Like mother gardener, like daughter gardener

This is me being ambushed by the paparazzi rector at St. Alban’s church in Glen Williams last weekend. I had been gardening in the rain around the church (best time to plant, IMHO) and I was lookin’ mighty fine.

muddymeAnd this is my mom in 1961, a year before I was born. That’s her legendary rock garden in Fulford, Quebec. Apparently my maternal grandmother, who died when I was two, was also a gardener. I actually have some of her peonies and irises growing in my garden; they’ve travelled over the years from the Saint John River valley in New Brunswick to Montreal to Kitchener to here.

Anyway, I guess when it comes to gardening, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Ok, back outside with Turbo. It’s a beautiful Saturday and I have the entire glorious weekend all to myself to work in my own garden. Yay!

The silence of frogs and my June 6th Garden

After all that racket I wrote about a couple of nights ago, now the tree frogs have gone completely silent. I guess the party is over and they’ve all found their mates. Either that or there’s been some kind of tree frog apocalypse.

The garden is taking a blooming break right now, but it’ll burst back into action again soon. Until then, here’s a look at my June 6th garden.

Opening my flower gardens – and mind – to native plants

Anemone canadensis
Anemone canadensis

Over the past few years I have welcomed native plants into my flower beds, and Mother Nature has rewarded me with lovely contributions of her own ever since. It started when I decided not to pull a big patch of Anemone canadensis growing wild in a shady section of the garden. I didn’t know what it was and someone told me it was a weed, but I thought it was pretty.

From there I experimented with a single Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis). Then some ferns. Three years ago I decided to do my part for Monarch Butterflies and planted Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) front and centre. Year two I decided it wasn’t very nice to look at so I banished it to the far end of the garden. Last summer (year three) it became host to several Monarch caterpillars, and was instantly promoted to my garden favourite.

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Last summer I scored a quantity of Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum) that was headed for a compost heap. It’s graceful and gorgeous this spring. I learned that the unattractive tree – the one I valued only as a post to tie my hammock to – is a Black Cherry (Prunus serotina). Black Cherry is the host plant for Tiger Swallowtail caterpillars and the source of that cloud of butterflies I see over the lilac tree every year. I found out that the interesting volunteer growing under a cedar is Bugbane (Actaea rubra), and that the young Elderberry volunteer by the house provides a rich diet for many different bird species. Last spring a lovely white Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) popped up by surprise. This spring I planted Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) among the fancy daylilies.

Ok... what is it? Holding my breath
Ok… what is it? Holding my breath

Now I’m holding my breath over something new that has come up under the hazelnut bushes. I’m sure it’s just wishful thinking but… could it be a Showy Lady Slipper orchid (cypripedium reginae)? Nah…. it couldn’t be. Could it?

A few suggestions for the pollinator garden: Mountain Mint, Golden Alexanders, and Rattlesnake Master

A friend of mind is experimenting with native plants in her perennial beds and is doing research on how well they perform as host plants for caterpillars and as nectar and pollen sources for pollinators. She claims that the hands-down winner in her garden is Common Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum), a beautifully scented native with delicate blooms that is an attractive garden specimen in its own right.

My personal favourite is Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea), a plant that I became aware of after seeing it in her garden. It’s attractive and is a host plant for black swallowtail butterflies – what’s not to love?

Eryngium agavifolium
Eryngium agavifolium

Eryngium has a lot of drawing power for pollinators. Although not native to Ontario, I can vouch for Eryngium agavifolium, also known as Agave-leaved Sea Holly. I worked at Lost Horizons last summer and it was by far the most popular plant in the nursery for bumblebees. It is also a very striking architectural plant for design purposes, though a bit spiky to handle. A close second were some vibrant rose-coloured nativars of Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa); bumblebees would invariably cling and hitch a ride rather than abandon ship when customers brought pots to the cash counter.

Check out more examples of native plants for the garden in this great article by Benjamin Vogt:

15 Native Flowers That Feed Native Bees
These perennials offer superfood to hundreds of bees and are gorgeous in their own right

Now I understand how we got here

John Brookes spoke at the Toronto Botanical Gardens tonight. I’m glad I went.

Mr. Brookes is a distinguished garden designer with awards under his belt that include gold medals from the Chelsea Garden Show and a nod from the Queen in the form of an MBE. His services are in demand all over the world and he runs garden design schools in more than one country. He is described first and foremost as influential: One of THE most influential garden designers and teachers of the late twentieth century.


Mr. Brookes began his talk by telling us that his work is inspired by patterns in modernist paintings. By the end I sadly concluded that the materials on his pallette are unhealthy – as unsustainable as the lead paints used by artists before anyone knew better. And I finally understand how the lawn became the default ornamental feature in yards all over the English-speaking world.

I mean no disrespect to Mr. Brookes, but as he talked through slide after slide and the audience sighed, I grew quite uncomfortable. There was little in the way of “garden” in the designs, but he had warned us about that. Mr. Brookes stated up front that his gardens are for people, not plants; in fact, plants are quite far down on his list of important things in a garden.

But there were plants, miles and miles of plants – small city gardens, large estate gardens and everything in between – all one type of plant that formed the main design element in the midst of hardscaping: Mowed lawn.

There were also some ponds; artificial ponds, with hard edges and little to no vegetation, with grass borders mown short up to the edges. There was even a substantial lake covering a bed of what he suggested was rubber.

As each slide slipped by I wished there were a second speaker on the stage, an alter ego commenting on each slide with an eye to ecology. Pointing out that lawns are virtual deserts – devoid of habitat for pollinators and other creatures, outcompeting trees for water and nutrients, and demanding the chemical nurturing of fertilizers, pesticides, and gas-guzzling equipment. An alter ego who pointed out that creatures in need of wetland habitat need plants to hide in and feed, shallow sides and mud bottoms. Who wondered how many decades will it take for the rubber under that lake to break down and leach into the groundwater? Who viewed, with a critical eye, the large expanses of hardscaping impermeable to England’s ever-pouring rain.

When his talk ended I put up my hand and asked if he consciously uses lawns as a major design element and what could he imagine as an alternative. He said it was an English thing; he said grass is low maintenance (it’s not), and that it’s practical for kids and dogs. He thought maybe gravel might work, but maybe not – the expanses it would have to cover are too large; or perhaps (in all seriousness) artificial turf. I covered my face with my hands in dismay and he assured me that there are some nice ones available now.

I honestly believe he had never really thought about it before. It seems that for even the best garden designers, original thought on the subject ended in the 18th century with Capability Brown.

With all due respect to Mr. Brookes, surely garden designers of his stature – influential, shaping the next generation of designers, in a position to dictate the paradigms for good taste in landscape design across the world – surely they can do better. Gardens are not just for people. They are for people who live in a world in which 75% of its food relies on disappearing pollinators; in a world sustained by complex and interconnected ecosystems on a precarious edge; in a world in which the climate is rapidly changing due to human activity. In short, gardens are for people who want someone else to solve problems that start, but can end… in our own backyards.

All we want are the facts, ma’am: Horticulture crime drama, episode 2

Plant Code 2447B: “Subjecting Plants to Embarrassment”:

Think about it. What if all the other bougainvilleas on the block looked like plants, and you had to look like an Apollo space capsule.

Detective Billy Goodnick is on the case, and pruning crimes are his specialty.

Ok, we northerners will have to swap out the bougainvilleas (jealous!) for some shrub that actually grows here, but the spirit of the crime against horticulture is the same.

Lookout you “people perpetrating pointlessly pitiful pruning on peaceful plants”, the plant police are coming for you and your pruning shears. In my dreams.