Garden Views: Thinking of spring and answering some questions from gardeners

Begonias can work well in a shady garden. Photo by Mary Fran McQuade.


Are you sensing the approach of spring? I can see the sunset from my office windows facing due west, which means the sun isn’t sulking in the south anymore.

Our gardens are still frozen under a blanket of snow, and we’re still frozen in COVID-19’s grip.

Already, though, I’m hearing a lot of questions from gardeners looking ahead to spring.


  1. When should I start seeds indoors for planting outside?

For vegetables and annual flowers, mid-March is the time to start your seeds indoors. Keep them warm and don’t let them dry out. When the tiny plants come up, make sure they get 8 or more hours of direct light each day.

  1. When can I plant out annual flowers and vegetable seedlings?

Victoria Day weekend is the traditional safe planting out date. Or you can watch the weather forecast and plant outdoors when night temperatures are consistently above 10°C.

  1. Is it better to grow plants from seed or from started plants?

It takes a lot of work and attention to grow seeds into healthy, sturdy baby plants. That’s why seeds are cheap, compared with seedlings. So base your decision on your energy and your finances.

  1. I have a lot of shade. What can I grow in my yard?

Generally, bright summer flowers and vegetables that flower and then fruit – like tomatoes, squash, green beans – need sun to flourish. If you have a shady Beach garden, best flowers are tuberous begonias, new mildew-resistant impatiens and spring ephemerals like bloodroot and trout lily. Perennials like miniature goatsbeard, hydrangeas, Solomon’s seal and tiarella will flower without too much fussing. And don’t forget fabulous foliage plants, like hostas, ferns and bright annual coleus varieties. For vegetables, resign yourself to leafy greens: lettuces, arugula spinach, bok choy, mint and maybe parsley.

  1. I have a black walnut tree in my garden. People say the roots put out a poison that will kill anything planted nearby.

Black walnuts are not sneaky killer trees. This myth dates back to ancient Rome (when people also believed animal guts could tell the future.) Careless lab tests seem to have validated it in the mid-20th century. More modern field tests show black walnuts do no more harm to adjacent plants than any other large trees do.

  1. My pine trees drop a lot of needles into my garden. I’ve heard this will make my soil more acidic. What should I do?

Relax and let the pine needles form a lovely natural cover between your plants. Acid-loving plants do tend to grow in pine forests, but you’ll have to wait a few hundred years for the needles to affect the soil.

  1. My garden is very shady, but I want to grow a nice lawn there. How do I do that?

The short answer is hire a knowledgeable, trustworthy gardener to baby your lawn. Turf grass is beautiful, but it really, really wants sun. Think of the English Great Houses surrounded by rolling acres of manicured green. Then think of the English climate versus the Canadian. One gardener to the rich and famous told me bluntly that a lawn in our area requires a lot of water, seeding at least twice a year, annual aerating, regular fertilizing and other expensive primping. Life’s too short for that.

  1. When should I fertilize my flowers and veggies?

Most people are turning away from the concentrated chemical fertilizers now and using gentler organic fertilizers instead. New seedlings will appreciate a shot of weak fertilizer when you move them into their individual pots, before planting out. Veggies and annuals pack all their development into one season, so top dressing with commercial manure every few weeks helps them flourish. Perennials are longer term plants, so compost or leaf mulch in spring and as needed in summer should keep them happy.

Until we can get our hands dirty, keep learning – it’s good for the brain!

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