Helen Chesnut's Garden Notes: Protect fuchsias with a light mulching

Dear Helen: In an earlier spring column, you wrote about hardy fuchsias taking a hit during the harsh late winter weather this year. Mine survived, but their growth has been much delayed compared with other years.

Next winter, if hard freezing weather is predicted, would it be appropriate to cover the plants or mulch them?

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L.S.

My hardy fuchsias survived, too, but like yours, their growth has been slow. All but one died to the ground. In harsh winters, these plants take on the role of perennials: the top growth dies down and fresh shoots rise from the plant crowns at ground level in the spring. In mild winters, the plants maintain shrub status, as most of the stems stay alive and sprout green shoots.

A light mulching with wood shavings (not cedar) or fir bark over and around the plant bases as a protection against severe cold would be fine. I keep on hand old lengths of floating row cover to throw over vulnerable plants in case of cold weather. Old lightweight curtaining would also be suitable as a temporary cover.

Dear Helen: I purchased bags of a “Premium Garden Soil” with the intention of filling a planter box to plant lettuce and herbs, As I was emptying a bag of soil into the container I noticed on the back of the bag this caution: “Do not use in planters or other containers.”

The contents were meant for mixing into regular garden soil. Why would this product not be suitable for growing lettuce and herbs?

L.Y.

Without knowing the components in the bagged garden soil, or its nutrient values, it’s difficult to say whether it could be safely used in containers. I’d follow the advice on the packaging and use instead a product labelled clearly as suitable for planters.

In some outlets where gardening supplies are sold, the extensive selection of planting mixes and soil amendments on display can cause a certain bewilderment. Before selecting a product, take the time to read the printing on the bag carefully, to be sure it is suitable for the purpose you have in mind. Every outlet will have at least one kind of container blend. Sales personnel can also help in selecting the best possible product.

Many mixes for use in planters are peat based. I always suggest mixing at least some sterilized, bagged, all-purpose soil to the planter blend. A little real soil adds staying power to the blend for a longer and more easily maintained period of bloom or production of edibles.

Dear Helen: Last month, I planted Nicotiana (flowering tobacco) seeds indoors. The seeds germinated, but the seedlings failed to develop. For a month, they have stayed well under an inch high. Why?

M.C.

This happened to my seedlings one year. They stayed stunted, clearly lacking the nitrogen needed to push up green growth. I corrected the situation with applications of fish fertilizer and, in the meantime, searched for the source of the problem.

It was a puzzle, because I’d used the same materials and method as I had in years past. Finally, I traced the cause of the seedling stunting to one component in my seeding mix.

I blend a fairly substantial mix for indoor seeding, because I grow from seed to transplant size in the same container. Starting with a general-purpose growing medium like Pro-Mix BX, I add about one-third as much bagged, sterilized soil along with a little perlite and vermiculite.

The company that produced the soil component I’d always used had been sold. The new owners had altered the soil’s nutrient balance to favour bloom development over green growth. That’s why the seedlings did not develop normally. As soon as I found a bagged soil clearly marked as all-purpose, with a specific reference to seeding, my indoor seeding ventures returned to normal.

Unless you’ve been watering with a low-nitrogen fertilizer, your seedlings’ failure to develop most likely lies with some imbalance in the medium used in the sowing.

Garden event

Picnic in the gardens. The Horticulture Centre of the Pacific, 505 Quayle Rd. in Saanich, is extending its hours this evening and inviting families and friends to bring their own dinners for a picnic in the gardens while enjoying local musicians. Browse through the works of local arts vendors, visit a master-gardener booth for answers to gardening questions, and check out sales of plants propagated from the gardens. Admission is by donation between 5 and 8 p.m. hcp.ca.

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