Gardening tips

To donate to the Hort Society’s new project, Legacy Ornamental Gardens:

April 25, 2024

Presentation on healthy soil for gardens from April 22, 2024 Lethbridge and District Horticultural Society public meeting.

Leth Hort Scty 2024 one






January 23, 2024

Oldman reservoir Nov. 2023

Information from a forum Monday, Jan. 22 by the Lethbridge and the District Horticultural Society at the Lethbridge Public Library Theatre Gallery. The session was attended by about 75 people. 

Panel members were: 

Rick Ross, horticultural society board member; Maureen Sexsmith-West, an ISA Certified Arborist who owns Ladybug Arborists; Karen Barbie, owner of Green Haven Garden Centre; Blair Richter, Lethbridge Parks and Cemeteries department manager; Richard Burke, horticultural society board member

Compiled by Richard Burke

Rick Ross outlined the water system semi-arid Southern Alberta relies on, in particular irrigation and water licensing. The Oldman River drainage includes rivers such as the Oldman, Castle and Crowsnest system, Willow Creek system and St. Mary system which includes Waterton and Belly Rivers. 

Licensing to take water from the system was capped by the provincial government in the 1990s, so no new licences are issued. Since most of the licensing is owned by irrigation districts, past droughts such as in the early 2000s relied on sharing agreements between the irrigation districts and other users, including municipalities and industry.

Federal legislation also requires a certain flow from the system be part of the water that flows through Saskatchewan.

Snowpack in the Rockies west of Lethbridge, the main source of water during our summers and falls, was at the time of the panel presentation about two-thirds of what it was in January, 2023, a drought year.

A conservation, long-term approach to watering in your yard involves a few relatively simple steps:

  • Determining how much water each plant needs and growing plants with similar needs in the same beds
  • Measuring how much water is retained in the soil and how to retain more
  • Getting water to your plants most efficiently and, ultimately, with the least amount of work and the most beneficial to your plants.

Paying attention to conservation during times of drought is a good, long-term way to garden, for the sake of your plants and the overall environment.

Plants fall into a few categories that help determine how much water they need. All need more watering to get established in your beds, but once the roots have taken hold, at times after a month or two of regular watering, others after a season, they can be included in a schedule that allows for better water conservation.

Green Haven Garden Centre’s annual list of plants they offer provides a handy chart to determine what kind of moisture needs and other conditions plants thrive in. That varies from Blanket Flower and Cushion Spurge, which do well in dry to very dry conditions, to Astilbe and Rodgersia, which need very moist soil. (Astilbe and Rodgersia need shadier spots which helps in moisture retention anyway.)

Karen Barbie of Green Haven provided examples of plants that are relatively drought-tolerant once established. Annuals include: 

  • anything with a grey leaf like DustyMiller, which doesn’t need much water.
  • Cosmos takes heat and can handle the drought 
  • Dianthus which can come back after winter; it has both annual and perennial varieties
  • Gazanias, marigolds (French) come in a variety of colours
  • Portulaca is “tough as nails” planted in full sun – it, too, can come back the next year from seeding itself.
  • Salvia are heat and drought tolerant. Dead-headed after the first, long-lasting blooms will result in a second bloom
  • Zinnias can be planted direct or started early indoors.
Other drought tolerant perennial plants include: blanketflower, coneflower, daylily, globe thistle, hens and chicks, lamb’s ears, rockcress, Russian sage, sage, sea pinks, snow-in summer, soapwort, sedum, and yarrow. Watering can be decreased once established. By the third season, they generally need much less water.

Measuring how much water your plants actually get involves getting to know how long your watering efforts last in the soil. That Depends on Soil for starters:

  •  amended with compost helps break up clay soil for plant health. Clay tends to hold more water longer which isn’t always good for roots. Some plants such as ferns, irises and Monkshood can handle wet feet. Many others need good drainage, which amended soil provides. Adding a couple inches of mulch on top of the soil retains moisture longer without allowing the beds to get soggy.
  • Raised beds and pots need more water than ground beds. Pots often need daily watering.

A moisture meter is very useful to help  get a handle on how long your watering is helping plants. You need only measure the top couple of inches of the soil to determine moisture content. You could also use the finger method – pushing your middle finger into the soil to the  middle knuckle and if your finger comes out with wet soil, no water is needed. Keeping track over time helps to get a feel for how well your soil is retaining moisture. Some use a tuna can and measure how long it takes to fill the can to one-inch, which some recommend is enough once a week. But, that is more useful for top watering for a lawn. 

To a question from the audience about replacing traditional lawns, Karen Barbie of Green Haven said they have carried varieties such as eco fescue or white clover (trifolium repens) used in the Okanagan that needs less water and stays shorter. It can be overseeded to replace a lawn.

(Richard Burke says “We use lawn now as relief from plants only and have reduced our lawn to about ¼ of what it used to be.”)

