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Need a hand in the garden?

Gardening guru Marjorie Harris was online earlier to take your questions on all things gardening.

Your questions and Mr. Harris's answers will appear at the bottom of this page once the discussion has begun.

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Marjorie Harris is considered one of Canada's leading garden writers. She writes a weekly gardening column for The Globe and Mail and is editor-at-large of Gardening Life magazine. Born in Shaunovon, Saskatchewan back in the mists of time, she was educated from Goose Bay Labrador to Vancouver B. C. and graduated from McMaster University.

She is the author of 13 gardening books, her most recent being How to Make a Garden, The 7 Essential Steps for the Canadian Gardener, published by Random House.

Editor's Note: editors will read and allow or reject each question/comment. Comments/questions may be edited for length or clarity. HTML is not allowed. We will not publish questions/comments that include personal attacks on participants in these discussions, that make false or unsubstantiated allegations, that purport to quote people or reports where the purported quote or fact cannot be easily verified, or questions/comments that include vulgar language or libellous statements. Preference will be given to readers who submit questions/comments using their full name and home town, rather than a pseudonym.

Dominique: Hello Ms. Harris, I have recently began a foray into gardening and I really enjoy it. It will remain to be seen if the garden likes my beginner attempts.. I have a cottage on a peninsula in the Gatineau are of Quebec. The soil is very sandy. There is south west full sun exposure to a small wooded and shade all day around the cottage. I would appreciate any tips around what kind of plants would enjoy this and also flowering trees. I know it is a broad question, I would appreciate any ideas.

Thank you for your time, Dominique

Marjorie Harris: The first thing you should do is add a lot of humus to this soil: that is organic matter such as compost and manure and ground up leaves. This will help create a good growing medium. Winters are very harsh here so look for plants that are extremely hard (they should be able to grow in Zones 3 and 4). The shady area around the cottage can take hostas, pulmonarias (lumgwort) as well as great native plants such as Jack-in-the-pulpit; Solomon seal and ferns. In the sunny areas try Amelachier spp (serviceberry) for its flowers; Rosa glauca for its colour; and lots of salvias and any of the herbs such a sage.

Brian Lowry from Fredericton Canada writes: Hi -- I have several gardens with various wildflowers, most of which I grew from purchased seed (willow amsonia is a favourite). Every year when I weed, I try to leave a few of the less unattractive seedlings that pop up in the garden, just in case they amount to something (last year or the year before I managed to leave two nice wild lilies, which are flowering this year). My question is this -- is there a better way to seek out local wildflowers than randomly letting them sprout in your garden (without doing anything harmful in the wild, of course), and how can I tell which seedlings to keep?

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Marjorie Harris; Check out the nurseries in your area and see if there are any specializing in Native plants. It's a lot easier to grow them from already-started plants just as long as you follow the planting instructions. The alternative is to find seeds native to your area. Check out New Brunswick Botany Club. Many garden clubs have terrific seed exchanges. Or go to and see what seeds they have for your province. You might also check out my book BOTANICA NORTH AMERICA in your library or at a second hand bookstore. It has a wealth of information.

Jodey D from Ottawa Canada writes: The house we have purchased comes with a major garden. Sadly, neither my partner nor I have gardened much before and we have little idea about how to properly look after it. If you had to recommend a book or websites to those new to gardening, particularly those inheriting a large garden, what would they be? Any other thoughtful advice for new gardeners? Thanks and cheers Jodey Derouin Ottawa

Marjorie Harris; Have a look at my book HOW TO MAKE A GARDEN (Random House and you can check it out on my web site ). It's full of ideas about how you can scale a large garden into manageable proportions. The first things is: don't get overwhelmed. Take it one section at a time and learn how to look after that. You might be wise this first year to get some help in general maintenance. You do not want to let weeds go.

J DM from Milton ON Canada writes: Hi Marjorie - we have a very mature spruce tree in our back yard (gets southern and western exposure) which is surrounded by maple trees on one side and a shademaster locust tree on another. The branches are dying a few at a time every year. We're wondering if it is getting enough light on the lower branches? Also, I've noticed a steady stream of ants making a regular trek up and down the trunk of the tree. Could they be killing our spruce tree? I'm going to estimate that it's about 25 yrs old and is about 25 - 30' high. Thanks for any advice you can provide.

Marjorie Harris: The ants are probably attracted by the sap that's running from the wounds of the lower limbs. Get a certified arbourist in to have a look at it and check out the tree's health. There may be just too much competition for food. Add lots and lots of compost or a combination of compost and manure around the bottom without touching the actual trunk. Try to boost its immune system this way and you may have to sacrifice on of the deciduous trees to save the evergreen.

Sydney Dyck from Toronto Canada writes: I have a problem with 'creeping charlie' on my lawn. What do you suggest is a remedy for this to rid our lawn of this pest?

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Marjorie Harris; It is indeed a pest. Apart from pulling it out on a regular basis, you can always cut it back to the ground with a whipper snipper and cover it with a layer of dampened newspapers covered with plastic held down by bricks. This will starve it out along with anything else growing next to it. You might want to do it in sections.

