NOT planting time for anything that likes warm weather

It may be the long weekend in May, but it’s NOT planting time for anything that likes warm weather--and the list is fairly long!
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

May 18, 2003

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Two views of my ‘Maypole’ crab apple tree taken in 1997. Note in the horizontal photo, it appears in the centre of the door.
Author photos.

According to the calendar, and tradition, this should be the biggest gardening weekend of the year. However, tradition-wise, the planting-out weekend in most of Canada was/is the 24th of May, not the 17 to 19th, as the official holidays legislation sets it for this year. That’s the first point. The second is the fact that we’re experiencing one of the later springs that we’ve had in the last decade just exacerbates the problem of planting this particular weekend.

Realizing those two points doesn’t mean that you should not plant anything this weekend. However, it is important not to even think about planting out the likes of tomato plants, peppers, okra and even beans in the veggie category, and in flowers: impatiens, petunias and tropical water lilies. On the other hand, there are some plants that will be fine planted this weekend, even if it is still slightly cool. Examples would be snapdragons, many geraniums, and most herbaceous perennials. And in vegetables, you should already have your spinach, sweet peas, radishes and lettuce started outside; this weekend will be perfect for planting any of the cole crops such as kale, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli and cauliflower.

Of course, as far as trees, shrubs, vines, rose bushes and evergreens, now is one of the best times to plant. It’s always good to get these plants into the ground before they come into full leaf, or in the case of evergreens, before the new growth emerges from the buds.

There is still one item that you might want to consider starting off from seed indoors. Yes, indoors! That would be sweet corn. Most folks know corn loves heat, and hence planting the seeds in the garden too early, such as this weekend, doesn’t get you edible cobs any earlier. In fact, like planting tomato plants out too early, your first crop may actually be later than if you don’t put the plants into the ground until there is some reasonable warmth both of the air and in the soil. Though you don’t often hear of it, you may certainly start off your sweet corn plants indoors, say in Jiffy 7s, and then plant them outside say at around the beginning of June. If you’ve never tried that, do so this year!

While writing about seed starting, I should again point out that there are flowers and vegetables which don’t transplant well, and therefore are better started outdoors where they are to grow. Morning glory, bells of Ireland, poppies, sunflowers and sweet peas are examples of these direct-seeded flowers; while beans, carrots, okra, peas, pumpkins, radishes, spinich and turnips are vegetables which like to be sown where they will grow. In the case of sweet and garden peas, early sowing is possible right in the garden and should have been done by now in most areas.

Last week, on Mothers Day specifically, I checked the Forum section of the and noted at least three topics that I thought needed some comment. I’ll leave the questions of wood ash generally, and dolomitic lime for honeysuckles until another time.

The question about Ballerina columnar apple trees interested me the most. The Forum participant says, “About 5 or 6 years ago I gave my father, for Father's Day, a Columnar, or Ballerina Apple Tree. It is just one stalk, no branches. Within each clump of leaves on the stalk, blossoms and then apples grow. Or should grow. My Dad's tree is now about 8' tall and has never had a blossom, let alone an apple. My question is, "Do you, or your readers, know anything about these types of trees, and what I can do to get some fruit out of it?" Around the time I purchased my father's, I noticed a number of gardening centres selling this type of tree, but in the past few years I haven't noticed any. Any advise will be greatly appreciated.”

Over the past decade I’ve written considerable about these trees, and grew the actual initial four cultivars that were introduced into Canada in the early 90s. They were interesting to me in that they were unique, and they actually originated in Canada--specifically at Wijcik Orchards in Kelowna, British Columbia in 1962. One branch of one McIntosh tree was found by Mr. Wijcik to bear no side shoots, only fruiting spurs along its whole length. He took the branch to the Ag Canada experimental station at Summerland (BC) where buds were propagated. What resulted were upright, single-stemmed trees that bore no branches but were covered with fruit buds as on the original branch from Mr. Wijcik’s tree.

