Gardening Tips: Down with Lawns!

Editor’s Note: This column last appeared on 3 March 2021


What to do this week

I really think people shouldn’t have lawns. Lawns are for grazing sheep. So that is my rule of thumb: your lawn should be either big enough to graze sheep, or small enough to cut with a push mower. Everything else can be put to food planting. That can be perennial food plants that don’t need a lot of maintenance, even less than a lawn. Fruit trees and native shrubs that produce berries are ideal companions for backyard planting. They will develop your yard or garden with food in mind, and also create habitat for birds. You can have things that are strictly ornamental if you like, but why not produce food at the same time? Native plants like elderberries or juneberries (also known as Saskatoon berries) can be excellent for this, and elderberry blossoms are beautiful.

Elderberry. {{cc-by-sa-2.0}} Author: Sebastian Maćkiewicz.

Elderberry (Photo by Sebastian Maćkiewicz, CC by SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Now is the time to order your fruit trees and native shrubs from mail order nurseries. Digging up wild plants, even native shrubs, is not the way to go. You may not be as knowledgeable as you would like to be on what might be rare or endangered, or how to avoid damaging wild habitat. Also, some of the wild varieties are wild for a reason. Wild elderberries are usually very small and seedy, but there are a lot of named elderberries that have been developed and cultivated to provide big, juicy berries.

I recommend going to the higher quality nurseries. I like Corn Hill Nursery in New Brunswick. They do mail order for a lot of things. We also have the Farmers Co-op on Keltic Drive. You may be able to find things there or at other local nurseries later in the season, but now is the time for mail order.

If you go online it is important to look for nurseries that specifically serve your bioregion, which is why I like Corn Hill. They are in New Brunswick. It is cold and wet there, just like here.

This time of year, you will be ordering bare-root trees and shrubs. They have been dug up in the fall, all the dirt has been shaken off and the plants have been put in cold storage for the winter. It reduces storage costs, and shipping costs, and saves you money. It is a little more work than going to a nursery in April, where it is already potted up for you, but the quality is a lot better.

The potted trees you can get later in the season are usually shipped from huge commercial nurseries, most often from Ontario. They are potted en masse, and you have no idea if the plant has a healthy root system, if it is root bound, or if it has been sitting out in the hot sun in a garden center parking lot for weeks. If you get bare rootstock from mail order nurseries, you are going to see for yourself what kind of quality you are getting. Not that I don’t sometimes get hijacked by a nice looking plant or something that I buy on the cheap in a grocery store parking lot, but I usually regret it.

Buying smaller, bare-root trees and shrubs won’t necessarily mean you have to wait extra years for fruit either. If you really want to start with large trees you can sometimes order them by mail order. You may have to pay more for shipping, but nothing compared to what you would pay later for a larger tree in the garden center. But here’s the thing: you don’t have to start with the biggest tree you can carry. You are not necessarily going to get your apples sooner that way. The problem is that a larger tree will suffer root shock much more than a smaller tree. A more mature tree will also require more babying and a lot more water that first year. It is actually better to buy a one- or two-year-old tree. Number one, it is usually cheaper. Number two, the roots haven’t had a chance to get way too big for their pots. Number three, they will take to their forever home more quickly, and often overtake larger trees that were planted at the same time.

I bought butternut trees a few years ago. I bought some that were one-year-old and some that were two-year-old. After only two years the one-year-old trees caught up to the two-year-old trees because they didn’t suffer the same setback from transplanting. The same is true for fruit trees.

So you save money, and you really don’t lose any time. Place your mail order for bare-root shrubs and trees now. You will have access to more variety, your plants will most likely be healthier from the start, and the nursery will not mail your product until planting time. You do need to order now though, before they sell out.

Next week I will talk about getting a jump on cool weather greens. It will soon be time to start your kale!

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Market gardener, farmer, workshop leader, seed-saver, political candidate and mother, Michelle Smith has spent over 30 years coping with the challenges of our bioregion and in the process has built a store of practical and technical knowledge. The Inverness resident has served on the board of Seeds of Diversity Canada and represented Alternative Producers with the Federation of Agriculture but can do nothing about her hair. She is pictured with a head of Club Wheat, a seed that shares her approach to hairdressing.



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