The Basics of Growing a Garden in Calgary

These tips from the Calgary Horticultural Society will get you growing regardless of how green your thumb is.

Photo courtesy of the Calgary Horticultural Society

Kath Smyth, a horticulturist with the Calgary Horticultural Society, helps new gardeners save time and money by showing them how to do things right the first time. Smyth, who teaches the CHS’s Beauty on a Budget workshop, has a few tips for making the most of your garden.

Work on your soil

“Soil is the foundation of any good garden,” says Smyth. “Compost to create soil that is healthy. Once you have healthy soil you get better disease resistance, stronger roots on your plants and stronger growth patterns on the top where the leaves are.”

Generally, you’ll want to add compost into your planting beds before the start of the growing season in late spring. You can also add about three inches of lightweight (as opposed to heavy and wet) mulch over top of an established garden. If you’re concerned about your plants not growing through, make it less dense in those spots.

“Don’t be in a hurry to put heavy rocks on your soil because it heats and depletes it,” says Smyth. “If you put mulches, like a bark or heat mulch, you will gradually get your soil to break it down and take it in.”

Don’t crowd your plants

“The biggest thing I see [with new gardener’s] is they overplant,” says Smyth. “They see a cute little juniper in the pot, buy five and put them really close together so they look like they’re supposed to when they’re mature. They don’t realize is how much that juniper is going to spread.”

While each plant is different, (junipers, for instance should be planted at least two feet apart) plants bought from a nursery often have recommended planting distances on their labels. Flowers, like perennials, generally prefer a range of 18 to 24 inches apart. Smaller plants can range from six to 12 inches. Larger plants can get up to 36 inches apart.

Don’t plant too close to your house

Smyth says one issue she sees is people planting too close to their homes and not allowing room to grow. “People buy little mugo pines. They’re cute and ball shaped and look really nice in pots, so they put them by the front doorstep because it looks real cute there. That poor mugo pine spends the next 15 years trying to escape from your house.”

Before you plant, consider things like the width and height that your plant or shrub will grow to and try to avoid the overhang from your roof, which can drip down water and erode your plant.

Water your plants the right way

It can be tempting to just run the sprinkler over the whole garden for a couple of hours, but this spray-and-pray-it-works method won’t get moisture to the plants that need it most, like newly planted greens, which require special attention.

“You have to spend a bit of time with the newer plant material and water them properly,” says Smyth. “For instance, a tree in a number 10 pot (one that holds roughly 9.6 litres and is 15 inches high), could be put in the ground and watered every three days for about a half an hour and it would get lots of water.”

A food crop needs regular, deep watering, but not continuous watering, preferably on a slope to get it absorbing better. Tomatoes need watering thoroughly and deeply about every four to six days.

It’s also best to water plants in the morning, before the sun has a chance to evaporate too much of the water used.

Grow what you like

Smyth prefers perennials (plants that live at least two years) and says some, like peonies, are easy for beginners to grow. But, she recommends starting by growing what you know and like. It will motivate you to keep going.

“If you don’t know what you like, start taking classes, reading books and walking through garden centres” says Smyth. “Ask your mom or grandma what some of their favourite plants are. If you think back, I’m quite certain there was something in your garden that drew you towards it.”

Join the Calgary Horticultural Society

Gardening can be a solitary endeavour. Having a group to swap stories and seeds with makes it more fun and will teach you things.

“As a member [of the CHS], you get to attend things like our plant share and meet other gardeners who are very like-minded,” says Smyth. “You bring a plant and you’re able to swap for other plants. Bring as many as you want, as long as they’re not a noxious or invasive species. We always have people at the table who will give you advice.”

The 2017 plant shares are scheduled for Saturday, May 27 and Saturday, September 9.

Calgary Horticultural Society’s next Beauty on a Budget classes are May 8 at Banff Trail Community Associationm 2115 20 Ave. S.W., and May 9 at Rosscarrock Community Association, 4411 10 Ave. S.W.

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