root-base will help to prevent weed grasses, like quack and crabgrass from flourishing. The growth of broad-leafed weeds, such as creeping Charley, clover and dandelion is also minimized. And fewer weeds means a reduction in the need for chemical deterrents. With only a few weeds present, you can easily remove them manually.

Remember, limited use of some garden chemicals is okay provided the warnings and instructions are carefully followed. But careless or excessive use is not only bad for the environment, it can be hazardous, especially for children and pets. Many of the chemicals used (diazinon, a pest killer; maneb and sulphur, both fungicides) release toxic fumes both when you apply them and afterward. If you plan to use chemicals on your lawn, or anywhere in your garden for that matter, wear protective clothing during the application. And because of possible chemical residue, keep children and pets away from the treated area for at least 48 hours.

Having a medium maintenance lawn does not imply that your lawn has to be an eyesore. Quite the contrary. In fact, your lawn will probably still be green when others have dried up. Also, with a good grass blend, you can step up your maintenance program at any time to improve the look of your lawn.

03: Landscaping — published on March 20, 2008

Just a trim, please

Pruning season is upon us – time to shape things up. Put a little thought, not just muscle power, into pruning your trees and shrubs There is, however, nothing written in the gardening bible that says you must prune every plant every year. Pruning should be done selectively with careful thought and consideration given to each cut you make.

Why prune?

Pruning is an important cultural technique that improves the health and vigor of a plant — when it’s done properly and for the right reasons.

Pruning is an invigoration process. The plant grows in its natural shape and from time to time you need to direct and correct problem areas within the plant’s growth.

There are several reasons to prune plants, including hedges, roses, spring-flowering shrubs and young trees.


In some plants, especially ones that form a privacy hedge, you want to open up dense growth so air and light penetrate the plants. These “windows” of openness help reduce pests and disease problems and promote new growth inside the plant. Boxwoods and azaleas benefit from this form of selective pruning.


On young trees and shrubs remove crossing, rubbing, diseased and dying branches and stems.


Hedges are properly pruned when they are slightly wider at the bottom than at the top. This technique allows light to reach all parts of the plant, giving you a hedge that’s full and lush from top to bottom.


Roses are pruned now through early spring. Use pruning shears to cut back to 8-10 inches above ground. Hybrid teas and other roses need more specialized pruning, leaving three to five stems and buds directed outward.


Summer-flowering shrubs such as butterfly bush and lantana are pruned now. Spring-flowering plants such as azalea are done when they are finished blooming, but before they set next year’s flower buds, in July.


Putting the right plant in the right location helps avoid excessive pruning. For instance, resist the urge to place large trees and shrubs near your home’s exterior, instead, look for smaller-growing varieties that are suitable for tight spaces. You prune only what needs to be removed for the benefit of the plant. Doing it properly adds curb appeal and value to your landscape and home.

03: Landscaping — published on March 20, 2008


Driveways, Walkways, Fences and Patios

Hardscape refers to the hard, non-living elements of a landscape, such as concrete, brick or stone. Hardscaping includes flatwork, which consists of the surfaces outside of your house, such as driveways, porches, patios and walkways.

Hardscapes have a key role curb appeal. They play an important practical role in keeping your home safe and durable. All flatwork must slope slightly away from your home. Sloping the flatwork ensures that water hitting those surfaces doesn’t form ponds or flow toward the foundation. Sloping the flatwork will keep your foundation from water damage, including cracks and moisture problems that could have an effect on your entire house.

Concrete and asphalt commonly are used for flatwork. When concrete is used, it’s typically reinforced with embedded wire mesh. If the area of poured concrete is larger than 10′ x10′, control joints will be added to help direct inevitable cracking in an aesthetically acceptable way. If a deck is being installed on your home, it will typically be added after the flatwork is in place. Durable, pressure-treated lumber is used for deck construction. Pressure-treated lumber has been treated chemically to withstand being outdoors and being in contact with the soil. An alternate material that’s gaining popularity for deck construction is a wood fiber and resin composite. It’s 50 percent wood, 50 percent plastic — and very durable.

While not as lush as grass or vibrant as flowering bushes, hardscape is still an important part of the landscape of your home. It not only adds key features like sidewalks and driveways, but helps to drain water away from the foundation, contributing to a durable home.

03: Landscaping — published on March 20, 2008

Softscape: Soil, Grass and Plantings

Softscape refers to the elements of landscape that comprise live, horticultural elements.

We all want a home that makes people admire it as they go by. A large part of a home’s curb appeal is the ground around the home. Softscape landscaping includes soil, grass, trees, shrubs and other plantings. While softscape helps to give your home a unique look, it has an unseen benefit: it helps to protect your foundation from water by draining water away from the home. Many homeowner hire a landscaping contractor who’s knowledgeable about the type of soil, grass and plantings that’s right for your area, but you may want to give your input or do it yourself.


Topsoil is the upper layer of soil, usually the top 2 to 8 inches. It has the highest concentration of organic matter and microorganisms, and is where most of the Earth’s biological soil activity occurs.

