Celebrating 10 years of Saltscapes.
Very few things in life remain unchanging, and that goes for gardening. There are basic steps gardeners must take to have vegetable plots or perennial borders thrive, but there are also many changes in this passionate avocation that so many of us share. While I’ve only been your humble garden correspondent with this magazine for about eight years, I can safely say that the past decade has taught me a huge amount about gardening, much of which I’ve tried to share with you over the past few dozen issues.
We all have foundations and beliefs on which we create our lives, be they moral, spiritual, intellectual, practical. I have always, since planting my first blue potato in my grandfather’s yard as a child or adding mint to my father’s asparagus garden while a young student at college, been an organic gardener. Likewise, I’ve always had a keen interest in native plants. Beyond that, I have particular interests in growing particular types of plants, partly dictated by the limits of my climate and soil.
One of the best things about gardening, however, is that we’re always learning. There is always something new coming along, whether it’s a new way to harvest a crop of tomatoes, or a different species of Chamaecyparis, or a return to interest in heritage flowers and vegetables. We can learn something new on a daily basis. Here are ten of the garden life-lessons I’ve picked up over the past decade, from reading, from gardening, from talking with other gardeners, including many of our readers.
Improve the soil. It seems like a no-brainer, yet often we forget to tend to our soil with as much consideration as we do our plants. Great gardens start from the ground up.
Many gardeners have good garden soil to begin with, and simply improve on a great thing with yearly applications of compost. Others, like me, have to work at having great soil. As I’ve lamented over the years, we live on clay and have springs gallivanting through our property. It takes a lot of time and effort to improve clay soil, and it can be expensive, but we work away at it. I develop a new area of our property every year or two and keep building the soil up. It’s paying off, without costing me the earth. Because the second most important thing I’ve learned is…
Plant more trees and shrubs. This is especially true if you’re interested in giving your garden more winter interest, in attracting songbirds, and in making less work for yourself. I wrote this article during a spell of unseasonably mild weather in March, where the snow banks receded and the snowdrops appeared as much as a month early. In doing garden chores, I spent far more time with the perennials than the trees and shrubs in our garden. Many of the perennials needed to have their last year’s stems cut to the ground because I leave them as food and shelter sources for overwintering birds and other wildlife. Once that task is done and the detritus raked off for the compost heap, many perennials need to be divided, thinned, replanted, have weeds removed from around them. And since we’re talking about lessons, I’m also learning to…
Make less work, not more. As many gardeners can relate, I have a few chronic health issues. These, coupled with the need to make a living, means I’m not able to work all day in the garden the way I might wish to. This is a good reason to add more shrubs and trees, because they aren’t as labour intensive as perennials and annuals can be. Yes, some shrubs needed a wee bit of pruning to remove damaged or dead branches. Those that bloom early will be pruned after flowering, if they need thinning at all. But for the most part, shrubs are pretty low-maintenance. The trees are even more low-maintenance: we add some compost to the soil around their bases, mulch to cut down on weeding, and that’s pretty much it for the season.
Grow more plants in containers. I’ve long been a fan of containers, considering them portable bursts of colour that I can move around the yard to hide bulb foliage or brighten a shady spot or bring more fragrance to the walkway and entrance of our house. This year instead of fighting with my wet clay soil to create some vegetable plots, I’m planting a few vegetables in containers, too.
Embrace plants we didn’t think we liked. Gardeners need to keep an open mind when it comes to plants they’ve never tried before. I used to think I didn’t like some species: ornamental grasses, hostas and astilbes are three prime examples. Then I saw each of these well-grown in other gardens and saw how excellent each was in certain circumstances.
Grasses come into their own in late summer, and last well into winter; hostas light up a shaded area, working well under shrubs and trees and with other perennials. Astilbes are deer resistant, with brilliant, long-lasting flowers and handsome foliage that’s interesting even when no flowers are out. Now there are numerous examples of each of these plants among the dozens of species that flourish around our property.
Planting for pollinators. I’ve always encouraged butterflies and bees around our gardens, for the beauty they bring, and because they are essential in ensuring plants for our future. When concerns about pollinators, especially bees, disappearing from croplands hit the news a few years ago, I read up on the situation and became quietly alarmed, though not surprised. We were already gardening without using pesticides, even organic ones, ever since the night I saw waxwings dining on a particular type of insect that plagues viburnums. Nature, given a chance, corrects many problems in the garden. We began adding many more pollinator-friendly plants around our property and leaving some areas “wild” to create habitat for beneficial insects. Happily, our garden somewhat resembles Yeats’ beloved “bee-loud glade” during the growing months. From correspondence with other gardeners, I know many of you are doing the same.
Planting natives. Recently, native plants have been the subject of many a discussion on the Internet, because as with anything, there are some people who are adamant that we should only plant natives in our gardens. Naturally, this leads to discussion about what constitutes native plants—where do you draw the line at what is a native plant? Must it be native to your province? Your country? Your continent?
I’m a huge fan of native plants but the main thing to stress is that they aren’t all easy-care plants, and some don’t work well in garden settings. Some require very specific growing conditions, and many aren’t easily available from nurseries. So while I love and use some natives in my garden, I don’t believe in the mantra of “native is easiest and best” that you might encounter in some books and on some websites.
New cultivars vs. old faithfuls. Some gardeners like to try the newest of the new in plant varieties and cultivars, while others prefer heritage varieties. I am firmly in both camps, because I love many of the traditional plants of an ornamental garden, from pansies to poppies, lilacs to lupins. But I’m also fascinated with new colours in flowers and foliage, and because I write about plants so much, I have to try as many as possible to see how they fare in my moody garden. An old-fashioned red geranium is as heart-warming as a fancy new coneflower, as long as it makes the gardener happy.
Be patient. Wonderful gardens can take years to develop, and usually are a work in progress because the gardener likes it that way. It’s okay if your garden doesn’t have a polished, filled-in look, with a succession of bloom every week from first snowdrops to first snowfall. The only perfect garden you’ll ever see is found on a magazine page. (not THIS magazine, I hasten to add!)
Lastly? Just say no to goutweed. That’s a philosophy that will never change.