Big Lakes County Agriculture Services is committed to providing outreach and learning opportunities to our ratepayers. When a workshop is needed to deliver new information, connect with producers or launch new programs, Agriculture Services will provide these services. Through our partnerships with extension organizations or on a County driven priority, Big Lakes County aims to meet the need of continued education in the Agricultural Sector. If there is a topic you would like covered through a workshop, please contact Agricultural Services.


 The YARDening Club - 2021

The YARDening Club is a season subscription geared towards prairie gardeners of all experience levels. It is a fun and interactive program which will provide information and insights on edible and ornamental annual and perennial plants, as well as woody trees and shrubs and lawns.

The YARDening Club includes: 

  • Membership in “The Yardening Club” private Facebook group for 2021
  • Timely and useful weekly posts (written posts, videos, live events/videos)
  • Regular live events with expert growers, with lots of practical and useful information for gardeners of all levels (Facebook Live events or Zoom/Google Meets) – recorded for later viewing
  • Participate in interactive discussions with fellow gardeners in a private Facebook group.
  • Ask any question you have about your yard or garden throughout the season, and get answers from experts
  • Get access to a host of useful materials that is sure to help you be more successful in your yard and garden

The 2021 season runs 27 weeks, from mid-March to mid-September. The program starts March 15, 2021.

Outline of Program: 

Early Season (mid-March to end of April): Starting plants (materials, dates, techniques), caring for your new plants (light, temperature, water, nutrients), plant health (diseases and insects), getting ready for outdoor growing, soil stuff (basic terminology, prep, temperature), assessing winter health, yard/garden clean up

Spring (May): perennials (dividing, planting), planting plants (seeds, transplants, etc.), spacing, disease/insect pest spotlights, protecting plants

Summer (June-July): watering, protecting plants, recognizing plant problems, maintenance (yard, garden), dealing with severe weather

End of Season (August to mid-September): dealing with heat, harvest, watering, end of season yard and garden care (maintenance, fertilizing/soil amendments, etc.), wrapping up the season, storing stuff, cutting/drying/storing ornamentals

The YARDening Club is a collaborative offering by Robert Spencer – Spencer Horticultural Solutions and Sharon Murphy – Gardening with Sharon.

To purchase a subscription to The YARDening Club, click here


May Horticulture Article
By Robert Spence 

“May is a time for growing and getting your fingers dirty,” in the opinion of Rob Spencer, horticulturist.

Once the growing season gets underway, there are many different tasks that compete for our attention. When it comes to May, it is all about planting. As the days get longer, the soil warms up and temperatures stay above freezing. As a result, it is possible to plant more and more vegetables.

Spencer says, “In the first part of the month, depending on what the weather is like, you can start vegetables from seed in the ground, provided they tolerate cooler soils.”

Crops that don’t mind when the soil is less than 5°C include vegetables like onions, lettuce, spinach, any of the cruciferous Cole crops (e.g., broccoli, cabbage, kohlrabi, kale), peas, beets, carrots, radishes, celery, and parsley. It should be noted that most vegetables will germinate and emerge much more quickly if it is warmer than that, but these crops will manage in cooler temperatures better than others.

As things warm up and day and nighttime temperatures don’t dip below zero, it is possible to plant almost all crops, but Spencer says that you should still be careful, as a sudden, cold night can kill sensitive plants.

“If temperatures are above 10-15°C, you should be ok with most plants. If you put sensitive plants outside, keep an eye on the forecast and be prepared to cover them up if needed.”

If you are looking to spread out your harvest a bit and increase the variety of what you are growing, you will likely have to use a combination of seeds and transplants. Transplants have the advantage of giving you a head start on growing some crops, especially for warm season crops like cucurbits (cucumbers, squash, pumpkins) and fruiting vegetables (tomatoes and peppers). Some vegetables only need a few weeks (e.g., cucumbers) before they are put outside (in warm temperatures) while others will take 6-8 weeks (e.g., tomatoes).

When you are start plants from seed indoors, you need to make sure that they are warm enough to germinate quickly, then have at least 12 hours a day of good light while they are getting bigger.

“Keep in mind that many new windows have a coating on them the block some of the wavelengths of light that plants need, so even with lots of light, sometimes plants will benefit from a grow light or two,” says Spencer.

Before putting transplants outside permanently, give them a few days of mild stress, moving them outside for short periods, letting them dry out a little bit, and dial back any fertilizing that you are doing.

