Brian Minter: Over the years Mother Nature has taught me a thing or two about plants, and I’d like to share some of my harder-learned lessons.Brian Minter: Over the years Mother Nature has taught me a thing or two about plants, and I’d like to share some of my harder-learned lessons.Read MoreThe Vancouver Sun – RSS Feed

Brian Minter: Over the years Mother Nature has taught me a thing or two about plants, and I’d like to share some of my harder-learned lessons.

Vines are glorious additions to the garden, but don’t be afraid to keep them in check. Minter Country Garden

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As it’s the last day of another tumultuous year, I thought I would lighten the mood with a little humour.

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Over the years Mother Nature has taught me a thing or two about plants, and I’d like to share some of my harder-learned lessons:

1: I enjoy adding drama to containers by using interesting stems to create height and introduce character. Up until recently, contorted willow stems were my favourites. These long, leggy beauties, however, tend to root rather quickly and grow even more rapidly. A gift we gave to a former friend contained a rather innocent-looking willow stem that rooted, grew, forced out all the other plants, broke the pot, rooted into the ground and was about to take on the foundation of her home. Stems of contorted filberts now adorn our containers.

Some like it hot, but after a long summer peppers might be practically molten! Minter Country Garden

2: I love peppers, especially the hot and spicy ones that add zip to salsas, curries and tangy sauces. It seems that every year, newer and fierier varieties are introduced to the market, but as a pseudo pepper aficionado, I tend to pooh-pooh their scary names — like Basket of Fire, Time Bomb and Super Chili. For a little show of bravado, I like to scarf down some hot varieties, usually ones rated ‘less hot’ on the Scofield Hotness Scale; certainly, ones with less burn than the really hot ones: Habanero, Ghost, Carolina Reaper and Trinidad Scorpion. One year, however, at the very end of a long, dry summer season, I popped in one of these lesser-hot peppers, and, to this day, I don’t think my poor, scorched mouth has fully recovered. Lesson learned! Hot peppers, grown under a bit of stress, tend to be far hotter, and when dried, 10 times hotter! Be forewarned!

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Espalier fruit cocktails are all fine and dandy, until a plum takes over. Minter Country Garden

3: Multi-grafted combination fruit trees are trendy and kind of fun. They’re well-suited for smaller space gardens. Image, I thought, I can have a fruit salad growing in my own backyard. How exciting. The first one I planted, I espaliered it on the south side of a barn. It took off like a rocket … well more correctly, it took off like one vigorous mother of a plum. Its four companions were not only in shock, but they also had the water and food sucked right out of them. Plums can be so greedy. I still like combination fruit trees, but now all the varieties are kept on a level playing field. If I see any unruly party flexing its big ego, I have shears, loppers and a pruning saw at the ready.

4: We’re all guilty of this one. Think back to the hottest days of summer, when the lawn is a pretty brown colour and our trees are flagging from severe water stress. Our immediate solution is to water for a couple of minutes with one finger over the end of the hose. There, that drought issue is solved. Not so quick. True, water is precious and not to be wasted, but it’s of no value unless it’s allowed to penetrate deep into the roots of the plants. It soon became clear to me that watering is a process of using an efficient water nozzle with 400 to 1,000 tiny outlets and allowing the water to slowly seep down into the root zone where it can be accessed to rehydrate the plants. Now I dig a little test hole beside the roots to check on the depth the water has penetrated.

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5: Speaking of watering, most of us water at the end of the day when we get home after work. Wrong. I have learned over the years that evening watering often causes more problems than it solves. When watered in the evening, plants tend to transpire that moisture away, and wet foliage at night is a red flag for so many plant diseases. It’s like drinking a fourth beer — it doesn’t do any good, and you know where it goes. For optimum water efficiency, the very best time to water is in the early morning when the temperature is on the rise. Set your alarm for 4 a.m. — yes, you can do it. Enjoy a cup of coffee and watch the sunrise while you water. Your plants will love you for it.

6: OK, I admit it: I’m a plantaholic. There are lots of us out there, and I know who you are. Our very worst/very best time of the year is in the middle of a long, cold, grey winter when seed catalogues arrive in the mail or online. When I and my fellow addicts see mouth-watering tomatoes, melons, peas, beans and so much more … well, we can’t help but imagine them growing in our gardens. Don’t get me started on the wow new colours of petunias, begonias and geraniums. Seed and plant companies know our weaknesses, and they know that we will order 10 times more seeds and plants than we could ever use. The common sense thing to do is to plan your order, add up the amount and then cut it in half. When ordering seeds, I never listen to my own advice, but maybe I have just saved you a bundle of money.

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7: When spring shows signs of finally arriving, it triggers a strange response in our psyches to dig in the dirt, muck about adding cow doo and composty stuff and plant everything we can lay our hands on. Back off! One thing I’ve learned is that late frosts, heavy, wet soils, vegetable-starved rabbits and their friends and vacillating warm and cool weather all conspire to foil early gardens. A defensive arsenal of row covers, raised beds and cloches all help, but unless it’s bragging rights you’re after, wait until night temperatures hang in around 10 C for the best liftoff. I don’t start my veggie garden until mid-June, and I usually harvest better stuff with fewer problems, and I shamelessly brag about it.

8: Most perennials, grasses and bamboos need to be divided on a regular basis to keep them healthy and prevent them from taking over the neighbourhood. In my naivete, I thought bamboo would be relatively easy to divide. Wrong! A formidable, serrated butcher knife refused to dent potted bamboo roots. Surely a very aggressive pruning saw would do the job. But no! Being highly annoyed, I then went at them with a big chainsaw. Finally, success! Next time, however, I will do this in solitude because word got out that chainsaws are the weapon of choice for perennial divisions.

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9: Vines look beautiful draped over arbours, trellises, fences and outbuildings. I could hardly wait until some elegant flowering foliage covered an arbour in our garden. Finally, at the end of two growing seasons, ‘the look’ was achieved. I was a little annoyed when a horticulturist mentioned that it needed to be pruned hard in the winter. What? And ruin ‘the look’! As the standoff ensued, this now-well-established vine went berserk. Not only did the arbour disappear, but a deep darkness fell over where the lovely annuals and perennials once flourished. They became leggy, unsightly and just plain ugly. The lesson learned: vines can be deceptively aggressive, and many need a harsh pruning, sometimes twice a year, to prevent world domination.

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Mexican Feather Grass likes to make itself at home! Minter Country Garden

10: I love Mexican feather grass (Stipa tenuissima), so I planted one. Late that summer, this soft, flowering beige grass looked stunning and with each breeze, created motion in the garden. Much to my delight, seedlings appeared next spring, adding more vibrancy and life around our pond. Soon, however, my new best grassy friends were growing everywhere, including the tiny spaces between our patio blocks. Holy invasion! It took me two years to weaken their ranks, and the new owners are still on the warpath. Lesson: Be ruthless. Seek and destroy any early signs of these cute, but relentless, little invaders.

So, there you have it. While not exactly profound commandments etched in stone, I hope you benefit from these 10 lessons learned over my many years at the front lines of gardening.

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