Early plant breeding work at the Summerland station showed that the branchless habit was due to a single dominant gene. It was also evident that the apples produced were quite subject to scab disease when grown in areas other than the normally dry Okanagan Valley.

It is my understanding that through a regular experimental station exchange programme between the two countries, some of the Wijcik apple wood, as well as (a little later) some of the pollen, went to an experiment station in England. Soon, the rights had been acquired by the predecessors of PBI Cambridge (Plant Breeding International) in England, and Mr. Wijcik’s stock was taken to the famous home of dwarfing rootstock, the East Malling Research Station, in Kent.

Early in the 1970s, Ray Watkins and Ken Tobutt at the station started their own breeding programme with Mr. Wijcik’s parent material. Crosses with popular eating apple varieties, and crab apples for ornamental interest, yielded four marketable ‘columnar’ varieties in the mid 1980s. They were named the Ballerina Trees, and were first exhibited at Chelsea in 1989. They were also on display at the 1990 Chelsea show, particularly a dramatic vista of the flowering crab apple, and that was where I first observed them.

In the US and Canada, the trademark name Ballerina was not available, so the trees are known here by the collective name: Colonnade. I grew these trees both in containers and in the ground at my East York garden, and the ‘Maypole’ crab apple was particularly dramatic. I had no problem getting any of them to flower.

All four trees achieve a maximum height of about two metres (7'), and a spread of 50 cm (20"). They can be grown in containers, provided they are at least 45 cm (18") in diameter. Over-wintering in zones 5 and 6 should not be a problem if the container in which they are growing is at least the minimum dimensions suggested.

More recently, Doug DeJong, owner of Misty Meadow Nursery in Cloverdale B.C. (near Vancouver) worked extensively with further developments from the original Wijcik apple, and had a number of new cultivars which were much more tolerant of disease than the original. His first trees were sold in 1997. Though I am much closer now, I have not been in touch with Doug recently, but I will soon and I shall report on the latest.

I do not understand why the Forum participant’s tree did not flower, but I’ll try to see if Doug DeJong can contribute a suggestion. It’s always possible that there wasn’t another apple or crab apple tree near enough to act as a pollinator, but that “solution” to the problem would only apply if the tree flowered and did not produce fruit!

On the same subject, another respondent to the original question on this topic wrote the following: “I'm not familiar with this particular variety, but I do know that upright branches on apple trees are unlikely to flower or fruit, which is why you see such drastic pruning on the commercial crops. I know many home gardeners in the UK hang weights on the end of branches to encourage the branches to fruit and flower and to get the branches growing in a more horizontal habit. It has something to do with the sap, but can't remember the exact science of it.”

The “information” which that writer supplied varies from misleading to absolutely incorrect! It is true that fast-growing straight upright ‘watershoots’ on apple trees will not likely produce flowers and thus fruit and should be pruned off. The preferable time of doing that is in mid to late summer. That does not apply to the Colonnade or Ballerina trees that only grow upright with the short spurs.

The reason growers of young apple trees use various weights to pull down side branches is not to stop upright growth, but to prevent weak “V” crotches. Any tree with two major branches growing at a tight angle is much more subject to the smaller branch being broken away from the larger (trunk), say in a storm. Wider, more open crotches are much stronger, and hence when trees are young, growers often use light-weight items (often even clothes pins) in order to weight the young branches down.

A final reminder about crabgrass: if you had it in your lawn last year, chances are you’ll have even more this year. By the time you see it in July, and it gets very ugly (with its five thin finger-like seed heads and the leaves turning reddish) by early August it’s difficult to kill it. Now is the time to apply a lawn fertilizer containing the crabgrass preventative “Dimension”. You only need to apply it in areas slightly larger than where you saw it last year, and then use the cheaper regular spring fertilizer on the balance of the lawns. And, don’t forget to rake your lawn well before applying Dimension, and do NOT apply any grass seed just before or after applying ‘Dimension’.

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