Earlier this summer I had the pleasure of visiting Kristin Kendall’s garden in an old central neighbourhood of our city. Tucked next to the Rideau River, and surrounded by other charming homes of similar vintage, the Kendall home is full of character and style. And so is the garden.
Barely large enough to swing a cat, the natural paving stone patio nonetheless is furnished with a small teak table and two wicker viewing chairs. The secateurs and trowel on the table are not props; Kristin and her husband Bill (my old high school teacher no less!) are active workers in this jewel of a garden and keenly choreograph the plants and keep them happy and healthy. There is not a weed to be seen!
Of course, there is no swinging of cats here. Sorry, didn’t mean to offend.
The colours in this half and half sunny/shady garden are hot and luminous. The brights include Ligularia dentata ‘Desdemona’, as well as a scarlet coleus, a lupin, Japanese blood grass, a dark border sedum and monarda in the rear. A weeping hemlock on the right, Virginia creeper on the fence and a Serbian spruce on the left all provide a green backdrop for this brilliant canvas.
A stone water bowl with rhythmic striations provides a feature in the garden as well as a drink for wildlife. These grooves are mimicked by the shadows of the iris growing alongside.
Kristin would have me tell you that the garden is impeccable at this moment because it is post-tour. But I’m not so sure — I think the stylish gardener and homeowner is detail oriented every day.
On this day the hyssop was absolutely covered in buzzing bees; a sound that complemented that of the gently bubbling fountain…
The weeping larch cascades to the ground alongside the giant boulder, bubbling constantly. Everything is compact in this garden, but every inch has been thoughtfully filled.
Non-living details in this garden are chosen with style and taste. Kendall’s brother is the owner of Balleycanoe & Co., a business that sells 19th century architectural salvage pieces in Mallorytown.
This garden is truly a labour of love and the owners appreciate what they have helped to create. You may even find one of them sitting, every once in a while, appreciating the view…
Just like I went for a walk yesterday afternoon, and the afternoon before that.
Rushing first, rushing, rushing, rushing….becoming breathless because in truth, I haven’t walked like this for at least two years.
I know why I’m walking. I know it. I’m looking. I know this feeling. I remember it.
I’m looking for her. But I know I won’t find her.
But I hear rustlings. I hear peeping in the thickets. I hear the swishing of the leaves. Or could it be her?…….
I haven’t been on this path for a long time, not since Skye’s elderly back and balance and strength would no longer allow it.
I haven’t been on it since I lost my first heart-dog, Riley.
Our visits had been clipped short. I would drive to our spot, the same spot we had driven to for the last 14 years, take out the ramp, open the hatch, help her up on her feet with her harness and slowly guide her down. She would wobble but right herself, walk to the same familiar entrance to the woods, sniff, pee and then return back to the car.
It was enough. She could do no more.
I remember coming to the same spot with Riley, 14 years before. She would not get out of the car. She was not even able to do that.
Today, things have changed.
This is our woods. But the memory has changed. It has been invaded. Defiled. You can’t stop me. I’m walking here. I have always walked here. Sometimes with another dog friend. But always here.
Through here was our spot. The opening to the water. The giant old willow that bowed down toward it. The same trunk that both Riley and I walked along, tip-toeing, balancing. When I started to come with Skye, it finally crashed down. And further along….
We would watch the river together.
…and then pause, discuss our plans before hopping the stream and walking under the railroad bridge.
But today, it is hushed.
I have to turn around and go another way. To where we used to play in the river.
….where the chunk of concrete was exposed in the early spring and Skye would search for sunken treasure, it is now submerged by late summer rains…
I turn away from the river and walk along the shaded paths, now grown over and unfamiliar…and I brush the trees and towering undergrowth away from my face…and feel the tears.
But wait…Do you see? Does the grass look like fur to you too?
I have walked these paths. I will walk these paths again. But today, this path is lonely and dark.
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.