By Darlene Belton, Master Gardener
It’s been some year so far! A frigid winter leading into first a cold, then suddenly a hot and dry spring, then a blistering hot, humid and dry summer, followed by a lovely lingering fall. And now, the forecast for another La Nina winter threatens to plunge us into a series of frigid polar vortexes from December through February 2022. Will there at least be a decent snow cover? Not known yet, so we have to prepare for, well, everything.
This is what garden planning has become as we start to experience the effects of climate change, predicted to impact our region more than most across Canada. Manitoba has always been a challenging place to garden, but now our familiar old extremes are becoming more extreme, more frequent, and less predictable.
Added to this new reality are the continuing effects of the COVID 19 epidemic that have spawned supply chain issues due to labour shortages and region-wide restrictions to combat the infection’s spread. The planning we used to do at leisure early in the new year has to happen now if we are to have any hope of implementing our ideas next spring.
By now you have probably made note of the successes and failures of your 2021 season. You may already have moved some plants, divided and refreshed others, and begun thinking how to fill in gaps. Will you be adding some native plants? Some food-bearing options? Perhaps starting or expanding vegetable beds? Considering some resilient tree or shrub options to cope with the likely imminent loss of old favourites from invasive insects or new deadly diseases? Thinking about ways to relieve yourself of the hours of hand watering undertaken this past growing season? Wondering how many of your garden favourites will make it through another crazy year – and then another and another into the distant future?
In short, are you factoring our changing climate into your dreams of your future garden? Today’s smart gardeners don’t shy away from these hard questions; they get the jump on finding ways to make their gardens more resilient and still beautiful, to offer retreat and renewal for years to come. Below are some strategies I’ve already tried successfully, or am considering for next year.
Winter mulch. In climates with freeze-thaw cycles, a winter mulch of leaves helps keep the ground frozen so plants don’t ‘heave’ and die in the next freeze. In a cold spring, such as last year, this can happen here. I let fallen leaves remain on the garden I then lay a winter mulch after the top few inches of the ground has frozen, well past the time when rodents have sought out their winter cover. This year I actually didn’t clear out the winter mulch as it was a cold spring and I feared that overwintering beneficial insects hadn’t yet emerged. Then suddenly it was hot and I had too many other spring chores. Next spring I intend to leave the winter mulch on, as happened by accident this year. So this fall I shredded bagged leaves to cover those that dropped naturally; I shredded them to speed up the spring decomposing process. I raid neighbours’ leaf bags before the city removes them to ensure I have enough material for mulch and for the ‘brown’ additions to my compost for spring.
Applying compost. This year I made about triple the amount of compost as in the past to apply to the beds on top of the fallen leaves before I lay the winter mulch. After laying extra purchased compost this past spring, I observed increased health and vitality of my garden plants in spite of the season’s stressful weather conditions. I’ve now refilled the emptied compost bins with my raided bags of grass clippings and mulched leaves to start the composting process before freeze-up and get a head start next spring.
New garden beds. If you are expanding your garden, I highly recommend the lasagna method I’ve used for all my new gardens since 2005. Fast and simple to construct*, the ingredients are rich in needed plant and soil nutrients, and, having been layered above the existing ground lasagna gardens remain ‘raised’ for good drainage in rain events (yes, we will get sporadic deluges during climate change). I’ve designed my configuration so that water pools between the beds, soaking in slowly to nourish tree roots and lawn. The excess drains toward tree and shrub roots rather than running off into the gutter. My yard therefore gained the most value from the infrequent rain this past summer.
The raised lasagna beds create a shallow grassed basin that drains my house’s eavestroughs, allowing heavy rain and run-off to pool and sink in slowly. The path on the right drains excess water to a shallow trough by the fence and a row of thirsty spruce trees. I have never seen that trough expel water into Charleswood’s ditch system, though the drainage route is there if we have a truly massive deluge.
The raised lasagna beds create a shallow grassed basin that drains my house’s eavestroughs, allowing heavy rain and run-off to pool and sink in slowly. The path on the right drains excess water to a shallow trough by the fence and a row of thirsty spruce trees. I have never seen that trough expel water into Charleswood’s ditch system, though the drainage route is there if we have a truly massive deluge
*NOTE: Using a cardboard or newspaper first layer is not necessary for a successful lasagna bed. In fact, this depletes the soil of moisture and impedes gas exchange between the air and soil, which compromises the health of the much needed soil microorganisms.
Watering systems. Rain barrels, drip irrigation and soaker hoses are all ways to conserve water and direct it where it is most needed. You will need to do some research to find the best system for your needs. I visited two experienced gardener friends to discuss the hows and whys of their choices, coming to appreciate ‘split couplers’, preferred choices for specific situations, how to link it all together, and how to measure that the gardens receive sufficient water throughout (simplest method: a tuna tin wedged under the soaker hose – thank you Janet Epp, MG!). Once my system is in, I won’t need to hand water for 3-4 hours every 3 days from spring to fall as I had to this year!
Tin wedged under soaker hose - An easy way to make sure the garden is watered sufficiently.
Other useful equipment. If you have storage capacity, consider purchasing an electric shredder and chipper. The shredder reduces a bag of leaves to usable mulch in a couple of minutes and the chipper gives you free wood chip mulch from smaller fallen tree branches. I was able to recycle the downed branches from the 2019 early snowstorm for use in my yard, gleaning a ‘silver lining’ from that destructive event.
Using my chipper to clear the debris from my yard after October 2019’s devastating early snowstorm.
Purchase supplies EARLY. You’ve probably already noticed missing items at stores; supply chain breakdowns are predicted only to worsen in 2022, and this will impact gardening supplies too. Order seeds and bareroot plants now. Drip irrigation and soaker hose systems sold out early in 2021 and there may be more issues in 2022. Make your lists and begin your searches now so as not to miss out.
Embrace the future. Knowledge is power, offering us our only measure of control of any situation, including our gardening futures. Take the time this winter to learn as much as you can about soil health, appropriate plant choices and maintenance, how to manage extreme weather events and durations, invasive pests and diseases, reliable sources for supplies, plus how others are learning to manage. The MMGA newsletter, website, education sessions and lists of outside resources present proven management methods which with the Internet are at our fingertips.
Photos by Darlene Belton
Published: November 2021