native plants

Familiar scene of rustic bench near the pond in autumn (fall) with hardy cyclamen and hostas

New and Different: Garden Changes

I think it’s time to get away from book reviewing and rule quibbling. Whatever else might be happening, there’s always the garden.

It’s fall in the garden. Rain and imminent plant dormancy eliminates the need to water (except for a few pots). The gardener is energized. Plans are made and a few are carried out.

Hosta "Stained Glass"
Hosta “Stained Glass”

Nurseries put plants on deep discount at this time of year, rather than carry them through the winter. So I bought a rather nice hosta (called “Stained Glass”) for half price. Its leaves are a translucent yellow with blue-green margins. It complements the other hostas (dark green with white margins and medium green with yellow margins; you can see them in the featured image above). I also got a late summer/early fall blooming gentian (Gentiana septemfida). If it settles in and blooms well, I’ll have glowing blue trumpet-shaped flowers at both ends of the season, since I already have spring-blooming Gentiana acaulis.

Gentians, Gentiana acaulis
Flowers like these, only in fall.

A few days ago, I weeded the pond. Yes, ponds need weeding at times. I’ve had an oxygenating water plant (Elodea canadensis) in the pond for years, but for some reason there was way too much of it at summer’s end. There’s also duckweed (Lemna minor), a small, lime green surface floater, which can be sort of pretty, but not if it’s wall-to-wall. So I hoicked out masses of both and added them to the compost pile.

I have two compost piles. By mid-October I have to make room for the leaves that are about to descend. Usually I stack the old pile of not quite finished stuff on top of the current one containing fresh material. By the following spring it’s all pretty much rotted down enough to be distributed among the planted areas. But this year’s old compost (mostly last fall’s leaves) looked so finished that I decided to spread it around immediately, at least in spots where that could be done without damaging plants still in good shape.

Compost area half empty with removed blue fescues
Compost area awaiting the annual deluge of leaves. Those blue fescues on the left are awaiting composting. I removed them from the main path, where there were too many of them.

The Boulevard Project progressed well this summer. The chicory and Queen Anne’s Lace looked great together and several clumps of California poppies bloomed and produced seeds, and therefore more plants. A couple of them are an unusual creamy pink colour; the rest are the usual bright orange. I happened to obtain seeds of two native plants — consumption plant (Lomatium nudicaule) and seaside rein orchid (Habenaria greenei) — and scattered them around before a week of rainy weather. If they take hold, I think I’ll dig out some of the chicory and QAL. My original idea was to emulate a country roadside, but I think it’s better to encourage plants that belong here, rather than hearty imports.

Chicory flower
Chicory flower

The other day, I pulled out the last of the soaker hoses, rolled it up, and stashed it in the shed. (Wrestling hoses can be an exceedingly trying process; don’t do it if you’re feeling crabby or are in a rush.) Were the soakers effective as watering devices? For perennials, I would say yes. But not so much for shrubs.

The Chinese Witch Hazel (to the right of the bench in the featured image at the top of the post) showed drought stress from early summer. Its leaf edges began to turn orange-brown as early as June and it once again has no plans to bloom. It really isn’t a suitable choice for this climate, unless planted in a naturally damp area or given deluxe irrigation. I haven’t been able to bring myself to remove (i.e. kill) and replace it, though.

A much better choice of shrub is Ocean Spray (Holodiscus discolor), which I recently planted in one of the mixed beds. It’s a native plant of the region, a graceful, early summer blooming shrub that’s definitely at home here. It should outperform the witch hazel without any extra help once established (but unlike the witch hazel, it doesn’t bloom in January with an enchanting perfume — but then, neither does my witch hazel).

Speaking of failures, I’m declaring 2020 the Last Chance Year for Meconopsis (blue poppies) in this garden. The two plants I purchased in March bloomed well in May, but dwindled and died in August. I thought crown rot in winter was the main hazard, but it turns out that powdery mildew is another. It strikes in hot, dry weather, despite diligent watering. Although these prima donnas didn’t even last the summer, they did produce seeds before they turned up their toes.

Meconopsis sheldonii "Lingholm" (grandis) Himalayan blue poppy
Gone but not forgotten. Not yet.

