The other week I had the pleasure of meeting a fellow plant and beauty lover, Leslie Fulton. Turns out a comment of hers on a local plant nursery Facebook page struck me and I commented back, asking if she’d talk privately to me.
You see, I was co-writing a feature on deck/balcony/patio gardens and she had said hers was not only big but attractive to bees and butterflies. How could I not be curious and want to know more….
Her second floor deck is off her study and bedroom and is big enough for 42 pots and two comfy chairs and a fat ottoman. Oh, and did I mention the puppy?
Sam the puppy is named after Samuel Pepys (pronounced somewhat tragically, “PEEPS” — and yes, the man who wrote the famous 17th century diary), who is the object of much of Leslie’s writing affection (along with his wife, Elizabeth) — did I mention Leslie is a freelance writer, after a career as a journalist? This young pup is a source of much amusement and her constant, somewhat apprehensive questioning, “Sam? Where are you?”, so while we were enjoying the flowers and the view, he was creating photo ops.
Leslie lives in this heritage brick house in Ottawa with her husband and starts working (should I even say “work”?) on the porch planters early in May. Forty two pots, an ode to the answer to the meaning of life in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, cannot be planted in one day by any sane person. Some plants are brought out from their winter homes in south-facing windows (aka her son’s second floor bedroom), and others are purchased at local nurseries, garden centres and wherever else she can score a gem or a deal.
She doesn’t just choose annuals (like variegated nasturtium, osteospermum, dusty miller, lobelia, etc.), but also jumps in with two feet potting up wisteria, lavender and catmint. She’ll pop these into her own garden when the season is done.
The heavy pots are being transitioned to lighter ones, easier to move in and out without the help of the men in her life. The smaller cobalt blue ceramic and some terracotta ones were showing age and a certain amount of distinction so I asked, “are these antiques or at least vintage?”
The answer was sheepish. “No, they are HomeSense specials…,” she said with a smile. “They’ve just suffered from frost damage and neglect!”
Certain plants have meaningful associations for Leslie: the portulaca, her brother’s favourite; lantana, her dad’s; and the whole process of planting and creating beauty, her mother’s skill, who showed off her green thumb every day at their half acre Kingston property while Leslie was a kid.
The tree in the corner planter is a volunteer, that is, a seedling that Leslie allowed to grow and thrive — it appeared to me to be some type of willow, and it looked perfect holding that space next to the post-flowering yellow Baptisia to it’s left and beefy coleus near its feet.
It’s not only colour but edibles as well: basil, thyme, parsley, tomato, pepper and an orange tree are given pride of place among annuals you might find in a cottage potagerie — that is, marigolds, cosmos and zinnia.
….and then the stunners with no flowers but plenty of colour echoes: two varieties of coleus, a striped canna lily (possibly ‘Cleopatra’), ‘Baby Tears’ stonecrop, hens and chicks (Sempervivum) and paddle plant (Kalanchoe thyrsiflora).
Despite these succulents, most of Leslie’s planters require considerable amounts of water, hence her Lee Valley irrigation system. Piping spans the perimeter of the deck, with individual (or more, should need be) watering spigots plunged into the soil of each pot. The whole system is attached to a hose which runs from the ground up the side of the house to the corner of the deck, and is on an electronic timer. In June, plants received two minutes of watering twice daily, but should they need it, Leslie can re-program the system easily.
But mostly, this deck is a peaceful retreat from the workday. Not simply for Leslie and her husband, but also for Sam, who works very hard at being a puppy.
Some of this is planned, orchestrated, made better. Other times changes are borne out of circumstance that don’t necessarily fit into your idea of aesthetics.
Some time ago we placed mattresses on our living room floor so that our beloved Skye-dog would not be alone at night. You see, she can no longer negotiate our stairs and we didn’t want her to be relegated to the downstairs without us. So we all sleep in the living room together. She will be 14 this month and is a 5+ year lymphoma survivor.
For some, this would be anathema. For us, it is togetherness and there is a certain simplicity to it.
The living room is one thing. The garden is another.
As anyone with an aging dog knows, we must tweak how we live to accommodate them. This may mean mobility aids, raised dishes, night lights, shortened walks, regular vet visits, ramps and modified outings.
