Ways to Keep Your Garden Looking Great

Steve Whysall (Vancouver Sun gardening columnist) wrote a great article in Friday’s paper entitled Six Ways To Keep Your Garden Looking Great.

He interviewed Egan Davis, the chief instructor of the Horticultural Training Program at the University of B.C. Botanical Garden, but formerly at Van Dusen Botanical Garden, and one of my Master Gardener instructors. So I’m really happy to report that all of Egan’s “six ways” have been previously addressed here in the pages of Real Life Garden Solutions!

Here’s a quick overview:

1. Mulch. And only use organic amendments to the soil, and only fertilizers that are actually needed. See here for LOTS more info.

It's about 5' high, 10'across. That means probably about 10 cubic yards.

Mountain of mulch. It’s about 5′ high, 10’across. That means probably about 10 cubic yards.

2. Make sure your soil is carrying enough moisture. Adding compost will help with that.

3. Leave your fall garden “unkempt” for the critters. Read more here.

Crocosmia seeds. Beautiful to look at, but I wonder what bird has a big enough beak to crush these. They're probably 3-4 mm diameter.

Crocosmia seeds. Beautiful to look at, but I wonder what bird has a big enough beak to crush these. They’re probably 3-4 mm diameter.

4. I love this one: Don’t be afraid to make changes. It’s one of my design mantras. A garden should be something that delights in changing over the years.

5. Grow some from seed. I haven’t written this post yet, but the pictures are all ready to go…

6. Become a backyard ecologist. Yes, I’ve written lots on this.

I think this might be a bumble bee. It's pretty fat and fuzzy.

I think this might be a bumble bee. It’s pretty fat and fuzzy.

How to Design a Wildlife Garden

“If You Build It They Will Come”

First of all, why should you bother with a “wildlife garden”? Providing habitat for native critters will not only benefit them, but you as well. The more diversity you have in your garden the more you’ll appreciate it and get out into it. Which as you know from reading my first post of the year, is very good for your mental and physical well-being. Then of course there’s what you learn from co-habiting with lots of different species, and what your children will learn. But for me, it’s the entertainment factor that motivates me to develop the micro-habitats in my small urban yard.

Food Water Shelter.

That’s really all you need to encourage beneficial and entertaining wildlife to consider your home their home. Not talking raccoons or skunks or rats or even squirrels. But birds, bees, butterflies, frogs, toads, even little lizards if you live in the right place.

Bees and butterflies like a little mud. Birds will be happy with some bugs that you didn’t kill. Frogs and toads will be attracted to some fresh water.

It doesn’t necessarily take a lot of work or money, but it does take planning and commitment. Here’s a short article by Doug Green. 

First Things First

In order to have a wildlife-friendly garden, you’ll need to think in terms of balance: everything serves something else. You’ve heard me mention my aquarium before (the only pets in my family); my aquarium is balanced.

My aquarium

My aquarium

I seldom have to do any remedial care except for small water changes: I feed the fish small meals. The fish feed the plants, the plants aerate the water and use up all the nutrients the fish don’t need, and the water quality is nicely balanced.


In future posts I’ll get more specific, but for now, let’s cover the foundations. To welcome a wide range of native guests, you’ll want to have at least a selection of native plants, varieties of plant heights, minimal added fertilizers, and ZERO pesticides and herbicides, with the exception of organic treatments for food crops. Again, when I get to the different species, I’ll explain in more detail, but at this design stage, I’ll just cover generalities.


Plan to have at least a few tall trees, some short trees/tall shrubs, planted quite densely, short shrubs, and a variety of perennials, tall and short. This is called layering, and altho’ in some pictures the layers are often stacked like a grandstand, they don’t have to be, and in my opinion give a lot more interest when they are more “randomly” positioned (ie, designed to be that way). After all, your view of the garden depends on where you are–you’re not always looking at it from the living room window. I was surprised to hear a neighbour comment on how much she loves the look of my garden from her front window.

layering of vegetationThis picture (thanks to NatureScapes BC) shows the tallest at the back (that would indeed be the most logical) and then a variety of tall and short in the mid-background (shaded), finally more varied heights in the foreground. The purpose you can see on the left: different birds and beasts will fly, eat, sleep and nest at different heights.

