This year’s garden trends have two very different looks: covered structures to protect plants from inclement weather and pests, and tiny gardens in glass or ceramic planters.
On an acre of land on the outskirts of Halifax, where brisk nor’easters and frigid temperatures keep most gardeners indoors during the winter, Niki Jabbour has been harvesting 30 different types of vegetables, including spinach, scallions, carrots and beets.
The reason Jabbour has been able to reap such bounty while the rest of us have been relying on grocery produce, is because she is an under-cover gardener. The cloak-and-dagger term simply means she uses a variety of covered structures to protect her plants from inclement weather and pests so that she can grow food year-round.
“The growing season for most Canadians is from the long weekend in May until the first frost,” says Jabbour, who has written several bestselling gardening books, including her most recent, Growing Under Cover: Techniques for a More Productive, Weather-Resistant, Pest-Free Vegetable Garden. “Covers give gardeners the wiggle room to plant seeds or seedlings much earlier in the year, and depending on the cover you choose, will protect them even after the snow flies.”
If you are new to gardening, Jabbour recommends starting small. “This gives you the opportunity to flex your gardening skills and learn techniques like timing off-season growing and how to regulate temperature by venting regularly.”
Simple, and relatively inexpensive, structures include row covers (light-weight fabrics that allow light, air and water to pass through to the plants while protecting them from weather or pests); cloches (plastic, glass or willow covers that keep plants warm); cold frames (a simple box with a clear top, usually plastic); and mini hoop tunnels (pint-sized tunnels with hoops made from PVC conduit, metal, wire or even an old hula-hoop cut in half and covered with plastic or lightweight fabrics). All of these options are readily available at any gardening store.
“You don’t need a big space or a huge garden to use any of these structures,” Jabbour says. “A single raised bed or even containers on a deck or patio can be covered for summer shading, pest prevention, or to retain moisture in the soil.
People with more space, and larger budgets, can build a greenhouse or polytunnel (hoop houses typically made with steel frames and covered with polyethylene), which extend the growing season even further and typically produce both higher-yielding and higher-quality crops.
Sandra Banfield built her first greenhouse last year, an eight-foot-by-eight foot structure that she is already planning on adding another six feet to this spring. “If I had one piece of advice, I’d say go bigger than you think because it fills up fast,” says the native of Bedford, N.S.
“The greenhouse extends my season by two months on each end. But even more important, it is my escape. Last year, with COVID at its height, I would go out there with my plants and shut out the world. It was a safe quiet place for both me and my plants.”
Horticulturist Leslie Halleck’s fascination with tiny plants began in the late 1980s when she was to Puerto Rico to study the effects of Hurricane Hugo on the rainforest.
She stumbled upon – almost stepped on, actually – the teeniest patch of pinkish red and discovered a population of incredibly tiny orchids, roughly the size of her fingernail, that were thriving despite the devastation around them. Amazed at their resiliency, and smitten by their cuteness, she returned home to Texas and began growing tiny plants – a hobby that has since become a passion and inspired her to write her fourth gardening book, Tiny Plants: Discover the Joy of Growing and Collecting Itty Bitty Houseplants.
Halleck’s Texas home is filled with little treasures including micro-orchids, succulents, begonias, violets, mosses and ferns. She plants them in thimbles, teacups, terrariums and tiny ceramic glazed pots made by a local potter. Sometimes she’ll put them under vintage glass apothecary jars.
The beauty of these little gems, she says, is that they are fun to care for – “I tend to dote on them” – they are easy to move around, and most important, they don’t take up much space.
“You may live in an apartment or small home and struggle to squeeze large leafy friends into crowded windowsills,” Halleck says. “Tiny plants can feed your plant addiction without cramping your botanical style.”
A lifelong plant collector and gardener, Halleck divides tiny house plants into two categories: indoor windowsill plants, which need light but don’t require much humidity, and those grown under glass (in a cloche or a terrarium), which need the moisture of an enclosed space. If you don’t have lots of windowsill space, grow lights will give small plants the oomph they need.
When you pot a plant in a tiny planter, Halleck recommends leaving about 1/8 inch (0.3 cm) from the lip of the pot to the soil level, so that water does not spill out over the edge. She also uses rainwater in spritz bottles to shower her little ones.
If the teeny specimens are going under glass, Leanne Johnson, president of GardenWorks in Burnaby, B.C., has a few basic tips. First, make sure you put “friends with friends,” she says. “It’s key to gather plants that like similar growing conditions. For example, succulents pair with other drought-loving plants, whereas ferns, fittonias and polka dot plants all love a moist environment.”
She also strongly recommends lining the bottom of the terrarium with charcoal, which filters the water and prevents that “funky stale water smell.” Some of the most popular plants (available in six-centimetre pots at any local garden centre) include fittonia (native to the rainforests of South America), wee ferns (such as crispy wave or bird’s nest fern), schefflera, polka dot plants, mini-pothos, and peperomiodes (money plant).
As a trend, Johnson says miniature gardening has taken off because it’s a relatively easy and inexpensive way for homeowners to green-up their indoor space in more creative ways. “Under glass you can create a fairy-tale environment out of plants, which is fun for adults and for kids. It’s working with our hands in a more finite way.”
Halleck agrees: “The beauty of these tiny plant specimens is they are just so different from what we’re used to growing. With so many new plant parents because of the pandemic, everyone is trying to find new niches within the plant community. This is the perfect blend of art, botany and design.”
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