Month: May 2013

Other Gardens: Garry Oak Meadows

Several weeks ago, at a meeting of the Victoria Writers’ Society, the guest speaker was Maleea Acker, author of Gardens Aflame: Garry oak meadows of BC’s south coast. I was interested in the topic both as gardener and writer — one of the few occasions when I can write a blog post encompassing both of these interests.

Ms. Acker is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and has published a book of poetry. This explains the wide-ranging views expressed in Gardens Aflame. Her approach is not that of the scientist or specialist, but takes in viewpoints from environmentalism, history, anthropology and botany, expressed in language that is both precise and poetic.

The Garry oak (Quercus garryana), for those not acquainted with it, is found on the west coast of North America, from California to British Columbia. Here on southern Vancouver Island, it is the dominant tree in a meadow ecosystem labelled with its name, which includes numbers of species now valued as spring-blooming wildflowers — Camassia, Erythronium, Fritillaria, Dodecathon.

The primary gist of Ms. Acker’s book is that the quintessential Garry oak meadow was not entirely the product of Nature, but owed its mix of plant species and open, grassy appearance to the activities of First Nations peoples who had managed the meadows for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, so as to maintain the productivity of plants they used as foods and medicines. They did this by replanting the smaller camas bulbs while harvesting the larger ones, and by regular burning of the meadows to discourage unwanted plants and to provide nutrients from the resulting ash. In other words, the meadows were gardens.

This was not recognized by the European settlers who took over many of the meadows and established their own form of agriculture, and it is not acknowledged in the present day, Acker maintains, by some who are engaged in restoration and preservation of what little is left of the Garry oak meadows. She quotes Dan Dagget, a self-described “conservative environmentalist” and author of Gardeners in Eden: “Wherever humans had landed and stayed in stable, resident populations for the longest time, fewer plants and animal species had become endangered.” Preservation of Garry oak meadows, Acker maintains, does not exclude human activity.

In Gardens Aflame, Acker also describes a number of projects to restore and maintain Garry Oak meadows, including her own on a city lot. Her description of interactions with neighbours, municipal officials and others is interesting and encouraging.

The place where I garden is only a short distance from shorelines where First Nations villages are known to have existed. Nearby is a park where many Garry oaks grow, and there are groups of them scattered throughout the neighbourhood. It stands to reason, then, that my 50 by 120 foot paradise was once a garden of a different sort. Now occupied by a house, driveway, concrete paths, Norway maples and a jumble of non-native plants, it may have once produced foodstuffs for people who did not have the grocery store option. For a few years, before the shade and roots of the Norway maples made my vegetable patch impossible, it produced edibles for my household. Now it’s primarily a site where I amuse myself and exercise a certain aesthetic by arranging and managing plants I have (for the most part) selected.

But within this garden are three Garry oaks. One is about 20 feet tall, the others only a couple of inches. Twenty-one years ago, when we first moved here, I found a foot-tall oak growing about a foot from the house foundation. Thinking that wasn’t a good spot for it, my husband and I dug it up and moved it to a more central location. It survived and grew, and now produces acorns every year.

May 26, 2013

As you can see, my oak is accompanied by plants of “alien” species — rugosa rose, photinia, euphorbia. I dutifully planted a few native plants near it — camas and erythronium — which struggle along gamely but are not multiplying. I also planted a snowberry (Symphoricarpus albus) which is spreading merrily through this not-very-big border. In gardening, as in so many other endeavours, you can’t do it all.

I have also acquired two baby oaks, which are only a couple of inches tall after several years. This one is protected from being stepped on by a couple of chunks of brick and a white stone.

May 26, 2013

In the last 20 years, I have seen several mature Garry oaks fall victim to the chainsaw, some after collapsing in windstorms, but at least one removed apparently to make room for a trampoline. The trees are protected by a municipal by-law, but that can be circumvented if a tree is deemed a unhealthy and a “hazard.” If any more oaks sprout on this piece of land, I will do whatever I can to help them along, in the (probably futile) hope that they will survive after my garden and I are gone.


The Big Dig of 2013

We decided to replace our 38-year-old oil furnace with a natural gas one. No more oil tank issues. But what about the matter of getting the gas from the street to the house? Quotes from the gas company revealed a difference of $800 between the “we dig” and “you dig” options. So we spent Saturday digging a 40-foot trench 18 inches deep and 6 inches wide.

A couple of things to keep in mind here — the trench followed the concrete front walk to the house, along the edge of a large bed containing perennials, shrubs and bulbs. Years ago, we acquired a huge load of beach cobbles and positioned them artistically along that edge. Most of those cobbles hadn’t seen light for many years, having been overrun by enthusiastically seeding plants (California poppies and sweet violets) and buried in soil that seems to rise up magically from the depths.

This is what this area looked like in the summer of 2010.

Front Walk

This is what it looked like a couple of days ago.

May 18, 2013

And here are all those beach cobbles, excavated and lugged into the driveway.


This is the pile of plant material removed in the process.


I salvaged an Eryngium variifolium and a Convolvulus sabatius, but dug up and disposed of a lot of Viola odorata and Eschscholzia californica.