Devices to help control watering

  • Timers help immensely to control use of water and reduce considerably the workload – simple battery-operated timers one or two- zone – time of day and for how long settings. Can be used with a hose or better with an underground system. We have six timers covering nine zones in our yard. The times have been set to start watering at 5 a.m. every three days for half an hour. This year, we’ll cut back to 20 minutes every four days for each zone and monitor the results.
    • Drip or soaker hose – more efficient at delivering water and keeps water off leaves. Soaker hoses I have use 70 percent less water, says the literature. They will also stand up through winter, particularly when covered with mulch.
    • Underground system over time – modifying existing system doesn’t have to be done all at once and is not difficult for do-it-yourself. Materials can be obtained at most hardware stores and Site One landscaping or Southern Irrigation. My system (nine zones) has been set for half-hour twice a week generally. I’ll reduced that to 20 minutes every 4 days, monitor the effect, and adjust.
  • Rain Barrels and solar rain barrel pumps. A timed drip system for all our pots and many plants in beds. Also use rain barrels and watering cans pretty much regularly to water in new shrubs, plants in ground or in pots. We have six rain barrels that get filled with one good rain and last for weeks. The pump is called Irrigatia sol-C-14 and we found it at Lee Valley. It comes with tubing, connections and drippers.

Here is a link to Maureen Sexsmith-West’s presentation on drought-related stress on trees:

drought stress talk

Planning for Potential Water Restrictions

Blair Richter, General Manager Parks & Cemeteries, City of Lethbridge

What is the current status of the water situation? According to the Alberta government, currently in water management stage 4 of 5.

What is the City currently doing regarding water conservation? The City, in partnership with the province and regional partners is continuing proactive measures to address the current water supply concerns. The City provided a media statement on January 10th. • A cross-departmental project team is working together to develop a strategy and plan to deal with potential water restrictions. • Council is bringing forward an Official Business Motion to Council on January 23 about options regarding the water concern. • The request is also asking City administration to provide monthly updates moving forward, starting on Feb. 1. 

What did Parks do last year when water restrictions took effect? • Reduced watering to 75 percent at feature parks, sports fields and schools. • Reduced watering to 50 percent at the rest of the parks.

What is going to happen if there is a water restriction? • The City is planning for restrictions but can’t officially comment on anything at this point. • 25 of irrigation is provided by the irrigation districts. Still unclear how much water we will receive from them. • Parks will likely need to make adjustments to summer operations. • Trees are still going to be a priority for us as these are critical assets for the community. • City plans to communicate these changes to the community.

Lethbridge has 47,000 public trees, in parks and boulevards. The city has calculated the tree canopy value at $100 million.

March 19, 2023

Seedlings in a hurry

By Richard Burke

Planting the first seeds of the season inside, for transplanting in the garden two months and a bit from now, is always a time for hope and anticipation: you hope the seeds sprout and you anticipate a bumper crop. Doesn’t matter if it’s tomatoes or sage, peppers or penstemon, you plant ‘em and wait for the magic. 

Seed packets tell you how many weeks before transplanting safely into the garden you can start seeds. The packets or online sources also give you ball-park numbers of days to sprouting. Of the 300 or so seeds I planted recently, the number varies from 5-7 days for zinnias to 21-35 days for heliotrope.

I did my planting March 16 and 17, so I was surprised to see sprouts three days later on 11 rows of 36 planted. Most were zinnias, so the sprouting was only a couple of days early. Alyssum and Apple-blossom Aster jumped the gun by about a week. Kind of like gardeners champing at the bit to get going.

Of course, germination depends on providing the right conditions:

  • growing medium (seed-starting soil kept moist in cells under clear domes works well);
  • specified seed depth (generally from scattered on the surface to 1/2” deep.)
  • light (grow light as close as possible to the seed trays in front of south-facing widows};
  • heat (heat mats under the seed trays and 20ish-degree air temperature}. 

Sprouting also depends on gemination rates, which can be in the 70-90 percent range for this year’s seed packets. For ones that have been sitting on your shelf, the rate likely decreases after two years, but can still be viable, I’ve found. I tend to over-seed just in case and often end up with more seedlings than I can handle.

Now, it’s tending the tender shoots until they grow their true leaves (second set) That involves monitoring the moisture under the domes and providing some air to the plants until they’re ready to transplant to small pots or pricked out to make room for the healthier ones in their original cell. 

The domes can come off when the seedlings are well established. And the light source may need to be raised as the plants grow, if you’ve used grow lights – but not so much that the plants get leggy from reaching for the light. 

Doing all of this now gives a gardener itching to play in the dirt an edge and the plants plenty of time to grow before the last frost mid-to-end of May.

October 6, 2022

By Richard Burke

Colour collage. Plants that provide colour summer to frost are welcome additions to a garden. Peace and Fragrant Cloud roses are repeat bloomers, starting in June and are still providing stunning colour as Thanksgiving approaches. Peace rose is a hybrid tea rose developed in 1945 to commemorate the Second World War declaration of peace. Five-inch Peace rose blooms are a gorgeous combination of pink and yellow that fade to pink.

Fragrant cloud is also a hybrid tea rose, introduced in 1968. It has 5-6 inch blooms that emit a heavenly scent, thus the name.

Both rose bushes, which have grown to about 4 feet high and two feet wide, have endured more than one move in our garden and continue to thrive in a south facing bed.

Black-eyed Susans (rudbeckia fulgida), perennial, which blooms July to frost. This specimen sits in the middle of a small bed and has huge blooms that show no signs of ending.



Victoria Blue salvia, annual. This one worked well in semi-shade in a bed border facing east beside a screen-fence. It has bloomed non-stop since it was planted in June.



 Tuberous begonia, annual, works well in pots, in shade to semi-shade. This one will be moved indoors before next Tuesday, when one Lethbridge forecast is for overnight frost.