There are lots of different pests and diseases that can show up throughout the growing season. As seeds are germinating and emerging from the soil, the biggest threat to them are cold, wet conditions. Cold temperatures slow down growth, which tips things in favour of a number of soilborne pathogens. Some of them can cause seed decay and root rots. Young seedlings can also collapse suddenly as the pathogens cut off the plant at the soil line. You might also see these sorts of problems if you are growing transplants and get cold areas and drips from condensation.

Ultimately, the best thing that you can do is to make sure that the soil outside has warmed up sufficiently before planting, and make sure that it is well-drained.

“You can’t control it if the weather changes,” says Spencer, “but try and make sure that conditions are as good as can be.”

As mentioned earlier, some vegetables are ok with cooler temperatures, so they can be planted outside earlier in the month, whereas warmer season vegetables should only be planted once the weather is a bit warmer and stable later in the month. Healthy transplants can help you avoid some of the seedling issues that you might experience in early season. Keep in mind that most transplants should still be held inside until the risk of frost is past.

Once of the most common early insects that affects cruciferous seedlings (like cabbage, broccoli, etc.) is the crucifer flea beetle. The damage that they do early on is fairly obvious, as they chew on the seedling leaves (called cotyledons). Their feeding causes little circles of tissue to dry up and fall out, giving what are called “shot holes”. Spencer says that it looks like someone took a little hole punch to the cotyledons. Lots of damage can cause the death of the seedlings.

Flea beetle adults are pretty obvious, at least if you look closely. They are small, brown/black insects that leap (like fleas) when disturbed. If there are lots of them, the plants will seem like they are rustling or moving in the wind when you come closely.

You can cover plants to protect them from flea beetles or grow transplants that can tolerate more of the damage.


July Horticulture Article
By Robert Spence 

July is usually when plants have really settled into their growing groove. The temperatures are warmer (even hot, at times) and the weather is usually more unsettled. The growing and developing plants need a lot more moisture as they get bigger, and the hot, dry weather sucks more moisture from the soil and the plants.

According to Rob Spencer, horticulturist, meeting the water needs of the growing plants can be a challenge.

“Annual vegetable plants need a regular supply of water at they hit their peak growth. If you happen to have an unlimited water supply, then you can theoretically just focus on watering each week for vegetables. Lawns can be soaked down every week or 10 days, depending on temperatures and how exposed they are.”

If you are interested in cutting back the amount of water that needs to be applied, Spencer says that are a few strategies that you can employ. Water when there will be less water quickly lost to evaporation, such as in the cooler parts of the day (morning and evening). Water the soil, not the foliage of the plants. If you can use a drip irrigation system for plants in rows, it is much more efficient than a sprinkler system. For perennial beds, and under trees and shrubs, consider using a bark mulch or some other organic material to reduce the soil temperature and conserve moisture at the soil surface. Water perennials and lawns deeply and infrequently, rather than in short, shallow bursts. Water trees out around the edge of the canopy, where their fine roots are, rather than right at the trunk. Try and slow down runoff from hard surfaces like roofs using rain chains or you can capture the runoff in rain barrels for later use. Include porous areas next to hard surface areas, which slows down the water and lets it percolate into the soil

A number of vegetables can develop problems in the heat if they don’t have even watering throughout the growing season. Tomatoes are prone to developing Blossom End Rot (a calcium deficiency), lettuce will develop tip burn (also calcium deficiency), and potatoes may have higher levels of common potato scab if watering fluctuates, and the soil is drier as tubers start to develop.

“When plants have been exposed to drying conditions,” says Spencer, “eventually they will start to send signals that they are suffering.”

For tender annuals, they may start to droop and wilt, occasionally recovering at night (at first). Larger plants may have a less vibrant colour, and occasionally, you may see leaves start to turn brown. It is easier to stay ahead of the curve on the watering than it is to “fix” things when they start to look drought stressed.. Keep in mind that excess water can also cause drought-like symptoms, as the plants can’t take up the water they need from the soil. Pay attention to how soils are draining, and fix what you can.

The heat of summer often produces sudden, severe weather, such as high winds, hail, or heavy rains. Spencer acknowledges that there isn’t a lot that can be done to change the weather, but once the storms are past, you can evaluate the damage and do any necessary clean up and repairs.

