Alberta Gardening: Against All Odds

John Mason spent a day in May 2000 visiting eight home gardens as a guest of the Calgary Garden Club.

What do you do when the climate is against you, and gardening is your passion? Gardening in Alberta, Canada is certainly a challenge, but one which the Calgary Garden Club meets and overcomes with enthusiasm.

With over 20,000 members, the Calgary Garden Club is actually one of the largest and most active garden clubs in North America. Check out their web site at Apart from regular meetings, the club organises tours, workshops and garden shows, produces a regular newsletter, and has published a couple of excellent books, The Calgary Gardener Vols I and II, which are full of ideas about how to garden in adverse conditions.

What Are The Conditions In Calgary?

Summer days can actually be quite warm, not unlike a summer’s day in Tasmania or even Melbourne; but the winters can be extremely cold, not only with snow covering the ground, but with everything in the top layers of the soil also freezing. Temperatures can fall to minus 30 degrees Celsius. Spring and autumn can see some mild days (you wouldn’t even need a jumper), but can also see occasional frosts as late as mid-May (late spring in Canada). The soil is generally alkaline, winds can be strong, and the air is very dry (humidity is virtually zero). Without some form of protection, tender vegetables or annuals can be grown for little more than the three months of summer, regardless of the variety being grown.

What Do They Grow?

  • During summer, they grow all the same vegetables and annuals we grow in southern Australia.
  • Rockery perennials are popular.
  • Conifers are the most common evergreens. In this part of the world, there are only a handful of flowering evergreens that will survive without some protection.
  • Deciduous trees, including apples, prunus, birch, and maples.
  • Container plants are very popular – they can be taken inside over summer.
  • Greenhouse and indoor gardening is popular.
  • Bulbs are widely grown. Tulips, daffodils and other cool climate bulbs will grow very well, and can even flower through a thin carpet of snow.

Growth Rates

Herbaceous vegetables, bulbs and perennials do grow rapidly through summer; but due to the shorter growing season, trees and shrubs are often much slower growing than you will find in Australia. Calgarians take great pride in showing a plant that is 2 metres tall and a decade or two old, which a Melbournian might consider to be a two-year-old plant, and nothing special.

Pests and Diseases

One unexpected advantage of a cold climate is that the winter cold each year helps strongly control pest and disease problems. Slugs and snails do occur; but they are not the problem that they are in Australia. Hostas are easier to grow, because populations of these pests are knocked back hard every winter. The dry air also helps with disease control – many fungal diseases do not thrive in such low humidity.

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