Gardening experts dish the dirt on when to plant, what to plant and controlling the undesirables

For urban gardeners, plants and pests go together like ants at a picnic: uninvited and unavoidable — but that doesn’t mean they’re unmanageable.

With the long weekend just ahead — and a forecast that’s equal parts summer and winter — CBC Edmonton’s Nancy Carlson hosted a wide-ranging Q&A with horticulturist Jim Hole, former owner of The Enjoy Centre, and Joanna Tschudy, owner of a Calgary landscape company.

Here are some highlights on when to plant, what to plant and how to control the undesirables.

Weather or not

Forget the calendar. Planting decisions are best based on the forecast, the back of a seed package and your willingness to gamble. Odds of frost in the third week of May are about 50/50, a risk that drops to 20 per cent in early June, says Hole. 

So dig in. But choose wisely.

Don’t put out cold-hating plants like cucumbers. And be ready with fabric covers to help hold in ground warmth when air temperatures cool. 

Tschudy hasn’t yet removed protective mulch from her perennial beds and will hold off putting out any tender veggies if a chill is looming.

“Keep your eye on the weather. Don’t just go by that date.” 

Tulips in an Edmonton garden after Tuesday’s snowfall. (Dustin Bajer/CBC News)

Cool and shady characters

For keeners, there are lots of cool-season crops — like cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, bok choy and peas — that can be planted well before the long weekend. Hole isn’t worried about the carrots and potatoes coming up in his garden.

“They can take it if it snows. If they get a bit of frost, big deal, they shrug it off.”

Popular annual flowers, like properly hardened-off pansies, petunias and snapdragons, should also be fine, he added.  

The other kind of cool involves plants for shady areas. Hole reeled off whimsically named options like creeping Jenny, goat’s beard, fleece flower and ostrich fern that will thrive in partial or full shade. 

Veggies? Not so much, he said. “There’s no substitute for sunlight.”

The May long weekend and traditional start to the Alberta gardening season is just around the corner, so we’ve asked two of Alberta’s top experts to join host Nancy Carlson to share their tips, tricks and tools. 1:12:39

Creativity vs Critters 

Lois Hole, Alberta’s beloved horticulturist and former lieutenant-governor, used to say, “One for you, one for the bugs.” Those odds don’t sit well with most gardeners, including her son.

Tschudy, whose Calgary home is close to Fish Creek Provincial Park, says plants like sage, garlic and onion are naturally off-putting to deer and rabbits. Repellent sprays like Plantskydd can break critters of their habitual journey “through your garden, munching away like it’s a salad bar,” she added.

Slugs, roundly despised for their nocturnal destruction, can be lured to their demise with shallow dishes of beer (quite effective, says Hole) or commercial baits. Some folks don headlamps and go night stalking; Tschudy finds their morning hiding place and flings them into the lane for birds to eat. 

The red lily beetle is voracious in his consumption of lily plants. (Marielle Torrefranca/CBC)

Perseverance is also key to putting up a natural fight against the red lily beetle. Adult beetles, which over-wintered in the ground, begin eating lilies as soon as they emerge. Their slug-like larvae (which add to their grossness by piling excrement on their backs) are even more voracious. Hole says the best bet is to drop them into soapy water.

“Some people try diatomaceous earth [but there’s] really mixed reviews on that,” he said. “Basically, we’re back to the picking and taking them off.”

But proving that pest control can be fun, Tschudy shares her secret weapon against the cabbage moth, whose eggs hatch the ravenous cabbage worm.

“I send my eight-year-old out with an old tennis racket and have him swat at the white butterflies,” she laughed. “It’s a little medieval but I tell him, ‘Just the white ones.'”

“He’s pretty good. Good aim.” 

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