September 30, 2022

Saving, re-using dahlias and tuberous begonias

winter flower storage   

March 2, 2022

Zoom recording of Feb. 28, 2022 Lethbridge and District Horticultural Society meeting on growing vegetables, particularly tomatoes, lettuce and root vegetables.

March 2, 2022

Primer on growing tomatoes, from presentation at Feb. 28, 2022 Lethbridge and District Horticultural Society Zoom meeting.



Jan. 25, 2022

Zoom recording from Jan. 244, 2022 Lethbridge and District Horticultural Society meeting featuring Jerry Hilgersom of Hilgersom Inc. on starting the design process for your yard landscaping.

Nov. 25, 2021

Topic: Lethbridge and District Horticultural Society presentation on indoor growing solutions by Duncan and Tim from Custom Indoor Grow on Nov 22, 2021

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Oct. 27, 2021

Zoom presentation from Oct. 25 on invasive weeds and weed control in your garden, by Erin McIlwraith, Pest Management Foreperson, City of Lethbridge Parks & Cemeteries

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July12, 2021

May 31, 2021 Zoom presentation on wildflowers by Penny Dodd

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April 22, 2021

Zoom meeting April 21 presentation by Mandy Sandbach from Soulfully Soil and President of Lethbridge Sustainable Living Association Living Association

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March 25, 2021

Topic: Lethbridge and District Horticultural Society presentation
Date: Mar 22, 2021 06:31 PM Mountain Time (US and Canada)

Topic: Planting hanging baskets

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Jan. 29, 2021

Here’s a Zoom recording of the Monday, Jan. 25, 2021 Lethbridge and District Horticultural Society presentation on starting seeds indoors by Karen Barby of Green Haven Garden Centre,

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Nov. 24, 2020

 Recorded Zoom presentation from Nov. 23, 2020 by Sophie Kerneis about our Native Plants and their potential use in treating infection.


Notes from a Lyndon Penner talk to the Lethbridge and District Horticultural Society

Barberries & Their Close Relatives

By Lyndon Penner

Barberries belong in the genus Berberis, and they have been prized as garden plants for centuries. There are over 450 species from all over the world, and the barberry family (Berberidaceae) includes a wide variety of shrubs and perennials.

Barberries can be evergreen or deciduous, and some are temperate and some are sub-tropical. All grow from 3-15 ft. in size and produce small clusters of yellow or gold flowers followed by small berries. These berries can be very showy, and they are also great for attracting birds. The berries are edible and high in Vitamin C, but they are extremely tart and can cause illness and stomach distress if consumed in too great a quantity. They are used in small amounts in a number of traditional Persian dishes. Autumn colour on the deciduous species is usually long lasting and spectacular.

Barberries are extremely spiny, and they make excellent hedges and habitat for nesting birds. The words “barrier” and “barb” are both derived from the same original Greek words for these shrubs. They are extremely easy to grow, requiring only full sun and well drained soil. Once established, most of them are quite drought resistant. Some are very fast growing and some grow extremely slowly, and there are several dozen hybrids and cultivars now available.

It is only in recent years that Canadians have been allowed to grow barberries in their gardens. A few species (not all) function as alternate hosts for wheat stem rust; a devastating fungal disease that can literally wipe out crops of wheat, barley, oats, and rye. In the 1960’s, the sale and importation of ALL species of barberry became prohibited in Canada. That law was changed in 2002, and a few species that are safe to grow have become extremely popular in landscaping in a relatively short period of time.

All plants in the barberry family contain the alkaloid berberine, which can cause cramping, vomiting, increased heart rate, lethargy, and low blood pressure if consumed in a very significant quantity. (*The possibility of this happening though, is very remote.) Many species have been used medicinally, and barberry stems, roots, and bark have historically been used to make a brilliant yellow dye.

Himalayan Barberry (Berberis aristata)– A gorgeous evergreen species growing up to 10 ft. tall with handsome, glossy green leaves and very showy golden flowers that are followed by shiny, egg-shaped red berries. These berries are extensively used in traditional Indian medicine. It can handle colder temperatures than one would expect and it is often cultivated in regions where it is hardy.

Darwin’s Barberry (Berberis darwinii)– Discovered by Charles Darwin in South America in the 1830’s, this is an absolutely stunning species that can grow as tall as 10 ft. but is usually quite a bit smaller. The leaves are small, very dark green, and heavily spined. This has made it popular for hedging and use as a barrier plant. The flowers appear in great profusion in early spring and are usually bright orange but can also be golden yellow. They are extremely showy and are followed by edible but highly acidic, showy blue-black fruits. Although it has received the RHS award of merit, this species has naturalized in Australia, New Zealand, some parts of the USA, and Ireland and in some places is considered a weed.

Korean Barberry (Berberis koreana)– I am baffled as to why this compact, lovely shrub is not more commonly available to prairie gardeners. Growing about 5 ft. tall, it has handsome green leaves that colour up splendidly in the fall. The showy gold flowers are followed by glossy red berries that provide a great deal of winter interest and feed many birds. Indeed native to Korea, it is perfectly hardy and well behaved in the garden.