At the lowest level, i.e. ground level, you’ll want to have an area that is left relatively undisturbed, perhaps some uncut native grasses, a bit of brush cut and left, or a section of lawn that is left to grow taller. It doesn’t have to be a large area, just a few square feet will do, and probably not where your neighbours and passers-by will see and exclaim over the mess. 


Of course, every living thing needs water. You may be afraid of providing a breeding ground for mosquitos if you have standing water, but remember, this is a balanced garden. Some of your invited guests will find mosquito larvae just the thing for breakfast; they’ll never last long enough to actually grow to maturity.

Water provides not only liquid to drink, but a play-space for birds, breeding area for frogs and toads, a place to grow bog-side plants, and of course the delight of sight and sound for you.


One of the most important elements here is to not KILL the food before it becomes a snack for your critters. Keeping your garden healthy will minimize the number of insects it attracts (unhealthy plants practically scream “come and attack me!”) , but will not eliminate them. The birds on the other hand will be quite grateful for the remainder, as will many beneficial insects. Did you know that parasitic wasps are so small they lay their eggs inside an aphid? So leave a few aphids for the beneficial parasitic wasp. And for the ladybugs, the larval stage of which is a big aphid eater.

Providing a wide variety of tasty morsels will increase the diversity of wildlife that come a-callin’. And again, at least a few of your plants should be native. For those that aren’t native, have some that are as little hybridized as possible. For example, many new cultivars of your favourite flowers are actually sterile–no seeds, no seed eaters. So that beautiful ‘Cherokee Sunset’ Coneflower I bought last fall won’t do anything for the chickadees and juncos. But they’ll love the sunflowers.

It’s early in the year, so you’ve still got lots of time to plan your wildlife garden. Stay tuned for more detailed information about bird, bee, butterfly, beneficials-friendly gardening. in the meantime, ask questions, make comments, and click the follow button.

Until next time…

Fall Clean-Up–What NOT to Do

Fall Clean up–What not to do.

It’s pretty late to be talking about fall clean up, but today it’s still sunny, and pretty cold for coastal BC (-1 right now), and it’s Sunday. So there might be a feeling that it’s now or never to clean up the garden.

Make it “never”–or at least make it “minimal” until late winter (andI’ll get to that in late winter).

When you look outside, you see fallen leaves, dead flower stalks, faded (or rotting) flowers,  and all manner of “unattractiveness”. You want to clear it all away. Have a fresh canvas for spring growth. You want it tidy. Neat.

Octavia Hall Rose looking the worse for wear

Octavia Hall Rose looking the worse for wear

But nature is never tidy, never neat, so I’m going to try to relieve you of the need to make it “nice”.

Dead flower stalks.

There are a few reasons to leave them where they are:

1. If they have seed heads on them, they are food for our local over-wintering birds. Chickadees, juncos, sparrows, towhees, bushtits, house finches… The more you can provide them the better they’ll survive the season. Coneflowers (Echinacea), Black-Eyed Susans (Rudbeckia), Shasta Daisies (Leucothemum), even sunflowers (Helianthus)–leave them all.

Rudbeckia seed head

Rudbeckia seed head

Crocosmia seeds. Beautiful to look at, but I wonder what bird has a big enough beak to crush these. They're probably 3-4 mm diameter.

Crocosmia seeds. Beautiful to look at, but I wonder what bird has a big enough beak to crush these. They’re probably ~3 mm diameter.

2. They are a reminder of what you have planted so that in spring, when you HAVE to get back out again, and nothing is sprouting yet, you’ll know NOT to dig in that bare spot that Oh, has a flower stalk in the middle of it. You may think you’ll remember where your beloved plants are, but trust me, you won’t!

Daylily (Hemerocallis) flower stalk reminding me when it's all bare and inviting that something is really there.

Daylily (Hemerocallis) flower stalk reminding me when it’s all bare and inviting that something is really there.