This is what the site looks like now.

May 19, 2013

May 19, 2013

We managed to salvage this patch of sedum growing around some larger rocks by doing a bit of tunnelling. This was another advantage of digging the trench ourselves — it’s most unlikely that the gas company guys would have done anything to avoid disturbing plants. A big factor in making the job relatively easy, however, was the light, sandy soil. Aside from those imported beach stones, it was nearly rock-free.

May 19, 2013

Altogether, the project looks like a success so far. The salvaged eryngium and convolvulus are back in their original spots and seem to be OK. It will be interesting to see how long it takes before the beach stones are buried once more.

Create and Connect

Last week, I attended an event at my public library (where I am employed, but that’s not relevant to this post), featuring Betsy Warland, writer, poet, editor and author of Breathing the Page: Reading the Act of Writing. She began with a performance poem, a gesture of casting a net which drew the audience into an intensely personal view of writing in the area of memoir. Ms. Warland spoke of family dynamics, the death of her mother and the necessity of challenging the taken-for-granted assumptions about one’s life which she calls the “coma story.” She also introduced “Oscar,” an interactive online salon on her website built around her work-in-progress, Oscar of Between. Ms. Warland invited other writers and artists to engage in this conversation.

Ms. Warland’s talk was followed by a conversation initiated by representatives of the Community Arts Council and library staff on the theme of resources for writers — including self-published ones. This was truly refreshing. Self-published authors have grown accustomed to exclusion, and here were community institutions reaching out, requesting our suggestions. Needless to say, suggestions burst forth, jostling against one another, combining and amplifying. It was a most rewarding evening.

I was happy to set this positive experience against the dreary slog of comments in another forum — discussions on LinkedIn’s Fiction Writers’ Guild. There, the argument on the theme of “Is Self-Publishing Evil?” went on and on, with at least one vocal individual saying over and over again that 99% of self-published material is “crap,” generated by self-indulgent slobs too lazy to learn the craft and earn the privilege of being published by a Real Publisher.

Returning to the presentation at the library, which reminded me that writing is a bigger field than the arena of TP versus SP. Publishing is a subset of writing, and the sharing of creative efforts through the internet cannot be labelled with the scornful term “not good enough to be traditionally published.” People write for many different reasons and define success in many different ways. While it’s true that writers aspiring to make a lot of money by selling their novels have to create a particular type of written product, that is by no means the only way to achieve success in the art of the written word. No longer are “traditional,” “vanity” or “none” the only available publication options. Technology has opened avenues for writers and many are racing down them.

A few final thoughts — publishers and editors are made, not born. Many publishing companies were started by groups of writers who wanted to get their stuff out. Editors begin as readers and writers. Writers are people who write, not exalted members of an anointed elite.

A Mountain of Books

The pile of books on my bedside table got so large and unbalanced, a disaster was imminent. Working from the top down, this is what I found:

The Tale of Raw Head & Bloody Bones by Jack Wolf.

The Eagle and the Raven and House of Dreams, both by Pauline Gedge.

Great Cat Stories by Roxanne Willems Snopek.

Gardens Aflame by Maleea Acker.

Titus Groan and Gormenghast both by Mervyn Peake.

Dexter in the Dark by Jeff Lindsay.

That’s the top layer.  Holding them up were the following:

The Lurking Fear and Other Stories by H.P. Lovecraft.

Canadian Garden Words by Bill Casselman.

Henry Mitchell On Gardening.

The Fallacy of Wildlife Conservation by John A. Livingston.

The Cat Lover’s Companion.

Ariel by Sylvia Plath.

Holy Bible : authorized King James version.

Explanation:  I started reading the KJV of the Bible a couple of years ago, intending to make a Slow Reading project of it (even wrote a blog post about it). Well, it’s very slow. I’ve had a long-standing interest in H.P. Lovecraft, especially his character Herbert West, whom I adopted and enhanced into a trilogy. Because of the type of person Herbert is, I’m always on the lookout for books with dubious protagonists, hence Raw Head…, which is about a psychotic medical student in the 18th century. Recently I’ve been writing a blog post about evil protagonists, hence Dexter and the Gormenghast books (which I think I’ll re-read, yet again).

Pauline Gedge’s historical novels are detailed and vivid, great for losing oneself in when that’s what one needs to do.

I like cats and two live in the house, so I sometimes read about cats.

I’m a keen gardener and keep Henry Mitchell’s writings on that subject close at hand. This interest has created an awareness of the relationship between human beings and the earth, which is why the books by John Livingston and Maleea Acker are there. I recently heard Acker speak about her book, which is about Garry Oak ecosystems. Since I garden on a despoiled part of such an ecosystem, it seems to be required reading.

I bought Plath’s Ariel after I found myself copying out some of the poems by hand from a copy borrowed from the library.

So I’m not actually reading all these books, but I assembled them for a variety of reasons. Some of them will be returned to the library or their permanent spots on my bookshelves, but I suspect quite a few will stay on the bedside table. I’ll rebuild the pile, making sure that collapse is unlikely.