Adeline Cheng from Toronto Canada writes: Hi Marjorie- I have two quick questions - 1. I started my first container garden on my back porch this year as it is the only spot in my backyard where we get partial light. I have a tomato plant, a rhubarb (that seems to have been a bust), assorted lettuce, peas and herbs. Can I plant any other types of vegetables that are okay with partial light, can be planted in a container box and do I have to wait until next year to plant them from seeds? 2. We bought a beautiful Japanese maple for our front yard and we used an organic fertilizer when we planted it which turns its beautiful purple leaves into a vibrant green. Is this permanent? Is there anything we can do to restore the colour? Or do we wait until next year?

Marjorie Harris; 1. VEGETABLES AND HERBS NEED SIX HOURS OF SUN A DAY. You can still buy plants from nurseries and supermarkets so it's not to late to put them in. There is a store on Queen Street West which specializes in container vegetable gardening try and track it down and see what she's growing. But don't bother if you don't have the right light. The rhubarb probably needed a lot more space, and very sandy soil.

2. It depends on what kind of Japanese maple tree you have. Find out the name and do some research. Many Japanese maples have leaves that turn different colours in different season and it's more than likely this is what's happening not the kind of fertilizer you used.

canice leung from Canada writes: What fool-proof plants and gardening techniques would you recommend for an apartment dweller and renter in downtown Toronto? I've already started a small herb garden on my balcony, but want to start growing other veggies and fruit. Ideally I'd be able to bring them indoors in the winter, easily movable for when I move, and also be non-toxic to my cats and dog. Thanks so much!

Marjorie Harris: You don't mention what kind of light you have but see above. You could probably bring herbs such as rosemary, lavender and sage indoors in the winter but the vegetables are annuals. Put large containers on dollies so that it's easy to move them indoors. What kind of light you have will dictate the kinds of plants you can grow. Don't try sun plants in the shade and vice versa. It's a waste of time and money.

Mary Trott from Williams Lake, BC Canada writes: Dark-reddish spots are appearing on the underside of leaves of lamb's quarters and Swiss Chard in my garden. I have some chard sheltered under spun polyester, and it does not show this appearance. I presume it is some sort of disease, and am curious to know what it is. I live on a 15-acre lot about 16 km south of Williams Lake.

Marjorie Harris: I don't know enough about vegetable diseases but this sound like it might be an air-borne rust if the chard under polyester is not affected. Don't water from above. Mulch deeply and harvest regularly.

Ardith Lyon from Mississauga Canada writes: I have peonies which get a white dust after blooming. These are at least 18 yrs. and I have split them on numerous occasions. What is causing this? Thank you Ardith Lyon

Marjorie Harris: The white dust is probably mildew or a form of fungal disease. It's been very wet and the dampness lingers on. Don't ever water from above. Use an organic fungicide and make sure there is good air circulation around the plant.

Fredy P from Moffat Canada writes: Marjorie We live in Milton, Ontario and planted a rose of sharron two summers ago. It has yet to flower, any thoughts? FredP

Marjorie Harris: This is one of those reluctant plants: reluctant to flower and then once it does, it will be reluctant to die. You'll have to be patient. I've waited five years for a R of S to come into bloom. Then it grew so big and floriferous I wanted it to just go away. Hope you've got it in a spot that can take a large plant.

Diane Nayda from North York, ON Canada writes: How do I stop feral cats from defecating in my garden? I've tried moth balls, garlic, rose bush canes, chicken wire buried under mulch, and Critter Ridder...nothing is working. Hope you have the answer to a most troubling problem. Many thanks, Diane Nayda

Marjorie Harris: In the areas where they like to do their business spray a tsp of Lysol in a pint of water. Once you've got rid of THEIR smells, get your own in. Spray with lavender; plant Berberis thunbergii. This is a thorny shrub and they hate it. In fact planting lavender and anything else that's highly scented might help.

Barbara Gregory from Toronto Canada writes: My Purple Smoke bush doesn't smoke! It is fairly young, about three years old. It bears lots of flowers which open, but doesn't produce the long purple threads that I envy on other Smoke bushes. It is otherwise a lovely and healthy shrub, but I am very disappointed. Was I sold a dud? Is there any remedy?

Marjorie Harris: To produce smoke Cotinus needs to have at least six hours of sun a day. It also has to be a very mature plant to do so. If you have it in a protected spot you might be getting the smoke in a few years. Gardening is about being patient. It's a lovely tree so worth the wait.

M. O. from Canada writes: Hello Marjorie. I have been fighting a losing battle with crabgrass which extends along a strip of my front lawn. Last fall, I pulled it all out by hand. This spring I tried corn gluten, and the crabgrass seems to have benefited greatly -- it is now twice as plentiful. Any suggestions?

Marjorie Harris: Cover the crab grass with about 10 layers of dampened newspapers. Then top it off with a thick layer of manure and compost. This will eventually break down but you can also plant into this and eventually you'll be squeezing out the crab grass.

Rasha Mourtada, Globe Life web editor: Thanks to Marjorie for coming online today. To our readers, we're sorry we didn't get to all of your questions. Please look out for future discussions with Marjorie Harris.

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