Our backyard was never doggie friendly. Years ago, when our beloved best friend was Riley, one day she exited the kitchen door to the backyard and leaped off the porch stairs — much like she had all her life — but this time to touch down in agony on the ground. Her anterior cruciate ligament was ruptured and she would need surgery to repair it. In Skye’s case, she could no longer negotiate the steep stairs and a solution for nightly potty breaks had to be figured out.
That’s when my wonderful friend Jo Hodgson stepped in last fall and built in one day our doggie ramp…which was a god-send to us throughout the winter of 2015-16 — a winter that was not supposed to be seen by Skye-dog at all…
But the garden! The garden!
It is a work in progress. And always will be … as circumstances change.
What is a garden worth? Does it exist without love? Without associations?
This garden will forever reflect this relationship.
Many of us already know the dioramas at Canada’s Museum of Nature in Ottawa: the grizzlies, the caribou, the pronghorns and even the dinosaurs. As a child, I would gaze at these immobilized animals behind glass and imagine living among them, either in the distant past or in the wilds of today.
But I was also always mesmerized by the scenes that surrounded these beasts: the painted flora, the cliffs, the expansive plains….all landscapes that seemed to have disappeared along with the animals that populated them. Not only the scenes but the dried plants and paintings of plants that dressed the landscapes…
As I grew up, I longed to see these distant landscapes as they lived and breathed, rather than preserved …. and this is probably why I became a gardener. And if I couldn’t always go to these far away landscapes, I could try to grow the plants that inhabited them.
* * * * * *
The western edge of the Canadian Museum of Nature in downtown Ottawa has been park-like for as long as I can remember. And by park-like, I mean predominantly lawn and shade trees….a perfect complement to the early 20th century “Scottish Baronial” structure, designed to reflect the centre block of the Parliament Buildings. To understand the history of the lawn, read this. To be entertained by the concept of the lawn, read Michael Pollan’s wonderful book Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education, particularly Chapter 3, where he talks about our cultural imperative of mowing (courtesy the 1830 invention of the lawnmower).
This western side of the Museum was also home most recently to a family group of woolly mammoths. It was a striking sight to pedestrians, dog-walkers and lunch-time loiterers and a portend of what visitors would find inside the historic building: giant animals from our past.
In late 2011 and early 2012, plans began to take shape for the new appearance of this piece of green space. It would represent the last stage of renovations to the building and its surroundings that began in 2004. According to the Museum’s Advisory to the neighbourhood:
“This plan is one that will ultimately result in restoring more than half of the existing west side property into parkland for the enjoyment and benefit of the community.”
Happily, the result of this design is not simply a “parkland” but a carefully designed microcosm of Canada’s main four eco-zones, each with their own distinctive plant species: namely, the boreal forest, prairie, tundra (Arctic) and steppe grassland (this last area was included primarily to embrace our old friends, the woolly mammoths).
So in June 2015, the Museum made public their concept for fully Canadian-izing this public space and issued a press release that included this announcement:
“A living outdoor botanical exhibit will soon enliven the grounds of the Canadian Museum of Nature. Starting the third week of June, the museum will begin landscaping the west side of its property to develop the Landscapes of Canada Gardens.”
A full year later in June 2016 the new landscape of Canada will be unveiled to the public. There will be the usual benches, pathways, signage and light standards, but there will also be some things that are very unusual….
Starting with the iceberg.
Glistening stainless steel. Monumental. Interactive. Stunning. And designed by Father Goose, William Lishman. Of course it represents Canada’s North in a very modern way, but also hearkens back to the paintings of Group of Seven artist Lawren Harris who travelled to the Arctic in the 1930s aboard the government supply ship “Beothic.”
The vegetation around the sculptural highlight of this garden mimics the tundra, with plants that are indigenous to the Arctic. They have also been chosen according to what will potentially thrive in Ottawa’s sweltering summers and unpredictable winters. This was largely Paul Sokoloff’s job: he is the Museum’s Senior Research Assistant with the Botany Department and he wrote about the gardens here. In preparation for the installation, Paul worked with the team at CSW Landscape Architects, namely Martha Lush, and came up with a list of plants that would suit this planting. And here they are:
The Arctic planting will essentially be low-growing, because that’s the way things grow up there, and include novel plants (to you and I, anyway) like Betula nana ….