Japanese Barberry (Berberis thunbergii)– Native to Japan and other cold places in eastern Asia, this is by far the most popular species for growing in cold climates. If you have a barberry cultivar in your garden, it is most likely derived from this species. In the wild, it is highly variable growing from 3-9 ft. tall and wide with extremely spiny, usually arching branches and excellent fall colour. The flowers are pretty but quite small and not usually very showy. These are followed by red berries that are so tiny they are usually unnoticed.

The high degree of variability is what has led to such a great number of cultivars being available. A naturally occurring purple leafed variation (var. ‘Atropurpurea’) can grow up to 8 ft. tall and has given rise to a great many forms that have been of use to plant breeders.

The leaves are usually dark green becoming bright red in the fall, but most of the garden cultivars have been selected for foliage of a different colour. Some forms grow quickly and others do not. They often do not deal well with chinook zones and will suffer considerable dieback in the first few years of their life. They become hardier and more reliable with time. While they are happiest in a moist, somewhat fertile soil they are very drought resistant once they are well established. They generally do not suffer from pest or disease issues, and they do not sucker or self seed. Deer and rabbits are known to eat young plants, but usually leave established specimens alone.

There are several dozen cultivars available and not all of them are prairie hardy. I have chosen to focus on those that can be reliably expected to survive an Alberta winter.

Cherry Bomb’– A slow growing, very compact form with heavily pink and cream variegated new growth that ages to a dull purple. The small yellow flowers show up nicely against this dark background. 3 x 3.

‘Concorde’- A very dwarf, compact form with pinkish new growth that ages to dark purple. Slow growing. 2 x 3.

‘Crimson Pygmy’– Very similar to ‘Concorde’ but the foliage is more of a red-purple and it’s not especially hardy. Prone to dieback and tipkill.

‘Emerald Carousel’– A nice large barberry with elegant, arching branches and a profusion of bright yellow flowers in the spring. The leaves are bright green and become an outstanding brilliant red or reddish purple in the fall. The tiny red fruits are most noticeable in the winter months. 5 x 5.

Golden Nugget’- The smallest cultivar, and ideal for small beds and rock gardens. Very dense and slow growing with tiny, bright golden green leaves that are a coppery orange upon first emerging. 12” x 18”.

Rose Glow’– Undoubtedly the most popular of all, this is a lovely medium sized shrub that produces white and pink mottled new growth that ages to dusky purple. Fall colour is an intense burgundy with a strong rose tint. Branches are gently arching, spines are quite long. Reasonably fast growing. 4 x 3.

Royal Burgundy’– Very tiny leaves are a brilliant deep purple. Fall colour is vivid scarlet. 2 x 3.

‘Royal Cloak’– Similar to ‘Royal Burgundy’ but with larger leaves and faster growing. New growth is noticeably pinkish. Fall colour is a dull red. 3 x 3.

‘Ruby Carousel’– Reddish purple foliage, exceptionally spiny branches. Don’t back into this one! 4 x 3.

Sunsation’– Glowing golden foliage with a strong copper tint. Slow growing and prone to dieback. Foliage becomes a beautiful glowing orange in fall. 3 x 3.

Common Barberry (Berberis vulgaris)– Native to many countries in Europe, the middle east, and northern Africa, this species grows up to 6 ft. tall and wide and has very spiny branches, green leaves, yellow flowers, and very showy red fruits. It was once widely planted but as it hosts the wheat stem rust, it has been largely removed from circulation in the nursery trade. There are established populations of it that have naturalized in both the Edmonton and Calgary areas.

Berberis x lologensis ‘Apricot Queen’– A stunning hybrid barberry with evergreen, very small spiny foliage and gorgeous soft orange flowers for most of May. These are followed by edible blue-purple berries. Officially hardy only to zone 5 but has been known to be able withstand temperatures as cold as -24 Celsius for brief periods. Has received the RHS award of merit.

Berberis x stenophylla ‘Corallina’– A tiny, hybrid barberry that I would like to try growing in a container. This is a deciduous form with spiny, dark green leaves and bright coral coloured buds that open to showy yellow flowers. These are followed by attractive blue fruits. It grows slowly and only reaches 6-12” tall and wide.

Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum)– There are only two species in this genus; Caulophyllum thalictroides which comes from moist, rich woodlands in eastern North America, and Caulophyllum robustum, which comes from similar habitat in Japan. Both are very much alike. Blue cohosh was greatly prized by indigenous peoples as a medicinal plant, and it was extensively used to treat menstrual issues, childbirth, and occasionally to kill parasites. It is a beautiful woodland plant that likes a sheltered site with moist, deep rich soil.

Very attractive compound leaves emerge in the spring and have a lovely blue-green cast to them. A single flower stem soon also appears, and the blooms range from greenish yellow to nearly purple. They are not showy but give way to stunning blue berries. Although it makes a gorgeous companion for hostas, ferns, and primulas, it is rarely cultivated. This is likely due to the fact that the seeds are difficult to germinate and the rhizomes do not like to be disturbed. It grows slowly but can easily live for 50 or 60 years. If you are able to acquire it, it is a perennial worth having.

Bishop’s Hat, Barrenwort (Epimedium spp.)– There are currently 64 species in this genus, all from cold places in Asia. New species are being discovered with some regularity so expect this number to go up considerably in the next few years. Some species are evergreen, some are herbaceous, and some are a curious blend between the two. The name bishop’s hat is a reference to the shape of the flowers; some of them resemble a clergyman’s hat. Barrenwort refers to their historical medicinal use; it was once believed they could prevent a woman from conceiving.