3. Hollow stemmed flower stalks provide a nesting place for cavity-nesting native bees like Mason bees. That’s a very good thing in our bee-challenged but bee-dependent environment.


Mostly let them lie where they fall.

Leaves will not only compost-in-place, they also provide habitat for a lot of beneficial critters in the meantime.

Witch hazel (Hamamelis) leaves will stay there until they compost. Besides, they're a vivid rich brown, quite pretty close-up.

Witch hazel (Hamamelis) leaves will stay there until they compost. Besides, they’re a vivid rich brown, quite pretty close-up.

There are a few exceptions to this however. If the leaves had any disease–powdery mildew, black spot, rust, etc– get rid of them. I’ll be cleaning up all the rose leaves today because they are full of black spot. The disease will overwinter because it’s not cold enough here to kill it. And will still be there next year to re-infect. Now having said that, these disease-causing organisms are all around anyway, and if a plant is susceptible, will be affected to some degree, given the right conditions. So is there really any benefit in clearing away the disease-bearing leaves now? Maybe I’ll do a barely-controlled experiment in my “research lab”–aka garden…

Rose leaves kind of indistinguishable  from surrounding wood chip mulch. maybe I'll leave then there after all...

Rose leaves kind of indistinguishable from surrounding wood chip mulch. Maybe I’ll leave then there after all…

Another exception is large leaves. Especially the larger maple leaves. They can create an almost impenetrable mat over the ground potentially causing damage to turf grass, and hindering water movement. But an easy solution is to rake them onto the lawn, and mow over them with your mulching mower. The small leaf bits will provide nutrition to the lawn just like the grass clippings have done (and I know you leave your grass clippings on the grass).


All that decaying matter is habitat for beneficial insects, birds, bees, all the things you want to encourage in your garden. It’s true, you are also providing habitat for some things you’d rather not support–like slugs– but the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. And if the odd toad or frog turns up, it’ll deal with your slugs anyway. Win-Win.

If you  feel the need to tidy things up despite all this, maybe just neaten the edges a bit. Take off those rotting rose blooms, the daylily and hosta leaves that are turning to mush, and of course weeds–getting them now will save some work in March. But keep it simple, and remember, there’s always Spring cleaning soon enough.

Not All Garden Bugs Are Pests

Mostly we hate bugs. Unless they’re  Pixar bugs. We don’t want ants in the house (never mind cockroaches!) Spiders are just plain awful, and beetles look intimidating.

But in fact, none of them are bad for the garden.

So here are a few (of the many) bugs that we can happily live with.

Spittlebug, aka frog hopper because apparently the adult has a face like a frog.

Spittlebug, aka frog hopper because apparently the adult has a face like a frog.


Inside the spit in the leaf axil in the above picture is the larva of the spittlebug, or spit bug as I prefer to call it. The spit is protective, and bitter-tasting, altho’ I can’t speak from experience. The bug itself sucks juices out of the plant. But unless there are a few thousand of them, they won’t do any damage in the short time they are there, so you can quite safely ignore them. And the adults’ only harm is that they lay eggs which become spit bugs.

bugs a

Ants on a peony bud.


Ants worry people a bit because altho’ we don’t really think they do any damage themselves, it’s thought that they may spread plant diseases. They don’t. They’re pretty much harmless, even in large numbers.

This beetle looks pretty rough,  but it's a great garden helper.

This 1 inch beetle looks pretty ugly, but it’s a great garden helper.

Ground Beetle

According to About.com, the ground beetle, of which there are thousands of varieties, is one of the top ten beneficial insects in the garden. (And they say 90% of the bugs you see are beneficial, so top ten is pretty good!) They are scavengers, and take care of a lot of the soft-bodied pests we’d like to get rid of–slugs being my chief victim.


A few aphids on a rose bud. There are not enough here to worry about of try to get rid of, they're food for the ladybugs.

A few aphids on a rose bud. There are not enough here to worry about of try to get rid of, they’re food for the ladybugs.

