Gardening: location, location location

The rain is falling gently this Tuesday morning. And most of you who are gardeners (not to mention our farming friends) realize how much the plants need this moisture. It’s been an extremely dry spring.

One of the things that intrigues me about our region is the difference in zones within it.

Here at my Steele Line farm near Quyon, my lilacs are in full bloom. Blossoms are open and all a-buzz with honey- and bumble-bees. Hummingbirds hover, drinking the nectar. And American goldfinch dart about in the branches, nestbuilding and even investigating last year’s seedpods.

But only a five-minute drive away, the lilac bushes at a friend’s farm are not yet quite open.

This can be due to several factors: location, location, location sums them all up, however.

Location in terms of micro-climate is one reason for there being a difference in the development of plants, whether it be bloom rate or ripening time. Along the Eardley Escarpment, where my farm is, the ridge protects Steele Line farms from the chilly north wind, for example.

My friend’s farm that is merely a five-minute drive away is more exposed. Her lilac shrubs are just a few days behind mine, in terms of blossom development.

And remember the frost of a few days ago? In Greermount, north of Shawville, a May 12 frost hit some of our friend’s plants while here at our farm, we experienced no setbacks whatsoever.

Location. It also means soil type and, as many of you who farm for a living know full well, soil can differ dramatically even on one property.

Here at our farm, for instance, we have lots of sand. Eighteen feet and counting, actually. We planted our orchard in sand and laid down an irrigation system to keep the trees watered.

And years ago, when we had a pond dug, it was difficult for the machinery operator to locate a seam of clay. Of course, we had to find clay: otherwise, any water would simply drain through the sand. Happily, a seam of clay was found and our pond now provides welcome habitat for a host of critters, from green and bull frogs through to chubb fish, herons and muskrat.

Right next door to us, our neighbours’ soil is primarily clay… which provides a good reason to trade. We give them sand, they give us well composted horse manure.

What’s the reason? Old watercourses, old seabeds… and the presence of the Eardley Escarpment whose height has tumbled down to only a hundred metres or so behind our place. Ten thousand years ago, when the Champlain Sea filled this region with its saline waters, we can imagine the back-eddy that the tumbled-down ridge would have created on what has become our land.

And, in the little sandpit behind our home we can see the layers of sedimentary deposition. Clean beach sand through to rocks and boulders lie in layers upon layers crowned with a narrow band of sandy topsoil at the surface.

Good for birthing, announce our beef-cattle farming neighbours, two of whom recall our back field being the spot where cows first birthed calves come spring, along our road. Sandy soil means excellent drainage, so the cattle could cleanly birth in a warm, dry, protected spot.

Clay soils retain moisture. This can be a good thing… and a “bad” thing. Water-filled soil is useful come summertime as plants don’t require as much watering. It’s inconvenient in spring, as it’s hard to get onto and work the land. From planting a small household vegetable garden through to acres of crop, wet land poses its challenges.

As does the sand, which challenges us, here at our home. It’s a continual chore to keep our soil friable, because nutrients such as our garden compost and neighbour’s horse manure simply leach away, disappearing from one season to the next… or so it seems.

Location. Sunlight, air, breeze: all affect growth of plants.

Last year I purchased a wisteria and made much in this column of creating a microclimate for this tender (not hardy) perennial vine. Well. Time proved that my well-intentioned experiment was not fail-safe. Alas, our efforts failed. The micro-climate failed to provide shelter from wind, which battered this poor plant continually.

For although the north wind is kept from us by the ridge, we have blustery east-west winds blowing along the base of the ridge, along the flat Ottawa Valley floor. My little micro-climate simply wasn’t protected enough.

And so we learn.

Location. For all of these reasons, particularly exposure, we find that many of our Pontiac friends need to harvest their tomatoes before they are ripe. Otherwise, autumn’s chilling frost wipes out the crop.

This is why it’s particularly important to check for tomatoes and other crops’ number of growing days required for maturation. Is it a 60-day variety, or a 78-day? Have a look else chat with your local garden specialist who will help you determine which plants are best for your location (see numbers listed below for two Pontiac specialists).

Other properties are extremely sheltered and we all know that during bug season, having an oasis in the forest tries our patience with black flies, mosquitoes and other pests. As well, circulation of air and availability of sunlight means a garden is healthier. Damp, shaded spots are not good choices for vegetable gardens, and present intriguing challenges to the perennial plant enthusiast.

Real estate agents chant the mantra “location, location, location,” describing the economic value of a property.

It’s a refrain all property owners, whether farmers or cottagers, also know well.


Local Garden Centres

Belle-Terre Botanic Gardens: Otter Lake, 453-7270

Blue Heron Landscaping, Greermont 647-5094


Katharine Fletcher is a keen gardener and freelance writer based near Quyon, Québec.