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Grow organic: Tips from a Butchart Gardens expert

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From kitchen scraps to enviro-controls, Butchart keeps it earth friendly

Strolling through Victoria's renowned The Butchart Gardens, resplendent with over 700 varieties of flowers and canopies of rare trees, you can't help but marvel at how such perfection is maintained.

And you may find it surprising that the garden's small army of 50 gardeners forgo high-tech fertilizers. Instead, they rely on fish and kelp meal products and compost made from restaurant kitchen scraps, and they prefer bio-controls such as lady bugs to potent pesticides.

"Organic" and "environmentally-friendly" aren't just buzz words within the 55 acres of cultivated garden; they're vital to its long-term success.

"Little goes to waste here, and this helps create a complete, sustainable cycle," states Rick Los, the gardens' director of horticulture.

At The Butchart Gardens, green waste and food scraps are composted; branches and wood are chipped for mulch; collected leaves top beds; and natural fertilizer is used after soil is tested for specific nutrient deficiencies.

Below, Los offers tips for organic gardens of all sizes:

Beating bugs

Rick Los
Rick Los, director of horticulture for The Butchart Gardens.

A healthy garden needs healthy soil. Since it's not convenient for most homeowners to test for soil deficiencies, Los advises using quality organic fertilizer in addition to composting.

"Organic fertilizers are not initially as potent as conventional ones, but they're more nutritionally balanced, and stimulate microbes, which doesn't occur with chemical fertilizer. The soil's arsenal of millions of insects and microbes help to reduce pests and disease."

Combat disruptive bugs with predator insects available at garden centres. Most of these insects are in the natural surrounding environment so aren't invasive, and typically only stick around where the food source is available, so numbers don't increase outside the garden.

"Increasing populations of these insects is an attempt to recreate balance, because we create an imbalance of nature by planting a non-indigenous garden," Los explains.

Hit the right spot

Planting the right plant in the right location prevents many problems, including pests. "We have moved many plants to locate the most suitable place for each one, which continues because as the garden grows, conditions change,"he says.

Go out on a limb

Do your homework before buying trees. Native trees may be adapted to local climate, but some non-indigenous ones withstand harsh urban environments better and offer more diversity and interest.

Los adds that many residential sites are no longer natural anyway, so aren't necessarily right for native species.

"Often the original soil is stripped and replaced with reprocessed soil, and drainage is changed. Leaving native trees takes careful consideration, too — for example, a large fir standing alone is no longer protected from wind compared to wooded areas, and the root zone is often left exposed."

Acknowledge your roots

Providing enough space and soil for roots increases the tree's life by four to five times.

Dig deep to find out how much topsoil you have and whether the location is appropriate for what you're planting: is it sand or clay? Rocky or well drained? Unravel balled or root-bound roots, mulch with large-chip bark or leaves, and irrigate until the roots get established.

To choose the right tree, consider landscaping needs, and the tree's eventual height. You may be tempted to buy fast-growing trees, but these get too large. Small, slow growing trees are more appropriate for residences, live longer than fast-growing ones, and are less susceptible to breakage and drought due to stronger branches and deeper roots.

For the West Coast, Los recommends deciduous trees like Liquidambar, Japanese maple, crab apple, flowering plum and ornamental cherry.

Tending a garden is always worth it. Los concludes, "It's amazing to see the drawing power of a beautiful garden."

The Butchart Gardens attract about a million visitors annually.

Plant a deciduous shade tree (and other tips)

  • A tree can reduce your energy bill: Planting a deciduous shade tree in the right spot helps reduce your demand for summer air conditioning or fans by 20 to 100 per cent. Southeast or southwest exposures are best for shade.
  • Make sure that tree is deciduous: Deciduous, rather than coniferous, trees can reduce winter heating costs by up to 25 per cent because when leaves drop, bare trees allow sunlight to warm your home and act as windbreaks.
  • Consider power lines: Never plant a tree that grows taller than six metres directly beneath power lines (or less than five metres on either side of hydro poles) or it will create potential power problems.
    Learn more about planting near power lines
  • Power lines and pruning: Pruning is sometimes inevitable under power lines; unnatural pruning can be detrimental to its health and integrity. "It's unreasonable to try to keep a tree at 12 feet that is naturally programmed to grow to 30 feet. Severe pruning may be required on a regular basis," says Los.
    Learn more about pruning near power lines
  • Energy saving measures at Butchart Gardens: Water from the plants' irrigation system is used to cool the inside of buildings; in the dining room, an air distributor transfers heat from one area to another as needed; in greenhouses, pipes in benches or heated floors heat soil at root zones rather than heating the entire greenhouse.