Everyone wants to get rid of them. But did you know that the ladybug is one of the beneficials in your garden, and if you destroy all the aphids, you won’t have the ladybugs. And if you use even mild pesticide, like Safer’s Soap, you’ll kill indiscriminately. You can easily put up with a few aphids. If there are more than a few, squish them with your gloved fingers, or shoot them off with a spray of water. Like most pests, aphids take advantage of weakened or stressed plants, so if you have an awful lot, check your plant’s health.

Bees and Such

I think this might be a bumble bee. It's pretty fat and fuzzy.

I think this might be a bumble bee. It’s pretty fat and fuzzy.

i thought this was a honey bee or mason bee, but no, it's a "syrphid fly", another of the best beneficials of the garden. Aphid eaters.

I thought this was a honey bee or mason bee, but no, it’s a “syrphid fly”, another of the best beneficials of the garden. Aphid eaters.

There’s almost nothing bad about “bees and such”, and so much that is good. Don’t step on them, and try not to let them fly under your clothes (experience talking), but other than that, your garden will love you for inviting these multitaskers in. Provide plants with sweet smells, and the bees and syrphids will seek them out, pollinating and pest-eating their ways through the garden.

Love to hear your comments, questions or stories. Click “follow” to get regular posts direct to your email, and check out the Facebook page, which has a few more posts.

Lover of Clover

This isn't clover of course, but it is a happy bee.

This isn’t clover of course, but it is a happy bee.

I remember reading a few years back that grass seed mixtures, up until 50 years ago, always contained a percentage of white clover (Trifolium repens, also known as Dutch clover). The chemical companies that developed herbicides managed to persuade lawn growers that seeing white clover in their lawns was a bad thing, and consequently, the seed suppliers began to produce mixtures that had no white clover. Which of course made the chemical companies very happy, because now not only were they selling herbicides, because of course, white clover will inevitably invade your lawn without herbicides, but they also had a new target customer for their nitrogen-rich chemical fertilizers. As you will now see…

I’m sure you enjoyed reading my last post about legumes and nodules and nitrogen fixing. Well this post is Part B: the benefits of clover in your lawn.

Natural fertilizer:

Clover is a legume, and hence, its little rhizobiums (that would be “rhizobia”) are busy gathering nitrogen from the air (do you remember nitrogen accounts for 78% of air!) and transferring it in a plant-usable form to the soil. Hence nitrogen-fixing. Now you probably know that grass–that is, lawn turf–is hungry for nitrogen, as are most of our green leafy plants. So when we lost white clover from our grass seed mixtures, there was nothing to add nitrogen to the soil, and hungry little grass plants removing nitrogen from the soil. Nitrogen deficit. Not good. Now weeds really will love to invade, and we end up using either herbicides or elbow grease to get rid of them. But if we sow white clover in the lawn, we have nitrogen added, and a little apparently goes a long easy. I read that if you’re sowing a new lawn, your clover-to-grass ratio should be 1:15 by weight. That’s not much clover. Your grass doesn’t need added chemical fertilizer, they’re happy co-existing with the few clover plants, and because the soil is in better condition, (of course assuming you’re doing all the other things that make your lawn happy), weeds will find the environment inhospitable. (Weeds in general prefer poor compacted soil to rich airy soil.)

So that’s the first benefit–rich soil.

Green Green Green

The second benefit (and I’m sure there are a lot more, but I only know of these two) is that white clover is much more drought tolerant than grass. Which, face it, is a very thirsty plant (hungry and thirsty), needing at least 1″ of water once or twice a week. Or you can do as I do, let it go dormant in the summer drought months–usually late July to early September here in Metro Vancouver–and tolerate a brown lawn. Or you can sow white clover, and have a green lawn all summer long with little or no added water.

So get out there and sow some white clover! But a few important notes:

Clover flowers are very tasty to bees or all sorts, (another benefit!), so if you’re allergic to bee stings, I highly recommend mowing your lawn whenever there are flowers.

And your clover plants will die out after two or three years, so you’ll need to overseed from time to time. But you may already be overseeding every fall anyway, so just make sure you’ve got some Trifolium  repens in the mix.