“Right after storms, clean up any loose debris and broken branches. Cut off any broken branches from trees. If there has been flooding or standing water, try and drain it off as soon as possible. For annual vegetable crops, wait a few days (even up to a week) to see how plants recover and to assess how much and how permanent the damage is. Sometimes it is best to just start over for crops that take a short amount of time to grow, rather than try and salvage ones that have been battered.”

Summer also means that more insects and diseases may start to show up. If things are cooler and wetter, diseases tend to be more prevalent. Spencer says to watch for spots, lesions, foliage dying back, and discoloured plant parts. Many diseases start on the older tissues first. Plants that are tightly spaced are also more prone to disease, as the humidity in the canopy can build up.

When it comes to insects, it is best to “leave no leaf unturned”, as many pests (like aphids and mites) like to live and feed in the sheltered areas on the leaf undersides and in the nooks and crannies of the plant. In July, you will also see some of the more obvious pests, such as the cabbage butterflies (Imported cabbageworm), flapping around. Once you start to notice things flying around, start watching for damage and consider controls. Even better would be to keep out pests from your plants, using covers or other protections.

July is really the time for constant vigilance, as things are changing quickly. Watch for colour changes, sudden shifts in plant health, or other signs that something isn’t quite right. Leaving things untended for too long often leaves you with few viable options.

August Horticulture Article
By Robert Spence 

August is a month where most of the growing season effort starts to come together. Fruits and vegetables are maturing and ripening and are being harvested. Flowers are really hitting their stride, and everything is at the peak of growing. It is time to stay on top of maintenance and harvest, while keeping an eye open for issues.

It is important to remember that most fruits and vegetables have a very short life after they are picked. Most early season products are thin-skinned and prone to bruising and wounding. They are mostly made up of water and they are generally pretty sweet. Taken all together, this means that you have to use them up quickly.

Rob Spencer, horticulturist, says, “To prolong the lifespan of your produce, try and harvest them in the cooler parts of the day and then store them in a cool, humid spot (like the crisper drawer). Some produce will benefit from being washed and then stored cold. Try and avoid condensation and moisture collecting in bags. You might put a layer of dry paper towel in the bag to absorb any excess moisture. For all produce, only try and store good quality produce, as quality won’t improve with time. Recognize the limitations of each product and use them as quickly as possible.”

Spencer says that for fruit like sour cherries, it is tempting to pick them as soon as there is any colour, but “don’t be too hasty.” From the time that fruit has fully coloured up, wait a couple of weeks before picking, to allow the flavours and sugars to build up. Taste testing is a good way to see how things are progressing. Other fruits are a bit more predictable and can be harvested when the fruit has reached their final colour.

In the rest of the yard, it is important to stay on top of the weeds that continue to grow and develop. It is critical to remove them before they set seeds and become more firmly entrenched. Stubborn patches of perennial weeds like quackgrass and Canada thistle may be carefully treated with a non-selective herbicide, provided there are no other plants of value around them.

Generally, herbicide use around gardens should be very limited, as some vegetables are often quite sensitive to the gases that can accompany a lot of the broadleaf weed controls used in lawns. You should also be careful about adding things to the garden in season (like composted manures), since you can’t always know what is in them and they can introduce issues that will last for some time. Keep track of when activities are carried out in case there are issues later that need to be identified or linked.

Watering is also going to be important to help plants continue to weather the heat of late summer, and also to be able to finish producing a water-filled product.

“Try and keep the moisture in the soil at a fairly consistent level,” says Spencer, “so that plants don’t have to strain to find it. Even moisture will help prevent issues like Blossom End Rot (in tomatoes), as this will allow them to take up calcium consistently.”

As the end of the month approaches, Spencer suggests that you dial back the watering of fruit trees (e.g., apples), to help them to start to shut down. For ornamental trees, give them a big drink as the cooler weather sets in, so that they go into winter fully hydrated. Keep in mind that their most active roots are out around the edge of their canopy, not at the trunk, so water them deeply out wide.

Hot and dry weather often produces conditions that favour pests like spider mites. These tiny little creatures feed on the leaf undersides and other protected parts of the plant. They cause the foliage to be a bit faded and dry looking. Sometimes you’ll notice some light webbing on the leaf undersides. When you look closely at the undersides of the leaves, you will see what looks like tiny, moving grains of sand. Keep an eye out for them early on. You will often see them on raspberries, but they can show up on lots of different plants.

