The Garden Path Not Taken

In 2003, an extraordinary gardening series called Recreating Eden aired the first season of five.  Unlike many gardening shows which are mostly about the garden and the plants in them, these programmes were more about the gardeners and how their gardens changed their lives.  The twelfth episode in the first year was “Keeper of the Dream“, a story about one of Canada’s most historic gardens, its creator, Elsie Reford, and her great-grandson, Alexander Reford who saved it and restored it.

Among the flowers that Elsie Reford grew was the Himalayan Blue Poppy. In the first winter after we built the house, Joyce decided she wanted to have a go at growing them. So she researched how to grow them and I found some seed.

Blue Poppy
The seeds germinated and grew to about 1-2″. Then they wilted and died.  We knew that we were dealing with damping off.  We germinated more seeds and the same thing happened. We tried better circulation, fungicides, home remedies such as chamomile tea and garlic.  Finally, we gave up and blue poppies became a faded dream.  After that but not because of that, our garden interests shifted away from flowers to food – vegetables, fruits, nuts, and berries.

This winter we’ve had a fair number of seeds cold stratifying – goumi, autumn olive, Nanking cherry, Japanese quince, sloe, hawthorn, a number of different sorbus, etc. When some of the Japanese quince germinated, I did some potting up and placed them under grow lights.  At first, they did quite well and then one by one they wilted and fell over.  It had been a while but I knew that I was looking at damping off again.  This time my researching the problem led me to Tom Clothier’s excellent gardening site with its information on damping off.  His comments about accumulated salts and soluble salts got my attention.  We have a water softener and I started thinking that there might be a connection to the damping off because I was watering with tap water.

So we started buying bottle spring water.  Within days the results were very noticeable. One seedling that had fallen over and was nearly dead recovered and put out new leaves. All of the remaining plants turned dark green and put on growth.


Nanking Cherry


Sorbus Domestica










So it seems that salts in the water from the water softener were the problem.  One wonders what our garden would look like today had those blue poppies not died.  Perhaps we would have been on a entirely different path.

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4 Responses to The Garden Path Not Taken

  1. Cristian says:

    Hi Mike,
    As always, your postings are bringing novelties either from your direct experience or from your readings, I follow them with pleasure. Since you mentioned about Sorbus domestica: In the recent 2-3 years I read about a hawthorn hybrid (I think it was hybrid not a graft) with Sorbus. The result was interesting as a source of edible fruits and kept enough of the bioactive components of the hawthorn that supplement industry was interested in propagating this as a better version of hawthorn. I lost track of this information, and recall it reading your post. I think these trees have been presented in British Columbia during a workshop on “selected and improved cultivars” relevant for farmers supplying natural health industry. If my memory is not tricking me the workshop was organized by BCIT.
    Like everything man made, “making things better than nature” may be disputed. Grafts of medlar, apple, pear and hawthorn are known. I was curious whether you came across a hawthorn cultivar with bigger size of the fruit, productive and viable (disease resistant). I believe in edible landscaping, and if the fruit happens to have health benefits, I would spend more time on it.
    Hawthorn fruits and flowers are used for various heart conditions, and it is relatively well researched.
    Have you came across any information on such cultivars?
    Best regards,
    Cristian (Oakville, ON)

  2. Deano says:

    Hi Mike
    I’ve had good results ‘checking’ an outbreak of damping off using a sprinkling of finely ground limestone and rockdust around the stem. My damping off has reduced significantly since i cut right back on the organic matter content of my seedling mix, and started topping it off with a really fine grit (used for cage birds).
    Well worth an experiment.Deano

    • MikeH says:

      Hi Deano,

      So the limestone is raising the pH. I’ll keep that in mind. We’ll probably have some granite rockdust this summer so we’ll save a bit for the seed flats next year and try an experiment using tap water.

      We’ve been using PRO‐MIX® BX for years with few problems that we could see and only minor damping off. When we stopped using our tap water, we were astounded at how much better looking the plants were – dark green, stocky not leggy, thicker stems. It’s a good thing that bottled water is cheap when you buy in volume and refill containers. LOL


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