Spring Gardening FAQ with Wim Vander Zalm

Gardener Wim Vander Zalm shares his secrets to a great garden just in time for spring

Get your garden in shape with advice from Wim Vander Zalm

Gardening may come naturally to some, but if you need a little help getting your garden to flourish, Wim Vander Zalm has you covered. The author of Just Ask Wim! Down-to-Earth Gardening Answers shared some tips with BCLiving about spring-blooming bulbs, apple trees, and more.  

Fruit Trees and Containers

Q: I would like an apple tree suitable for a container – any suggestions?

A: Fruit trees in containers are not something I normally recommend, with the exception of some true dwarf varieties or the ‘Colonnade’ apple trees.
‘Colonnade’ apples are columnar trees that grow to about 12 ft. (3.6 m) but can be kept to 6 ft. (1.8 m). You should have success growing them in containers – that is, big containers that are a minimum of 24 in. (60 cm) wide and as deep. Usually the harvests are small, so it’s more of a novelty plant with a possible crop size of 10 1bs. (4.5 kg) per tree per year.

Fruit trees are best placed in an afternoon sunny location as opposed to the early-morning (weaker) sun.

Moving Blooming Bulbs

Q: I have spring-blooming bulbs (tulips, daffodils and hyacinths) planted in pots. Is it okay to move the bulbs with their foliage, so that I can plant something else in place of them once they have finished flowering?

A: Yes, you can pull them out, but leave the greens intact and rest them on their sides in a shaded part of the garden. This allows the foliage to die back naturally and the nutrition in it to transfer back into the bulbs. Position them so that they are slightly upright and leaning against one another, with just enough soil over the bulbs themselves so that the bulb is not showing.

In early summer, once the leaves have yellowed by one-half to two-thirds from the top – and this should take a good month – remove the foliage with a sharp knife or pruners.

It’s fine to leave the bulbs in this storage or resting area all summer and then replant them in fall in your pots or garden in anticipation of the following spring. (And maybe make a note on your calendar to plant them come October.

Another option would be that once the leaves have died back, you can simply cut the leaves off at bulb level and store the bulbs in a paper bag or cardboard box in a cool location (below 65F/18C) until you’re ready to plant them again in fall.

Vines and Balconies

Q: I live in an apartment and my balcony is looking a little bare. I love the scent of honeysuckle and would like to put a planter with trellis on my balcony to double as a privacy screen. Would this work, or is there a better vine for this purpose?

A: Honeysuckle does not do well in pots for a couple of reasons. Most specifically, any stress from its roots drying would most certainly weaken the plant and make it susceptible to disease and insects. Secondly, due to their large number, the leaves on a honeysuckle would be nearly impossible to keep hydrated during a summer dry spell, particularly in a high and windy location.

If you are looking for a vine and want fragrance, I would suggest trying a star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides), as it is semi-evergreen with star-like white blossoms all summer. If you live in a zone-7 climate or warmer, it will survive through the winter with some protection. Bring it into a cool garage or very cool room, preferably with a window, through the winter.

Star jasmine grows very quickly and is worth a little effort to protect it over winter; otherwise, simply treat it as an annual, as the fragrance is wonderful all summer long while you are enjoying your balcony moments.

Picking Fruit

Q: My new, small apple tree just planted this spring is covered in fruit. Should I let it all mature or pull some off so that the tree’s energy goes into its root development instead?

A: Regarding your apple tree, it will most likely self-thin within the month. If not, I suggest you pick off some of the apples yourself in early July. The purpose is to lessen the weight on a small tree as opposed to a concern about reducing its energy. Allowing just two or three pieces of fruit per cluster would reduce the strain on branches that could bend easily under the weight. This advice holds true mostly for apples and pears due to their size and weight.

Choosing the Proper Fertilizer for Bulbs and Tubers

Q: Do tubers and bulbs require a high-phosphorus fertilizer for their spring growth?

A: Tubers and bulbs do require a higher-phosphorous fertilizer than most perennials and annuals. And where this fertilizer is placed is also important. Bulbs and tubers like to grow a healthy root system below the bulb or tuber itself.

Gardeners are often generous with good soil and fertilizer above the bulb or tuber, however gravel could also be put there, as the bulb or tuber will push growth through pretty much any material overhead. The most important placement of good soil and fertilizer is 4–6 in. (10–15 cm) below the bulb.

And now that you know where to put it, your best bet for high-phosphorous nutrition for any bulb or tuber would be bone meal mixed thoroughly into the earth. And for more on this, check out our next question.

Credit: Wim Vander Zalm

Still have questions?

What vegetables can I plant as winter crops? How can I avoid bitter bolting lettuce? When is the best time to cut back rhodos? What fast-growing evergreen hedge will work for my narrow urban yard? How late can I plant spring-flowering bulbs? What should I do about the chafer infestation that is destroying my lawn? What fruits and vegetables grow best in patio pots?

These are just some of the 100+ burning questions that garden expert Wim Vander Zalm answers in his frank, friendly and often funny bestselling new book Just Ask Wim! Down-to-Earth Gardening Answers.