This is Betula glandulosa, which the experts will tell you differs from B. nana in that it exhibits glandular warts on the shoots and longer leaf petioles — alrighty then. Betula nana, which will be planted in this garden, is a monoecious shrub (that is, having both male and female parts – making reproduction a snap in its challenging native habitat) growing upwards to 1 or 1.2 metres high. Its growing habit is low and spreading, with leaves that are shiny and diminutive and it produces catkins that stand upright, awaiting the wind to help with pollination.
Russet sedge, botanically called Carex saxatilis, grows up to 80-90 centimeters high in a dense, well-behaved tuft. This sedge grows in northern regions around the earth, preferring wetlands but also grows on ridges or ledges, shores of rivers or lakes and wetland margins.
This brings me to moisture. The water loving plants in the Arctic garden at the Museum are being given a helping hand through the installation of a drip irrigation system, and the area is being mulched with granite rubble.
This new “park land” replaces turf grasses with native grasses. Grasses like these:
The prairie eco-zone in this garden will showcase plants that are familiar to many of us: Echinacea, Achillea, Aster, Rudbeckia and Liatris, and they will mingle with prairie grasses. However, these are not the showy cultivars you’ll see at the nursery, but rather the native species that you may see at Fletcher Wildlife Garden at the Central Experimental Farm.
Indeed, the folks at the Fletcher Wildlife Garden have provided many of the plants that have already been put in place or seeded in the sunny prairie garden, which will over time look quite like this:
A circular area will be mown in the centre of the prairie garden to allow a space for contemplation and for educational opportunities where students can learn about native Canadian wildflowers and meadow ecology.
Calamagrostis stricta (Slim stem small reed grass)
Deschampsia caespitosa (Tufted hair grass)
Much of the seed mix in the prairie garden has come from the Living Prairie Museum in Winnipeg, Manitoba. This city-run nature preserve comprises 12 hectares (30 acres) in the middle of the city of Winnipeg and protects 160 species of prairie plants and wildlife. The Living Prairie Museum is a virtually untouched tall grass prairie, an eco-system that once covered one million square kilometres from Manitoba to Texas. Seeds that are native to the tall grass prairie were sent to the folks here in Ottawa and planted in the prairie garden in the spring of 2015. I’m sure the spring and summer of 2016 will see a glorious display!
The boreal forest will be a shady retreat for visitors to the Landscapes of Canada gardens. Healthy existing trees have been supplemented with sympathetic native species like Sugar maple, red oak and trembling aspen, alongside some iconic evergreen species like Jack pine, hemlock, white spruce, black larch and balsam fir.
And finally, the mammoths have been moved but they have not been forgotten…
No longer next to the rushing traffic on O’Connor Street, they have been shifted to their new north-facing home next to McLeod Street. And rather than a bed of gravel, they will graze in a planting of shrubs, grasses and perennials that would have been around when they traveled across the Bering Strait into our northern landscape.
MAMMOTH STEPPE PLANTING
Shrubs and Grasses
The final plantings of this series of gardens will be in the Arctic Garden this spring. By Saturday June 18th, the gardens will be open to the public and are invited to come and enjoy this spectacular botanical display. Go to http://www.nature.ca for updates on this launch.
I really look forward to being one of those visitors who sit, saunter, eat, read, listen to the birds and watch the butterflies in this new space. The garden will be such a joy in the middle of town, just one mile south of the Parliament Buildings.
In my early years, I championed these beautiful perennial plants…..
Fast forward to today and Anemone x hybrida ‘Honorine Jobert’, the white one, has been named the 2016 Perennial Plant of the Year.
Yet if you go to the Perennial Plant Association website and click on “2016 Perennial Plant of the Year“, you’ll find the briefest description of this winner, along with a cheeky come-on to buy their stylish t-shirts…..am I missing something? Shouldn’t this organization give me some information about this chosen perennial? Why do I have to go to other sites to learn about ‘Honorine Jobert’ and how it can best grace my garden?
In all honesty, when I first set eyes on A. x hybrida ‘Honorine Jobert’, it was love at first sight. Adoring everything white, I favoured it over its pink nerdy older brother who seemed to be more commonly available at the nurseries and a more robust grower. Why is it gardeners always want the plants that are weaker, more refined and less vigorous?