Before we discuss these wonderful plants, the fact that they are available in the nursery trade at all is largely due to the work of an American man named Harold Epstein (1903-1997). Harold began gardening in the 1930’s shortly after he got married. An accountant by training, gardening started as a hobby and led to a friendship and involvement with the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in his home state of New York. Harold was an enthusiastic and brilliant plantsman with a strong eye for detail and what would work for the nursery industry. It wasn’t long before he began making trips to Asia to seek unusual plants, and while Japan was his favourite destination (he made 29 trips there between 1963 and 1983) he also botanized in China, Taiwan, and Korea. He was responsible for the Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa) being introduced to the nursery trade in North America, and he has also had a magnolia named after him. Epimediums became his passion, and before he came along, these plants were virtually unknown in North America. He single handedly made the perennial world notice these plants, and was instrumental in getting them into the hands of North American gardeners. He was for many years the world’s leading expert on these plants, and upon his death at age 94, many who knew him were astounded to learn he was entirely self taught and had never formally studied horticulture at any point in his life.

Harold has been honoured with having two of these plants named for him; Epimedium epsteinii, a gorgeous Chinese species with the most incredible white and purple bicoloured flowers, and Epimedium koreana ‘Harold Epstein’, which is an extremely hardy and vigorous grower, with enormous (for an epimedium) flowers of soft yellow.

These are clumping, beautiful perennials that are grown for both their foliage and their flowers. The leaves are often heart or shield-shaped and frequently become splendid shades of red, orange, or yellow in the fall as well as being quite beautiful upon emerging in the spring. The dangling, ethereal little flowers are very pretty but not always showy. They may be white, red, orange, yellow, rose, violet, purple or pink. They bloom early and slowly form sizeable clumps. They can handle everything from partial to considerable shade and while they like moisture, they are also reasonably drought tolerant once established. More and more of them are being introduced to the nursery trade every year. Zone ratings are often listed as 4 or 5, but many of them are much tougher than people realize and they should be widely experimented with. Some are perfectly hardy and some are not, but I recommend trying as many as you can and see how they do for you.

Epimedium fargesii- This is a rare Chinese species slowly starting to work its way into the nursery trade. It has evergreen foliage, very thin and unusual pale violet flowers, and peculiar bronze coloring in the fall. It is also much hardier than one would expect.

Epimedium grandiflorum– An herbaceous Japanese species, this and its cultivars are among the most commonly found in garden centers. New growth is bronzy to lavender and slowly ages to an attractive light green. Fall colour is variable but ranges from oranges through coppers and bronzes and can be quite lovely. Some of my favourites include:

‘Alabaster’– Very large, semi-double glowing white flowers. Absolutely shines in a partly shady spot.

Bandit’-Green leaves have a very unusual dark purple edging and are complemented by a profusion of ivory coloured flowers. The fall colour is absolutely outstanding.

‘Dark Beauty’-Foliage emerges a wonderful chocolate-purple and slowly ages to green. Large bicoloured blooms of white and purple. Quite fabulous.

‘Lilafee’ (‘Lilac Fairy’)- Large, light purple to mauve flowers in great profusion and large leaves. Vigorous grower and hardy.

‘Red Queen’– Hot pink flowers and vivid scarlet fall colour. ‘Red Beauty’ is very similar but flowers earlier.

‘Sirius’-Large white blooms with a faint blush of pink. Blooms for weeks.

Epimedium koreanum ‘Harold Epstein’– With very large leaves and the largest flowers I have seen on an epimedium (butter yellow in color) this is a vigorous grower although late to break dormancy in the spring. It has done well in zones 2 and 3 but is often sold as being much more tender. It will spread slowly where it is happy.

Epimedium x rubrum– Very popular and compact, and growing only 12-14” tall and wide. The flowers are pinkish red and the fall color is very bright and showy. Reliable and great for beginners. ‘Sweetheart’ is a more vigorous selection of this hybrid with leaves heavily infused with red on emerging. Flowers are bright pink.

Epimedium x versicolor ‘Sulphureum’– Lovely soft yellow flowers on a reliable plant that is hardy and clumps up very quickly. The fall colour is a wonderful burnished bronze or gold.

Epimedium x warleyense ‘Orange Queen’- The pinkish red or orangey-pink flowers are pretty enough but it is the outstanding bright orange fall colour that makes it such a desirable plant for the shade garden.

Epimedium youngianum x ‘Niveum’– I think this species wants to be evergreen; it came through three winters for me before giving up the ghost. The leaves are a handsome copper color in the fall and the pure white flowers are like little stars. I would try it again. ‘Roseum’ is similar but with rosy-lilac flowers.