A common disease that shows up in the later parts of summer and in early fall is something called Powdery Mildew. There are a number of forms of it, but you often see it on peas and all of the cucurbits (cucumbers, pumpkins, squash). It like humid, stagnant air conditions, and usually shows up in warm and dry (not rainy) conditions. If you are finding that the plant canopies are pretty dense and lush, with little to no air movement, you can expect powdery mildew to show up. Remove infected tissues, as it will stick around on debris in the soil for years. Prune perennial plants to encourage airflow within the canopy.

September Horticultural Article 

by Robert Spence

September can be one of the most glorious of months, depending on the year. Sometimes it is a bit of a disappointment. Some years, we are given an extension on the summer, with plants having plenty of time to ripen and mature and for the harvest to be taken in. Other years, winter arrives suddenly and brutally, with temperature (and sometimes snow) falling. “Either way,” says Rob Spencer, horticulturist, “September is a good time to be getting soils and plants ready for the long winter period.”

As plants are harvested and gardens are emptied out, it is an excellent time to add organic amendments to the soil. This can include composted manure, well-rotted compost, or some other former plant matter. You can also add other types of amendments, depending on what you are trying to accomplish. Adding these types of amendments in the fall makes sense since they are typically added in high volumes. They also need to be incorporated into the soil and then have time to break down.

Spencer says, “The winter is a good time for them to start becoming part of the overall soil. Adding organic matter improves the soil, as it changes how the soil particles clump together, which makes the soil easier to work. It also helps to increase how the soil holds water, while also providing some nutrients. If you are adding amendments, you can add an inch or two across the entire surface, and then work it in deeply.”

As temperatures start to drop, it is a good time to make sure that trees are well-watered before winter. This will go a long way to increasing their chances of survival. The drying winds, extreme cold temperatures, and occasional temperature fluctuations of our extended winters can remove a lot of moisture from the needles of conifers and can injury deciduous trees and shrubs.

When watering trees, it is important to recognize that most of the active roots are in what is referred to as the “drip-line”, which is out around the edge of the tree canopy. Water deeply and well out where the fine roots will take up the water. Don’t water next to the trunk, as the water will be wasted.

Having 2-3 inches of bark mulch under trees will help to reduce water loss from the soil surface and will help them going forward. Spencer cautions gardeners about mulch placement.

“Make sure that the mulch isn’t piled against the trunk, but rather, forms a circle a little way out from the trunk. When placing the mulch, think “donut” not “volcano”. If you already have mulched areas, September is a good time to replenish the mulch under the trees.”

For any non-woody perennial plants that you might be overwintering (whether edible or otherwise), it is good to think about adding an insulating layer of protection after there has been a few light frosts. Plants like garlic are often planted in September before freeze-up, and plants like strawberries will appreciate a layer of straw that insulates them from the extreme cold and any temperature fluctuations. Spencer says that you don’t need to add more than 4-6 inches of light, loose straw. If you always get good amounts of snow that pile up over top of your perennials, you might be able to skip the straw, provided it comes before the extreme cold conditions.

One of our staple vegetables that gets a lot of attention in fall is the potato. Tubers are pretty amazing. They can be stored and enjoyed for many months. Unfortunately, potatoes are prone to many different rots that can develop in storage. Most of the infection of tubers happens in the soil before or during harvest.

An intact skin is the potato’s best defense against many of the pathogens that can cause them to rot in storage. Damage to the potato, in terms of skinning, scrapes, or bruising can happen when potatoes are handled roughly, dropped from higher than 12 inches (30cm), or if they are harvested early. To improve their ability to store, while reducing the amount of damage that they might get at harvest, make sure that tops are killed at least 2 weeks prior to digging. This toughens up the skin significantly.

One of the most common tuber rots that people encounter is called Fusarium Dry Rot. The pathogen that causes this disease is pretty common in the soil. Usually, the tubers are infected when they are wounded or injured at or before harvest. Initially, you won’t see anything, as the rot develops internally. In time, tissues might be slightly darkened, but gradually they become sunken and somewhat wrinkled. Under the surface, at first, the tissues will be wet and brown, but eventually a cavity is formed, and the rotted tissues are dry and dark, and the cavities may be covered with the fungus. The rot doesn’t spread between tubers in storage. The best way to manage this disease is by preventing infection, which is best done by careful handling and encouraging good skin set.

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