Topsoil is used for the home’s finish grade, which is the base for the yard. To help drain water away from the home, a swale may be created that slopes away from the home. Once the finish grade is in place, seed or sod is planted for the lawn, and then trees, shrubs and flowers are planted.

Topsoil may be trucked to your home’s lot for the finish grade. Finish grade refers to the ground that’s been smoothed out to make a yard once construction is complete. As the topsoil is smoothed, the soil is sloped away from the foundation wall. If the natural grade slopes toward the home, swales should be created to drain excess water away from the home. A swale is simply a shallow depression in the land that slopes away from the home and collects water to keep water away from the foundation.

The most common soil types are clay, sand, silt and loam.


Grass seed can be planted by scattering it over the soil, or by a process called hydro-seeding. Hydro-seeding is a fast method for planting grass seed, watering it and fertilizing it all at once. A mixture of seed, fertilizer and pesticide is sprayed on all areas needing grass.

An alternative to planting seed is to use sod. Sod is grass that’s grown elsewhere and transplanted to the homesite. It’s laid down in pieces that eventually will grow together. Sod is typically more expensive than grass seed.

Generally, cool-season grasses are best for Toronro because these grasses prefer moderately cool temperatures. Their growing season is strongest in the spring and fall and slows in the summer. An example of a cool-season grass is Kentucky bluegrass. Home home and garden centers have grass seed mixtures that work well in the Totonto area.


Plantings include trees, shrubs and flowers, and are added as the last part of the landscaping process. Not only do plantings make your home pretty by adding color and variety, the plant roots help hold the soil in place.

Trees tend to be the focal point of your yard and add to the character of your property. Select tree types depending on the amount of shade and space you want from your yard.

Shrubs create backgrounds, frame pathways, and help make a transition between treetop and ground level. From attracting birds to creating privacy screens, shrubs are an important part of your landscaping. When you select shrubs, think about their function. If you want to break up the distance between the ground and high buildings or treetops, consider a large, broad-leafed evergreen shrub. A sweet olive is an example of such a shrub. If you want a shrub that blossoms each year, consider rhododendrons and lilacs.

Soil, grass and plantings not only bring curb appeal to your home, they also help water drain properly away from the foundation, increasing your home’s durability. Visits to your local garden centers will make you aware of the many options you have available.

Lawns — published on March 19, 2008

Lawn Not Weeds

Simple Steps To A Weed-Free Lawn

A beautiful lawn is supposed to be thick and green. It’s not supposed to have bright yellow dandelions, red blooming clover and scraggly crabgrass and nutgrass.

Although it’s impossible to kill every single weed, most can be prevented. Weed control is more than making a pretty yard. Weeds compete with grasses for water and nutrients. A well-cared-for, vigorous lawn will resist weed invasions.

Here are five steps to keep your yard in top shape for weed resistance:

1. Mow high. Mowing at the upper end of the recommended height for your grass type encourages deeper roots and better heat and drought tolerance since the grass helps shade the soil to reduce evaporation and maximize soil moisture content. This can help reduce the need for more frequent watering. Set your mower at 11/2 inches high for common Bermuda; 1 inch high for hybrid Bermuda; 3 inches high for tall fescue; 21/2 inches for Kentucky bluegrass; and 21/2 to 3 inches for St. Augustine.

2. Water properly. Wet the soil down to a depth of 6 to 8 inches. Shallow watering results in a shallow root system. To check the depth of moisture, insert a rod or screwdriver into the soil; it will stop when it reaches dry dirt.

3. Fertilize at the right time of year for your particular type of grass (usually fall or spring for cool-season lawns and late spring and early summer for warm-season lawns) and control insects such as grubs that eat grass roots.

4. Aerate (remove small cores of soil) and dethatch as needed for better water and nutrient penetration.

5. Kill weeds. Many products on the market require you to know what kind of weeds you have in your lawn. But some multi-purpose products work to including dandelions, clover and grassy weeds such as crabgrass — in one easy step without harming your lawn.

Flowers — published on March 16, 2008

Add clematis for curb appeal

The traditional garden patch is certainly not the only place to grow beautiful flowers these days. In fact, with a growing trend towards “curb appeal” as one of a house’s most saleable features, great attention should be given to the selection of plants that surround your house. They can enhance it tremendously.

One of the best vines to grow up a trellis to hide a boring or unsightly wall is the elegant clematis.

In the last few years in the Toronto area, the variety of available species has multiplied many times over, and this spring, you will be able to select amazing flowers, from delicate white to full blush pink to rich purples and blues like the Elsa Spath.

These colourful climbers aren’t hard to grow, and they come out of the ground faithfully each spring with little or no demands. There are some essential steps to take at the beginning to ensure its success, however.

When you plant your clematis, make sure you bury its crown at least two inches (six centimetres) below the surface of the ground. This gets you off to a good start, since it encourages more stems to grow from the original base.

The more stems, the faster the growth and spread, and the less susceptible this beauty is to disease. I always add bone meal to the soil as well.

Then it’s water, water, water, deeply and often, while this plant gets established. Despite its need for moisture, make sure the soil is well drained, since the plant will not thrive if water stands on the surface.

If you have done all of these things, but you find that your clematis has a bit too much foliage and not enough blooms, just sprinkle the surface of the soil at planting time with superphosphate.