Jeffersonia– Named for American president Thomas Jefferson, there are a few species here but none are common in North American gardens. If encountered, Jeffersonia diphylla is usually what’s on offer. Native to rich, moist, and often limy soils in the deciduous woods of eastern North America, this is a hardy perennial to be cherished and admired. Reaching about 12” tall, this lovely plant grows from slowly creeping rhizomes and blooms only very briefly in the spring. The flowers are white and beautiful, followed by fascinating seedpods if pollination occurs. The seeds secrete an oil that is highly attractive to ants, which aid in the dispersal of the seeds. The fascinating leaves are divided almost in half, giving rise to the common name of twinleaf. It is a very handsome and perfectly hardy plant, though not often available in the nursery trade. It establishes slowly and is difficult to grow from seed. It is a protected species in at least four of the states where it occurs. It has a long history of medicinal use by indigenous peoples and makes a marvelous jewel for a woodland garden. Jeffersonia dubia is a Korean species from moist, partly shaded areas usually on the edges of deciduous woods. The flowers are large for the size of the plant and appear in early spring, usually being blue-mauve or violet in colour but occasionally lavender or soft pink. These plants appreciate compost and good soil and are not suited to dry conditions.

Mahonia– There are about 70 species in this genus, and they are native to Asia, Europe, and North America. They have spiny, evergreen leaves and showy yellow flowers followed by clusters of grape-like fruits. Many are winter bloomers and many are prized as landscape shrubs.

By far the best known species is the Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium). This is a common evergreen shrub of the west coast, also called grape holly or holly grape. It is the state flower of Oregon and sometimes grown in gardens. It usually grows about 3 ft. tall and up to 5 ft. wide. It suckers and forms small thickets, and it is sometimes gathered and used as greens by the cutflower industry. The foliage is evergreen, spiky, and definitely bears a resemblance to holly. The flowers are brilliant yellow and give way to very grape-like, bright blue fruit. These fruits are edible (if somewhat bitter) and are great for attracting birds to the garden. ‘Apollo’ is a very compact and heavy blooming cultivar of this species.

Creeping Oregon grape (Mahonia repens) can be found throughout western North America and throughout the Rockies, including Idaho, Montana, and southwestern Alberta. There is also a well known inland population of it from the Black Hills of the Dakotas. It usually behaves as a ground hugging shrub just a few inches tall but occasionally grows larger. It will grow in sun to considerable shade, and can handle poor soil, drought, competition, and wind. It also has no pest or disease issues. Even browsing deer prefer to leave it alone. The flowers are very showy but do not last very long; the same is true of the bright blue fruits. Occasionally it develops quite beautiful bronzy purple fall color but this is inconsistent. It can be rooted from cuttings or by layering, and if you are patient, it can also be grown from seed without too much trouble. Look for it on dry, sunny slopes and the edges of woods. It can be slow to establish in a garden but never the less makes a splendid groundcover if given enough time.

While there are dozens of species of Mahonia that are grown in places that have mild winters, by far the best known species is Mahonia lomariifolia. It is native to southwestern China and has reddish bronze leaves when young that age to a shining green. The leaves are up to 20” long and have up to 40 spiny leaflets. The flowers are bright yellow, fragrant, and held in large clusters. They can appear anytime from autumn through spring and it is cherished as one of the showiest and easiest of winter flowering shrubs. It likes moist soil rich in organic matter and will do best if protected from the hot afternoon sun during the summer months.

Quite a number of hybrid cultivars have been developed, including the gorgeous ‘Charity’ and ‘Winter Sun’. These are often listed as Mahonia x media.

Mahonia is so closely related to Berberis that under the right conditions, they can actually hybridize with each other. The resulting offspring, commonly listed as x Mahoberberis, share traits of each parent, including evergreen foliage, yellow flowers, and occasionally dark coloured fruits. They are sterile but sometimes grown as garden shrubs.

The close relationship between these two groups of shrubs had led botanists in recent times to study the DNA of both groups, and there are many who want to merge these two genera. Many species formerly listed as Mahonia are now being called Berberis in the textbooks, much to the general annoyance of most gardeners, including myself.

Vancouveria– Named for Captain George Vancouver, this is a small genus of three evergreen species native to western North America. They are sometimes called inside-out flowers and are similar in many ways to Epimedium but they are definitely not as hardy. The great British gardener Christopher Lloyd declared them inferior to their Asian relatives and not worth bothering with. Many gardeners disagree with this assessment and are quite fond of them. V. hexandra is the best known species, and forms a small, slowly spreading clump of attractive green leaves. The flowers are white and not showy. Growing 8-10” tall, this species can handle some dryness once established but definitely performs best in moist, acidic soil. It is occasionally grown as a groundcover in parks and gardens.

A Brief History of Pumpkins (and all their autumn glory.

Pumpkin flavored ice cream. Pumpkin flavored coffee drinks. Pumpkin cakes and pies. Plastic pumpkins. Fresh pumpkins. Large pumpkins. Tiny pumpkins.

How did pumpkins become synonymous with autumn? Let’s take a look at the history of pumpkins and at some interesting pumpkin trivia. Read more at Dave’s Garden.

The three tarragons

All three of the herbs usually referred to as tarragon are from the Compositae (sunflower) family. These three plants share the same rich, anise/licorice flavor that is indispensable to many French and English recipes. Read more

Understanding the power of plants

Research suggests plants might be capable of more than we suspect. Some scientists – controversially – describe plants as “intelligent”. They argue a better understanding of their capabilities could help us solve some of the world’s thorniest problems. Four experts talk to the BBC World Service Inquiry programme about what plants can teach us. Read on.

Japanese Knotweed causing harm

Some of this was being passed around among gardeners here.  Luckily someone realized what it was, and think we have all managed to kill it.

