Ottawa Gardening 101

Ottawa Gardening 101

Are you capable of killing impatiens with just a glance (plus full sun and zero water)? You, too, can flex your green thumb and—slowly, carefully—transform your grass into a garden. Mary Ann Van Berlo of Master Gardeners of Ottawa-Carleton provides expert answers to common questions.

What are the first steps in going from strictly grass and petunias to a backyard that has some plant-based character?

Ottawa Gardening 101


The first step is deciding what you want and what you plan to use your yard for. Are you looking for a botanical show-case? A place for the kids and dog to play? Do you  entertain?Do you want to grow vegetables? Do you want privacy? Do you want to hide an eyesore?


You’ll need to do some research about plants, building materials, sun exposures [and other issues] to help you with your wish list. Once you have a clear idea of all the things you
want to incorporate in your yard, then you’re ready to go to the next step.

Take Inventory

Take inventory of what you have already on your prop-erty. This includes all the structures, trees, garden beds, hydro poles and play structures. At this stage it would be good to call Ontario One-Call for a locate survey. Knowing where the utilities are is an im-portant piece of your “inventory.” In your inventory you will have features that must stay (the house and driveway) and some that can be removed (the old swing set that the college-age kids don’t use anymore).


Sketch the lot and add all the features that you plan to keep; try to do this as much to scale as possible. Keep that as your original and make some copies. On one copy of your sketch, add the traffic flow. For in-stance, from the kitchen door you want to get to the veggie  garden quickly for fresh herbs at meal-preparation time. You also want to have your garden tools stored close to the veggie garden. If you have a backyard composter, you may also want to have direct access from the kitchen (especially during the winter). Your previous research will have informed you that vegetable gardens need eight hours of direct sun daily.

Mark Zones

By going through this exercise of looking at traffic flow, best use of space, and physical requirements such as sun exposure for each feature on your yard list, you will get a better idea of where to locate these features. Start to mark “zones” on another copy of your sketch. These general areas will show where the entertainment area will be, where the veggie garden will be, the play area, and so on.

Now you can start to plan the specifics of each area (zone) of your yard.

How do you find out what kind of soil you have?

There is a simple soil test a homeowner can do. Take a handful of it when it is not too wet, and then close your hand. If the soil in your hand doesn’t form a ball, it is probably very sandy. If it forms a ball and doesn’t break apart easily when you poke it, it is probably clay. If it forms a ball and does break apart easily when you poke it, it is probably a mix of the two or what we call loam. Loam is the best type of soil to have in your garden. There are also commercial soil tests available that will do complete mineral analysis.

Which perennials are most versatile (and forgiving)?

Stick to native plants if you want something that is bulletproof. The caveat is that whether it is a native or an introduced species of plant, choosing the right plant for the right location is paramount. You can’t try to grow sun-loving plants in deep shade. They may struggle to survive, but they will not thrive.

What are the most important things to do and remember?

Add organic matter to feed the soil! When starting a new garden (or revitalizing an old area) you really only get one chance to amend the soil thoroughly. People make the mistake of sanitizing their yards, removing every leaf that falls and putting leaves and grass clippings at the curb for pick-up. All of this organic matter should be left to feed the soil. Healthy soil means healthy plants. Fertilizer is a quick fix. Plants green up and grow when the fertilizer is present, but the earth itself is nutrient-dead. Master Gardeners get all sorts of interesting questions from the public. One that I re-member was a gentleman asking why the roots of his tree were rising and becoming so visible in his lawn. We determined that he bagged his grass clippings and raked up every leaf that fell. The soil had lost all of the naturally occurring organic matter and was now actually lower than the roots. Compare the rich organic soil you find under trees in the for-est to the soil under most urban trees and you’ll understand my point. And before it arises, I’ll tackle the argument that we need to remove the leaves to let the plants grow through: no one runs through the woods removing the leaves and yet we get a beautiful display of trilliums, jack-in-the-pulpits and other woodland plants.

Newly transplanted plants will require weekly watering but once established should not need any additional watering. Again, if there is organic matter in the soil, it is able to hold moisture. A good layer of organic mulch will also keep the root-zone of plants moist.
Should or can you get kids involved in soil preparation or planting?
I would certainly get them involved. There is so much to learn from just digging in the dirt. There are ecosystems in every spadeful of garden soil. Certain plants always have more appeal to children. Some are soft and fuzzy with interesting names like lamb’s ears. Others have fascinating structures, such as the obedient plant with its individual florets pivoting on the stem.

Teaching children about food production is crucial. I re-member arguing with a 10-year-old who didn’t believe you could make French fries from a potato.

Final Tips

I would recommend that anyone wanting to complete a major redesign of their landscape do it in small steps or stages. It is important to have an overall vision or plan so that the end result will flow and seem cohesive, but it can be over-whelming (financially, physically and mentally) to take every-thing on at once. It is much better to break the project down into manageable pieces or areas of the yard. And finally, be flexible; life happens, plans change, your landscape can too.
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