Gardening Advice - Good or Bad - & Expand Your Gardening

Is it possible to know which of conflicting pieces of gardening advice is correct or best? And here’s an idea to extend your involvement in gardening!
by Art Drysdale
by Art Drysdale


Art Drysdale, a life-long resident of Toronto and a horticulturist well known all across Canada, is now a resident of Parksville, British Columbia on Vancouver Island, just north of Nanaimo. He has reno-vated an old home and has a new garden there. His radio gardening vignettes are heard in south-western Ontario over radio station Easy 101 FM out of Tillsonburg at 2 PM weekdays.

Art also has his own website at

August 4, 2013

Since I have no appropriate photos to illustrate this week’s two topics, I’ll use some current photos from our garden here in Parksville. Many of the lilies are in full bloom, or just finishing. All are earlier this year than usual. Above: our ‘Stargazer’ was our first lily planted about eight years ago; followed by ‘Golden Stargazer’ planted much more recently; ‘Casa Blanca’ was also recently planted and seeds have established in at least two other locations in the garden—the first shot here includes a Buddleia davidii that is blooming for the first time this year, and a close-up of the ‘Casa Blanca’ flowers. Below: Asiatic Lily ‘Landini’ though not fragrant like most of the others is a stunning dark maroon colour; another Asiatic, Tango ‘Graffiti’; followed by two shots of the Oriental Trumpet Lily ‘Robina’ attains my own height (5’11”) and the number of blooms increases every year. Author photos.

Once again, the tiring old idea that if it's organic, it must be good is rearing its head! It brought to mind the suggestion that a national garden writer made many years ago, and which I mentioned a way back in July 1998 in one of my Canada's Weather Network lawn & garden reports that was running at that time. The idea is for smokers to collect cigarette butts in a small glass jar, add some water, and “let them steep.” In fact, what you are “brewing” by doing this is Nicotine sulphate--a so-called natural product that used to be sold on the domestic market as an insecticide. It was removed from the market decades ago because it is quite deadly! And, that “brewed” by home gardeners thinking they're doing themselves and the planet a favour, is quite likely even more deadly.

Certainly such home-made products are far more deadly than any of the chemical products on garden centre shelves even today. Finally, Global brought us the old beer trap method of slug control in the garden. There was film footage of a small white plastic dish being filled with beer and we were told that it would attract the slugs and they were then easy to get rid of. Well, may I add one small point, which must be done if this method is to work? The container with the beer must be buried in the ground so its rim is even with the soil surface. And, it's best to put a lid on it (Global TV did not), and cut a 3 cm diameter hole in the centre of the lid. That way, the slugs smell the beer, crawl to the smell, and fall in the hole, and remain trapped. But they will not climb up a steep, sloping dish to reach the suds!

Some long time ago (15 years ago to be precise) a caller to my TALK 640 radio show in Toronto asked me the question, “how does a new gardener know what's right and what's wrong of the things we see and hear that we should be doing?” I wish I knew the answer to that question! It seems to me, the more information there is out there, the greater the percentage of it that is either incorrect, or not entirely correct.

Obviously, novice gardeners ought to pay attention to the original source of the information they are considering. Often today, and I guess it's not just in gardening and horticulture, people (often newly interested in a topic) hear, read or see something, and repeat it in another medium, but put an emphasis on one aspect. I well recall this happening a few years ago. An organic gardener thought she had read somewhere that Dormant Spray worked better in the spring if the two ingredients in it (lime sulphur and fine oil) were applied separately. She stated this on a large-audience radio gardening programme, and the host did not question it. Suddenly, thousands of people were telling friends and acquaintances of this important new piece of information. But, on searching back, no one could find any research to back up the statement. It is simply not correct.

Lime sulphur and oil spray are not only effective in their own rights but have a synergistic relationship when applied together, as in all accompanying instructions! Be on your guard, and stay with me as my fellow curmudgeons and I keep eyes and ears open for offending erroneous, incorrect information!

* * *

If you are one who has recently become enthralled with gardening as a hobby, and are now thinking of how you can expand your activity, this winter could be the time for you to do some research and planning. If I were to suggest that if you are looking for a way to get more involved in gardening, you should consider hybridizing of plants, you'd likely say that it would be far too deep and difficult for an amateur like you.

Not so!

Consider the case in the 1970s of Catharine Meserve, living in Pennsylvania. Catharine's husband passed away. Both she and her husband had been ardent gardeners, but neither had ever gotten involved in anything more complex than starting certain "difficult" plants from seed, or propagating shrubs from cuttings. Now she was all on her own. She thought she'd like to get more involved in gardening, but couldn't do anything heavy or (so she thought) technical. A friend suggested she get into hybridizing plants. She eschewed the idea saying it would be far too technical for her, and that she had no training whatsoever.

The friend did not give up, until eventually Catharine asked that if plant hybridizing was such a good idea, how would one start--with what plants? The friend suggested choosing a genus of plants that had not been worked on extensively. When pushed farther, he suggested hollies. “Basically the English holly is not hardy much north of Philadelphia, so there could be a good market for plants which produce abundant red berries in colder climates.”

Catharine decided to go for it!

That was 40 years ago or more, and now today, you can check virtually any nursery or garden centre, or look in any nursery catalogue and find the Blue Princess and China Girl hollies. If you look at the tags, or listing, you'll see the botanical names of these are Ilex meserveae 'Blue Princess' and Ilex meserveae 'China Girl'. Yes, they're her introductions, bearing her name, and they are grown extensively in Ontario and British Columbia, to name but a few locations. [By the way, if you are planting these hollies, remember you must have at least one male plant ('Blue Prince' or 'China Boy' with each four/five female plants, if the females are to bear fruit.]

Now you may think, as Catharine did, that hybridizing plants is a difficult procedure that calls for an extensive knowledge of plants and the ability to carry out hard-to-understand techniques. But, it's all relatively simple. The actual "how-to" of plant breeding can be learned in little more than a few minutes.

The "art" of selecting the right kind of parents and evaluating the hybrids produced are the difficult tasks which will be developed as the work proceeds and the results are carefully studied.

When planning your hybridizing work, you will need to remember that the plants must be closely related botanically. It will be useless to try to cross a lily with a rose, or a geranium with a dahlia (although some unusual crosses do take place occasionally--witness the broccilflower, a cross between broccoli and cauliflower). It's this planning for what is to be hybridized that I suggest could be your winter gardening project, in order to be ready for next spring.

The first thing to do is to familiarize yourself with the main parts of a flower. A "perfect" flower has four parts: the anthers (atop stamens) which produce the pollen; and the stigma, style and ovary. The stigma's shape varies with each type of flower, but is usually at about the same height as the anthers, and often is sticky. The style is the stalk that connects the stigma with the ovary at its base. The ovary is the base that contains the undeveloped seeds (ovules).

Many common flowers, such as dahlias, chrysanthemums and zinnias are really clusters of perfect or imperfect flowers and the parts I've described are so small they are difficult to work on (the anthers must be removed before they produce pollen if hybridization work is to be done). With many fully double flowers such as double petunias, the flowers have been created by changing stamens into petals, so little pollen is produced.

There is much information to be found in books at the libraries and of course on the Web. You might wish to start out with this American Penstemon Society Website: . Now is the time to search it out. And, if you still think it will be hard for you to start in on the plant breeding hobby, bear in mind that a large percentage of ornamental plant varieties introduced in recent years have come from the efforts of so-called 'amateurs.' Some of the best roses, gladiolii, irises, daylilies, hollies, and African violets are being introduced by hobbyists with less than ten years' experience.

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