First Nations gardens

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.