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Irises, Begonias, garden centres, tent caterpillar

Spring Planting

by Wes Porter
Sunday, May 21, 2006

Laconia, says the desk encyclopedia, is a region of ancient Greece in the southern Peloponnesus — or a city in central New Hampshire on the Winnipesaukee River, thus:

There was a young gent from Laconia

Whose mother-in-law caught pneumonia.

He hoped for the worst

And just after May first

They buried her ‘neath a begonia.

A begonia planted out in early May? No way, not even in Toronto’s banana belt of The Beach or the similarly designated Niagara Peninsular. It’s not the air temperature that counts here. It is that of the soil. It should be at least 15C (60F) before planting out begonias and such sensitive plants.

Spring fertility ceremonies — judging by newspapers, magazines and web sites aimed at the young ‘uns (they require no such encouragement nowadays, if they ever did) — appear to be all the rage.

Lincolnshire farmers in eastern U.K. were more modest. They nipped out to the ploughed fields at night, there to drop their trousers and sit on the soil. If it was comfortable, then seeding time was nigh. Perhaps it was the proximity of ‘er majesty’s estate at Sandringham that provoked the practice.

A frost was experienced in Toronto’s expanding banana belt was the first week of April. Sandy soils warmed up fast but, fickle as always, cooled when the thermometer dropped back somewhat from almost 20C following Easter. It then dropped some more, and dropped, and dropped. Accompanying it the last week of the month were no April showers but something nearer to a monsoon — and frost. In summary, if you wish to keep garden centre operators happy, purchase tender annuals now, plant them — and pray. A buyer must have a hundred eyes, says an Arab proverb — and perhaps also a sensitive bum.

Bungled with the basil yet again? As is so often, the Greeks had an explanation: they spoke most severely to the seeds before sowing them. Apparently they associated Osimum basilicum with animosity and unpleasant language. By being thoroughly disagreeable to the seeds they assured future growth. Perhaps the local retailer will not be able to reassure you that your basil plants such Hellenic horticulture but they shouldn’t be selling them until the weather is downright hot. Basil originated in the tropics and hates cold of any kind.

Irises of all kinds are very Canadian flowers. Rather unsurprisingly then, the Canadian Iris Society is urging you clean up debris around yours and avoid disaster by disease or panicking over pests during the coming season. And although it is time to fertilize, their admirable web site ( suggest a little goes a long way. Interestingly they suggest alfalfa-based fertilizer as "an excellent supplemental addition that provides nice results."

Incidentally, many garden centres are now stocking hardy bamboos. No ma’m, that is not an Italian term of affection for a baby — it is actually a Malay name for the member of the grass family, Gramineae. For example, Pleioblastus fortunei ‘Little Zebra’™ is a spreading bamboo, said to be to hardy to Zone 6, a striped deciduous form that can be grown as a groundcover, if mown in spring, according to

The colourful lantana you chose for a planter also has Malaysian associations. The plant is known to them as bunga tabi ayam the leaves resembling they say, er, chicken droppings. At least so divulged Wee and Hsuan in their excellent work on Chinese traditional medicine since the plant finds use in such capacity. It is also known to be poisonous.

Recent research has shown that watering is the critical factor in establishing new trees and shrubs. Whether May is or is not especially dry then, pay attention to watering. Your new plants are living and indeed sentient entities. How are those that persist in letting such wither and die likely to treat their fellow humans? Of course Toronto Parks do this all the time — but then they have the excuse that they are bureaucrats.

It was the self-same city’s politicians who decreed that lawns must no longer be doused with dastardly chemicals. This caused much pother and perturbation amongst lawn jockeys who continue to mount a determined campaign to rescind such. Unfortunately, it is a truism that when elephants wrestle, it is the grass that suffers.

In almost every instance, keeping the lawn healthy is surprisingly simple. Mow no shorter than 1_ inches (2 inches would be even better). Fertilize twice a year with a granular fertilizer this month or early in June and again in late summer or September. Unless there is heavy and prolonged rain, turn the sprinkler on for an hour at a time every three days, or enough to apply a half-inch of H2O.

Of course there are those wretched killjoys who despise lawns, criticizing them with pseudoscientific "facts" and generally making a nuisance of themselves. It was the composer Julius Christian Sibelius who observed that on the entire face of the earth there is not one statue erected to a critic. Or for that matter an "environmentalist."

There are pests and pathogens that have been with us for considerably longer. This month, the tent-like webs of the eastern tent caterpillar may make an appearance on crabapple, hawthorn and decorative Prunus. Wait until after dusk, pop a plastic bag over the nest, tie off tightly and prune off, then dump in the garbage. These and many another calamitous caterpillar can be controlled with Bacterium thuringiensis, or Bt spray but be aware that it takes out all larvae of Lepidoptera, good guys, harmless as well as pests. However, it is effective against such diverse problems as the caterpillars of gypsy moth, fall cankerworm and the Zimmerman pine moth. It will not control other insects or arachnids such as birch leaf miner, bronze birch borer, leaf hopper, white grub, leather jacket, cedar leaf miner, black vine weevil, mealybug, pine sawfly, aphid or even adelgid. All may be active this month and next. You never heard of most of these? You may — keep checking with us.

Wes Porter is a horticultural consultant and writer based in Toronto. He has over 40 years of experience in both temperate and tropical horticulture from three continents.