Hunting the Blue Yeti of Bhutan

Two aspects of this may be of interest: First, and I never realized this, the flower is native to Bhutan.  And, second, it is the flower. Remember a few years ago, it was all the rage to try to grow these.  I never did attempt it, but I lots of gardeners did.

Permaculture –
A Beginner’s guide to permaculture gardening

Plant Profile – Joe-pye weed

Submitted by Beatrice Milner

The first Joe-pye weed I saw was on the property where my grandparents homesteaded close to Drayton Valley. My mother owned this property and had a small cabin erected and planted gorgeous flowerbeds on a couple of acres around the cabin. The Joe-pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum) grew into a bold and lush clump at the back of one of the beds, blooming profusely for years – in fact it’s still there! I have had a clump in my own garden for about 7 years now too and love the height and generous pink plumes that it produces late in the season. It has some lovely properties: I’ve never had to stake it, the bees and butterflies adore it, and the flowers last a very long time when cut. It spreads slowly in my garden – after 7 years it is a clump about 2 feet in diameter at the base but is easily 6 feet tall in the fall.

Various websites indicate that it will grow in zone 3 (some say 4 or 5) and I can attest to the fact that it is very
hardy in our area. It is the very last thing to poke through in the spring—often not showing until early June
when I have almost given up on it. Websites also say that it likes “moist to wet” conditions but in my garden
it gets the same moisture everything else gets—no special treatment at all—and in my mother’s garden in
the countryside, it was never watered except by Mother Nature. If you have the space, this is a lovely late summer attraction for your garden.

Plant Profile – Beans
Submitted by Penny Dodd
A quest for specific varieties of green beans led to some interesting information about this ubiquitous vegetable. Following is a summary of what I found, mostly on Wikipedia. The scientific name of our ordinary garden green bean is Phaseolus vulgaris. There are over 130 varieties of this annual plant, and these include both bush beans and pole beans. The pods are usually green, but they may be yellow, purple, red or streaked. The shape of the pods varies from thin fillet style to wide and
flat romano type. In my experience, most people eat the pods when they are young, but we could let them mature further and eat the seeds either fresh or dried. If dried, depending on the cultivar of bean, the seeds range from small white navy bean to large Cannellini and red kidney beans. (I have yet to find out which varieties produce which seeds.)

Originally beans all had a fibrous spine running the length of the pod. These strings had to be stripped before the pod was eaten. In 1894 a plant breeder named Calvin Keeney developed the first string less bean. Some writers suggest the old string bean varieties have better flavour.

The bush varieties are early—50 to 60 days—and produce all their fruit over a short period of time. Pole bean varieties usually require 60 to 80 days to produce pods.

The bean commonly called runner bean, Scarlet Runner being the best known, is a different species whose scientific name is Phaseolus coccineus. This bean is a perennial vine (annual in our climate) with an edible tuberous root. Most varieties have red flowers and multi-coloured seeds. The pods may be eaten when they are young and tender, and the seeds may be eaten either fresh or dried.

There are not many cultivars of runner beans, but in addition to Scarlet Runner, Polestar is sometimes available. The Chinese long bean is a sub-tropical annual climbing vine named Vigna unguiclata, completely unrelated to the other beans. They begin setting pods 60 days after planting; the pods grow rapidly, and they continue to set fruit until frost.

The most interesting information about beans is that the seeds contain a toxin, lectin that is eliminated through cooking at a high temperature. Red kidney beans have a particularly high concentration of lectin. Ricinus, or castor bean, is also rich in lectin. (Ricinus is the source of ricin, the substance used in the terrorist attacks on the Tokyo subway. It was also used by someone to kill a Russian expat in London. And those of us old enough to remember castor oil’s use as a laxative can attest to its effectiveness.) Other plants containing lectin include potatoes, lentils, peanuts, wheat germ and elderberry. Concentration of lectin in seeds suggests it may play a role in their survival. Plant geneticists are using it in GMO’s to increase
plants’ resistance to pests.

What is Black Knot?
Black Knot, caused by the fungus Apiosporina morbosa, is a common disease of plants in the genus Prunus. A survey in Alberta revealed a significant and widespread distribution of Black Knot found in commercial, municipal, private and natural plantings. Infections spread rapidly, reducing the aesthetic value of affected specimens; high levels may result in the eventual death of the plant. More from Alberta Agriculture.

Snowdrop, the first sign of spring

Plant Profile: Dictamnus albus

by Penny Dodd

Also known as gas plant and as dittany, Dictamnus albus is a very good choice for southern Alberta flower gardens as it happily tolerates our high pH soil and fairly dry conditions once it is established. Nor is it bothered by pests or disease. Like the peony, it takes a year or two to get established, and is also very long lived. It will not transplant or divide because it has a long central root. It needs sun to part shade.dictamus

The gas plant reaches a mature height up to one metre tall, but does not require staking. Its shiny, waxy bright green foliage has a strong citrus fragrance, and its flowers, either pink or white depending upon variety, bloom on a 20-30 cm long spikes during June. The seed pods, nearly as striking as the flowers with their unique shape similar to star anise, remain on the plant into early winter. If left to shed their seeds they will self-sow a few plants, but even the tiny seedlings are hard to transplant.

A volatile oil given off by the plant is the reason for its common name, gas plant. On a still hot day, and even into the night, this gas can be briefly lit. A flame placed at the base of the flower stem will produce a burst of flame that ascends the stem but does not burn the flowers.