In the early spring, prune your clematis judiciously, pinching back any thin stems just above a set of buds.

Most clematis blooms throughout the summer, but the clematis paniculata blooms in autumn. So popular is the clematis, that there is actually an International Clematis Society based in the United States. Their website is and membership is US $30.

They advise that most clematis enjoy being in the bright sunlight for five to six hours a day. This lovely flower needs support to grow as well. You can train it to crawl up an arbour or trellis, or onto other shrubs, a fence or even a tree.

Lawns — published on March 14, 2008

Preparing your lawn for spring

With spring approaching it is the perfect time to get your lawn ready for another season. Here are some tips to help ensure your lawn gets a healthy start this season.

To ensure even thawing and prevent diseases like snow mould, remove snow piles from your lawn or spread the snow evenly across the lawn.

Clean unwanted debris that may have accumulated over the winter months.

Aerate and weed your lawn to improve water, air and fertilizer uptake. Choose a manual weeder like the Fiskars telescopic stand up weeder that removes the entire root of invasive weeds, eliminating the need for herbicide use.

Healthy, thick lawns naturally deter weeds and other pests. Choose a natural fertilizer, like Scott’s eco sense fertilizer, that is ideal for planting new lawns or repairing bare starts to give your lawn a healthy start.

In preparation for the spring gardening season, check your equipment to ensure it is in good working condition. Don’t forget to sharpen the blades on lawn mowers and weeders.

Purchase a composter and get started on turning household waste into organic fertilizer for your lawn and garden.

03: Landscaping — published on March 12, 2008

Winter Landscaping

Living Sculptures in Your Yard

Why allow snow to let you waste a whole season when you could keep your landscaping going? Not everything has to be white and bleak in the winter. There are plenty of shrub and tree options to brighten your winter landscape views.

Holly, a bush typically associated with Christmas, has year-round foliage and colorful berries. Even in the coldest time of winter, you can prune a few to make a wreath for your door or dinner table.

China Holly is a similar option. It grows rounded to about eight feet tall. They are very beautiful, and easy to maintain and are even drought resistant. Inkberry holly works as well. It is shorter than the other varieties. The berries are black instead of red, but also looks very nice. Winterberry Holly is great for attracting the few remaining birds that stayed for the winter.

Besides bushes, trees can add color and life to your lawn in the winter. Birch trees add an artistic feel to your lawn in the winter. They can be used to frame your entire yard, or as a centerpiece. Even though they lose their leaves in the fall, the color of the wood and the shape of the branches are very attractive. They act as living sculptures in your yard.

Different varieties of Birch trees have their own unique looks. Paper Birch, for example, sheds its bark for an interesting look.

Yellow birch is the most colorful of the varieties. Young’s Weeping Birch is ideal for smaller yards, since it only grows to six to twelve feet high. Most other varieties can grow to more than 60 feet over time.

Like the pine tree in North America, the Yew tree has been associated with Christmas in England. The needles are evergreen. The Yew tree also has bright red berries, although they are poisonous and shouldn’t be eaten.

Numerous Japanese species can handle harsh conditions and can do well in some areas. They are a round shrub that grows to a few feet high and wide. The colors are amazing in the fall, and the berries last into winter.

The American version is a favorite food of birds, while at the same time, deterring deer. The foliage also smells pleasant.

In addition to bushes and trees, a tall grass is a pleasing sight in the winter. Plume grass will last all year long and has a thin shaft and a puffy top.

Adding some color to your yard in the winter will keep your spirits up on even the coldest, grayest days.

Flowers — published on March 10, 2008

Flower Planting Basics

First, plan your plantings by deciding on color patterns and locations, such as by walkways or by the patio and  the concentrations — whether they will be spread out or close together.

Once you head to the store, be sure to check out how well the flowers will do in the area of the yard. Planting flowers that need lots of sunlight in a shady area doesn’t make sense because they will not flourish. You will also want to consider planting flowers that need a lot of water in areas of the yard that get lots of rainfall or that are near the sprinkler system.

Before planting flowers, it is absolutely necessary to check for signs of discoloration or disease. Even if the flowers didn’t look discolored when you first picked them up at the garden store, return them or discard them if you feel they may have a plant disease. Planting flowers with diseases will spread them into the soil and throughout the entire garden. This applies to bulbs as well. If the bulbs look to be discolored or weak, do not plant them in the garden.

Planting flowers within seven days of purchasing them in a container or purchasing the bulbs will ensure that they stay moist. It is best to plant within three days of purchasing, but if this is not possible, keep them in a cool location where the roots stay moist but not completely soaked.

First, prepare the soil where you plan on planting. This means using fertilizers, organic pesticides, compost, and top soil mixed into the sand. Remember to always test the pH of the soil either with a home testing kit or with the help of landscaping companies who have experience testing soil to make sure the soil is well balanced between 6.5 to 7 before planting flowers.

Remember that when planting flowers out of a container, it is important to break up the soil around the roots to help spread them into the ground. This simply means removing the root base from the container and massaging it with your hands to break it up slightly before placing it in a hole in the ground.

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