A Word With: Kath Smyth

The Calgary Horticultural Society’s “gardener at large” on garden zones, garden gnomes and why Larry the Lemon Tree got the boot.


This weekend, the majority of Calgarians who aren’t out camping will be planting their gardens, hoping their spreads can grow up to be worthy of Kath Smyth, horticulturist and “gardener at large” with the Calgary Horticultural Society (and a self-described “plantaholic” who says she should be barred from garden centres for her own good and admits to purchasing at least one home because it had beautiful hydrangeas in the yard). 

Horticulturist Kath Smyth.

Hailing from a long line of gardeners, Smyth has more than 40 years experience in the gardening industry, which she brings to her popular Beauty On A Budget workshops, showing how the average homeowner can create curb appeal using environmentally conscious methods and without spending a lot of money. Here, she gives us the dirt on garden zones, garden gnomes and why Larry the Lemon Tree got the boot.


Since the May long weekend is traditionally when Calgarians go garden-crazy, what advice do you have for the total gardening newbies out there?

“Keep it really simple. Talk to fellow gardeners, find out what they grow. Work with good soil, good tools. And keep it small at first otherwise you defeat yourself.”

What makes soil good?

“Good soil means it has good compost content, good organic content to it. That’s where you should invest your time and your money is working with your soil. Get good compost and get your soil working with the bacteria in the soil so it’s keeping the plant roots healthy and happy. And use good seeds. Grow from proper seed packages. Read the labels and educate yourself – there’s a certain amount of time it takes from the time you plant the seed til the time the plant starts to mature and produce for you. I usually tell people, read the labels on your seed packets. It will tell you how much production comes out of a seed package. It will tell you how many days to maturity. And know where we live, Zone 4A.

I was under the impression Calgary was Zone 3, but you’re saying we’re actually Zone 4A?

“We used to be Zone 3. It’s based on the number of frost-free days as well as the number of days in the wintertime when our temperature goes to -45C and stays there for five days in a row. We haven’t had that for… I can’t tell you how long. That jumped us up a zone.”

When you’re out for a stroll what are some things that really irk you about people’s front gardens?

“Oh my goodness me. That’s a topic now. The front gardens that bother me are the ones that are too sculpted and have everything in a perfect line. Like they think they’re dealing with soldiers and they’ve got this militant straight row of marigolds …. What really thrills me is when you can see people have recognized that they have no sun in the backyard so they put their tomatoes out front in pots, or instead of putting in an edging of white alyssum, they’ve got lettuce as an edging around their border – mix your ornamental crops and food crops! But I love a well-pruned, well-looked-after garden that has nice trees and a good mixture of flowers and foliage and they haven’t tried to hide the house from the rest of the world by putting a big tree out front. In the end, that tree becomes the enemy because it’s too big for the yard and then they spend the next 20 years sculpting it and trying to make it work so you can get in the front door. Always be aware of a tree’s genetic destiny.”

Do you name your plants and trees?

“I have been known to do that. For a long time I had a plant in the house named Olivia, because she lived so long. And then for a time I had a lemon tree that lived in the dining room named Larry, but he got too big and when he gored my husband’s forehead at dinner one night he had to leave. Outside, for a really long time, we had a shrub that I just thought was the coolest thing. I babied it and treated it really well. It was named for my sister-in-law, Lizzie. The debate was always whether she was supposed to be a dwarf lilac or a full-size lilac, but she was really quite pretty.”

What’s your biggest nemesis as far as pests go?

“The last couple years it’s been the scale on the aster [hedges]. The only cure is to chop them to the ground and spray them in the fall. It’s just, ugh. It destroys some really elegant planting. The other one is aphids. Every aphid is born pregnant. Every aphid is born producing living young. And they don’t need a male and they hatch every 12 days.”

This matriarchal society of aphids sounds fearsome indeed.

“And they evolve! You used to be able to spray them down with soapy water (a safer insecticidal soap) and they would generally give up. But nowadays I think they just stand there and go ‘oh, another shower!’ The insect population is always evolving.”

I have to selfishly ask you about squirrels because they’re a big problem for me. How do you deal with them?

“Well, I trap! But I also have several theories about them, because I believe they are dumber than a sack of hammers. Donna Balzer told me years ago that you plant all the stuff you need to plant and then you go over to the far end of the yard and you take a pot or you dig a hole and you pretend you’re planting there. And they’ll spend days and days digging there trying to figure out what you did and they don’t go back to where you were actually working. There’s also a product called Critter Ridder that’s in granular form, but it’s basically peppers – capsaicin and black pepper oil – and it puts them right off.”

What are your thoughts on garden gnomes? Are you pro gnome?

“Oh, I think a gnome has a certain character and cache in a garden but I don’t like the big guys. I think gnomes should be your own little secret. You know where it is in the garden and if someone spots it, well, good for them.”

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