North American sites give ‘Honorine Jobert’ a hardiness rating of Zone 4, while the Royal Horticultural Society in Great Britain gives it a Zone 7 which actually concurs as it means it is “hardy in the severest European continental climates — that is, colder than minus 20.
But my experience has shown me otherwise. Like the less hardy white-flowered Lenten rose (Helleborus x hybridus, compared with the so-called Christmas rose, Helleborus niger — read Tony Avent’s opus here), this white Japanese anemone has shown itself to me to be less winter-tolerant than its pink relative. Less vigorous when first planted, but still about to flower, perhaps I should have chopped off its head, allowing the roots to settle in and beef up before the shock of winter, much like they recommend with garden chrysanthemums. But no – I wanted it all.
So, when it was no more in the spring, I happily went out and settled for Anemone x hybrida ‘September Charm’ and waited for it to be equally temperamental. But this plant is a thug! And it does pain me to say that as it is such a beautiful bloomer and is virtually untouched by any insect, disease or anything you throw at it. It spreads by creeping rhizomes and its roots search out crevasses between flagstones or underneath interlocking stone and settle in, not to be dissuaded by anyone or anything. Pulling by hand will not remove them — you will need a shovel.
But wait! What the heck is this about? ^^ On one of my late summer walks, I spied this giant clump of ‘Honorine Jobert’ in a front garden planting….towering over newly planted flaming Berberis and dwarf burning bush. What makes it think it can act like a shrub in this protected south facing garden, where I know for a fact, there is no one there to carefully coddle it?
I fully intend to re-visit this garden in the spring and poke around for any evidence that it has come through this weird and wet winter.
On February 25th, 2011, we were given the news that our beloved border collie, Skye-dog, had lymphoma.
She was 8 1/2 at the time and otherwise perfectly healthy. Despite the grim diagnosis, we elected to move ahead with treatment which meant six months of chemotherapy.
My first dog Riley died within one month of diagnosis at the approximate age of 10. She had a cancerous tumour in her chest that stimulated her body to kill off its red blood cells, the ones that move oxygen throughout the body. I knew something was terribly wrong when she collapsed on her walk for no apparent reason. There was no cure and so despite several blood transfusions and loads of love, we had to let her go.
When Skye was diagnosed, we were told that with treatment, she would probably achieve remission and stay there for anywhere between 12 and 18 months. Then we could choose to repeat chemotherapy, but each chance of remission would be smaller and each length of remission would be shorter. The cancer would win in the end and we would have to say goodbye.
Fast forward 4 years and 8 months and 4 days and she’s still here. And I have been experiencing anticipatory grief for 4 years, 8 months and 4 days.
However, last Wednesday, Skye had a scary episode of the wobbles. Her head and upper body leaned left, her eyeballs darted from side to side and she basically wanted to fall over. The condition is called vestibular disease as it affects the body’s vestibular system, which controls our balance. Like vertigo, it wreaks havoc on our ability to sit and stand without falling over and because the world is spinning, we are nauseous and if we were interested in eating, could not even be successful in finding our mouths to eat or even drink. As you can imagine, it is not a nice condition.
Having already been dealt a blow to her mobility a couple of years ago with a condition called spondylosis, the effects of vestibular disease are not at all welcome for my lovely old dog.
Hence the pee pads.
On Day 6 of recovery, Skye now trundles around the ground floor, with my help holding her up and straight, on a pathway made of pee pads, she trying to convince me that she can go outside to pee. I say “Nope, sorry. Not yet.” So we trundle out of the living room, through the dining room, into the kitchen where the back door resides, out again into the front hall and then back into the living room, where she flops down on her plastic and pee pad covered makeshift bed, exhausted from the effort and I’m sure, disappointment.
You see, as a border collie, not only is she sensitive but she is also easily shamed. Training a border collie means saying something once and they understand. It doesn’t mean they’ll do it mind you, but they do understand. In their minds, they will first contemplate the universe, consider the pros and cons, and make their own conclusions. If you have created a bond with your border collie, this will all take a split second as the bald truth is, they only want to please you.
So that moment I took teaching her how to use the outdoors as her washroom has stayed with her, and she considers any deviation from that to be heresy. Hence the anxiety centering around toileting indoors, on pee pads.