These videos of the plant being lit, in daylight and at night, demonstrate this feature.

One word of caution about this plant: the foliage, flowers and even seed pods can cause dermatitis in sensitive people. I do not experience this, but a contributor to Dave’s Garden website ( states the following:

This rash, known as phytophotodermatitis was caused by a reaction of this (phyto) plant’s toxic chemicals -furocoumarins – with UV rays (photo) from the sun causing rash-like burns (dermatitis). Furanocoumarins are toxic chemicals that some plants produce to protect or defend themselves from insects and mammals. These toxins do not affect everyone, but if the concentration of the chemicals is high enough, and the conditions are right (hot sun – mid to late summer and moisture on the skin from swimming or perspiration) they can cause some extremely uncomfortable symptoms.

The lesions, or burns may blister and often develop into pigmentation that may last into the next summer.”

This is a stunning and vigorous addition to a garden, but be careful touching it until you have determined if you are sensitive to it. And probably children should stay away from it.

Plant Profile: prairie crocus

By Penny Dodd

Our prairie grasslands are a great place to see beautiful and hardy flowering plants. Many of these native plants make unusual and interesting additions to our gardens. One of these is Pulsatilla patens, the prairie crocus. (It used to be named Anemone patens.)

Widespread and common across prairie grasslands and in the Rocky Mountains, the soft
purple flower of the prairie crocus is among the first to appear in spring. The inside of the blossoms may be purple or white. Although the blossom looks similar to the true crocus, and they bloom at about the same time, the prairie crocus is not a bulb; it is a long-lived perennial with a thick woody taproot. The flowers appear before the finely

The whole plant is thickly covered with silky hairs. A First Nations legend tells that the Great Spirit gave the crocus its fur coat to keep it warm during cold spring nights. And those fine hairs work. They prevent the wind from hitting the surface of the plant, and the temperature at the surface of the leaves can be 10 F. degrees warmer than the surrounding air. As further protection, the flowering stalk is short, only 15-20 cm long.

The shape of the blossom also concentrates the sun’s rays at the centre of the flower increasing the temperature still further, and the flower is heliotropic, turning to face the
sun through the day. Pollinators are encouraged to visit these early blossoms.

The Blackfoot name, Napi, or old man, refers to the gray, silky, ripe seed-heads that look
like the grey heads of old men. These fluffy seed-heads, nearly as pretty as the flowers, linger into early summer. As the seeds develop the stalks grow taller, reaching 30-45 cm in height, so seeds can be wind dispersed across the grasslands.

All parts of the plant are poisonous, and some people find them irritating to the skin. Some herbalists today prescribe an alcohol extract as an anti-depressant sedative; however, this should not be used during pregnancy. The Blackfoot understood the
characteristics of this plant, and they made a tea from the roots to speed childbirth, or to

Seeds for this flower are available at the Galt Museum Store. Or the young plants can be purchased from native plant nurseries (info available upon request.) Plant them in a
sunny spot, and don’t water very much. Do not be tempted to take these from the wild.

It is illegal and immoral to dig wild plants, and because of their taproot, they will not transplant. Garden centres often stock the closely related European plant Pulsatilla vulgaris. It has a number of cultivars of different colours including white, red, light pink, and dark purple-blue. There is also a cultivar named ‘Papageno’ that is semi-double with frilled edges.

I have read there is a light lemon yellow variety of the prairie crocus called P. patens var.
flavescens. If you ever see this plant, buy one for me.

Winter Backyard Bird Visitors – From the Nature Conservancy of Canada, including a guide you can download.

Masterful Masterworts
Like so many modern garden ornamentals, Astrantia or masterwort, are currently enjoying a surge in popularity. Read more:

Ferns for the Garden Landscape
From Dave’s Garden website, Todd Boland says, “Ferns have become an indispensable addition to the modern garden” and a whole lot more.

Bring Back the Pollinators
Xerces Society newsletter on bees

Alberta Invasive Plant Identification Guide
All you ever wanted to know about weeds

Insects of Alberta
There are about 20,000 species of insects in Alberta – See more at:

Scarlet Lily Beetle
How to fight these lily killers

Bellflowers for borders
The genus Campanula, commonly known as bellflowers, comprised nearly 300 species. Many of these are well-known perennials for the border. This article will introduce you to the most common border bellflowers.

Flowers from seed
Knowing the degree of difficulty when starting flowering plants from seed

Late Potato Blight
Late Blight of Potatoes and Tomatoes – Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development, Frequently Asked Questions

Prairie Urban Garden
Oldman Watershed Council
Xeriscape Priority Plant List

Got Milkweed?
Milkweed for Monarch Butterflies

More on Monarchs

What do Monarchs eat?

2 thoughts on “Gardening tips

  1. Thank your for this article. Do you know if (eatable) elderberries grow in the wild in southern Alberta?

    I would love to pick some for personal consumption.

    Thank you.

    • Not sure if they are in the wild. Near the south entrance to the hospital, about three elderberry bushes have had an abundance. We asked at the hospital and picked a five-gallons bucket full. Haven’t checked recently. In the wild in southwestern Alberta chokecherries are kind of similar. (I know there’s a lot in the Burmis Lake area at the eastern end of the Crownest Pass). Otherwise, they aren’t difficult to grow. Pretty shrub.

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