……and I’m back to anticipatory grief……
We all know it isn’t forever and we all wish for our dogs’ lives never to end, but we all know they will.
All I wanted was more than one month.
I was gifted so much more.
Fearless and flawless leaping.
Traveling to weird and wonderful places …
Or not going very far at all…
Does she see what I see? A full life, a life of love and care.
1584 borrowed days. And counting. Maybe grief can take a holiday for now…
I was reminded by a reader the other day that I had promised an additional entry on this iconic garden. I had visited it way, way back in 2013 but somehow my second installment never made it onto the page….
Let’s try again.
Time and space made me realize I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was left unsettled by this garden.
It is perched high above the surrounding valley, with views reaching down to the St. Lawrence in what was, and remains for many, the playground of the well-heeled.
When the gardens at Les Quatres Vents were created in the last quarter of the 20th century, Francis Cabot’s horticultural, historical and architectural aspirations were reflected through these landscape expressions. This level of excellence was made possible through wealth and high-society connections and Cabot’s creations mimicked the famous gardens in England, France and Japan, drawing upon (literally, physically and ideologically) the most influential gardeners, artisans and horticulturists of the day.
All this was taking place during the gardening boom in North America, when the work of contemporary British gardeners like Rosemary Verey, Penelope Hobhouse, Christopher Lloyd and Graham Stuart-Thomas were being heralded for the first time to us colonials. More than this, the historical gardens of British icons like Gertrude Jekyll, Vita Sackville-West and Russell Page were being documented in lush picture books that beginner gardeners began to devour (much to the delight of the big publishing houses in New York and London). Cabot’s hedges channeled those in almost every English estate garden, while his languorous half-circle stone staircases reflected those designed by the famed British architect and “taste-maker” Edwin Lutyens.
He sought their advice and held to it strictly …..
…witness the rose garden under-planted with pinks (Dianthus), a la Russell Page’s instruction.
There are allees, precisely clipped hedges and regimented sight-lines galore, which in my mind are a stereotypical fetish of the male gardener. Think Lawrence Johnston of Hidcote Manor fame.
But I ask you, when is rigidity visually pleasurable and when is it claustrophobic?
When is repetition satisfying and when is it predictable and formulaic?
And when is monumentalism awe-inspiring and when is it simply exhibitionism?
There were moments in this garden when I couldn’t help wondering, “Where is the authentic spirit of the place? Where is the place I can sit and feel at peace near the mouth of the St-Lawrence, without feeling the uncomfortable imposition of prestige and power?”
There were moments when I thought I had found that place …. but the question remained: were these choreographed moments where the garden designer had anticipated the blurring effects of time or simply nature triumphing over artifice …? And did it matter?
In this new 21st century world where we are loosening our grip around nature, letting plants be what they intrinsically are without shaping, coddling, orchestrating and overseeing, it was the moments where wildness seemed to win where I found the most pleasure…
But there were also dream-like “garden” moments that were clearly the result of intensive construction projects. The relative instant gratification they must have provided Cabot is almost breath-taking. Take his homage to the Japanese garden.
Cabot’s Japanese garden, like its inspiration on the other side of the world, combines stone, water, temple and plants. There is no question that it creates a place of contemplation where the furthest thing from your mind is artifice or incongruity (if this Asian art is new to you) …… and yet, in this Quebec countryside, it is exactly that. It tries but it is not an authentic Japanese garden experience. But, isn’t imitation the sincerest form of flattery?
And then there were the plants….
As Cabot himself characterized it, his garden had to be a “greater perfection.” A skilled stonemason constructed the terraces, walls and stairs; a craftsman borrowed from Japan built the tea house; visiting professionals were asked for input on the plants and gardens. Cabot sought instruction from the very best and when he couldn’t do some of the practical stuff himself, he hired those who could.
Many of these plants are moisture lovers that require cool summers and humous-rich soil. And so, in order to grow these spectacular Asian beauties (Rodgersia, Primula, Lilium, Iris, Meconopsis), soil was moved, trees were planted, water was directed and misters were rigged. It is the perfect man-made environment.
So isn’t that what a garden is anyway?
Perhaps it’s just sour grapes.
Still, I choose imperfection. Because I am.
I will visit what is presented as perfection, with my eyes gazing up and down in awe and my mind overwhelmed with the logistics. But I will feel at home with much less.