That gives me a chance for one last shot. In January, I will deposit those seeds on damp, sterile, seed-starting mix and keep them at indoor temperature for a week or so. Then I’ll cover the pot and set it in a safe spot outside for exposure to frost and cold temperatures. Seeds should begin sprouting by March. I’ve had fairly good luck with this process in the past, even to the point of a dozen or so plants in bloom (a glorious sight!). After that, the trick is getting them through the following winter. Or even, it seems now, the following summer. One last try.

Sunflower and chickadee
Chestnut-backed chickadee going for sunflower seeds.

This year I finally got around to growing sunflowers. I had seven or eight plants. They were okay, I guess, but not nearly as impressive as some I’ve seen. In rich soil and full sun, with adequate water, a sunflower grows branches that develop buds, resulting in something like a tree. In soil that’s poor, sandy, and often dry, they stick to one skinny (although tall) stem with a single flower. (Guess which kind I had.) They did produce enough seeds to attract chickadees, who diligently pecked them out and ate them.

Hardy cyclamen blooms with ferns and fallen leaves
Hardy cyclamen flowers, a spring-like sight in fall.

Some plants are totally reliable without any extra effort at all, like these hardy cyclamen. They’ve increased well over the years and now form nice carpets of pink flowers that mingle with other plants and the falling leaves. Their own beautifully patterned leaves are starting to emerge and will last into next spring.

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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.

Naturally Unnatural

I’ve been reading a thought-provoking book, The Conscientious Gardener : cultivating a garden ethic, by Sarah Hayden Reichard. Every gardener should be aware of the issues Ms. Reichard raises — water use, how we treat our soils, whether to use fertilizer, attitudes toward animals and “pests.” The book is informed by the ideas of Aldo Leopold and proposes a “garden ethic” similar to Leopold’s land ethic.

It includes a chapter on gardening with native plants. I had always assumed that a garden of native plants would be inherently virtuous, pure and green. Native plants would be adapted to the local conditions and so would not require as much care as imported species, so by turning my 50 x 120 foot patch of ground into a miniature Garry oak meadow I would be helping to restore a rare ecosystem. To do that, however, I would have to remove the four rather large non-native trees on the place (an Ailanthus and three Norway maples) and a jumble of other imported species, some introduced by me, others by former occupants and still others that just drifted in. In other words, to make my garden a purely native one I would have to raze the existing plantscape. And even then, there’s still the matter of the house, driveway and surrounding suburbia. Finally, a 50 x 120 foot Garry oak meadow, however commendable, wouldn’t do much to restore the original ecosystem around here, especially as there are indications that the native peoples used fires to maintain it, not possible where there is a permanent burning ban.

Personal preferences and circumstances aside, Reichard suggests that “going native” may not necessarily be the best choice for the conscientious gardener. She points out issues that most gardeners would not be aware of while rushing to stock their gardens with “native plants,” such as a phenomenon called “outbreeding depression,” in which hybridization of different genotypes of a species results in less-fit forms of that species. This means finding out where the plants you intend to purchase come from, something that may not be easy to accomplish. Both wild-collected plants and those cultivated far away and under different conditions than those in your region are not good choices. Rather than creating instant “native plant gardens,” Reichard suggests learning about the native flora of one’s region and getting involved in local efforts to preserve it.

Selecting plants suited to your climate and soil is always the best choice, even if some of them are not “native.” Wetland plants such as red osier dogwood (Cornus stolonifera) or foamflower (Tiarella trifoliata) would be poor choices in my sandy soil, even though they are native to my region. Rugosa roses (Rosa rugosa), many spurges (Euphorbia species) and rose campion (Lychnis coronaria), none of them natives, do well here. Of course there is also the issue of avoiding or at least managing plants with invasive tendencies, especially if you garden near relatively undisturbed native landscapes.

Gardening is inherently unnatural. The gardener always interferes with plants to some extent, if only by managing whatever is growing in a place already, like the native peoples of our region did with the meadows where camas bulbs grew. Gardeners who enter into a true relationship with the land on which they garden, observing and learning about all its inhabitants, necessarily make wiser choices and perhaps do less damage than those with an attitude of dominance. Before we ever stick a spade into the earth (or hire a contractor), we should examine our mental model for a garden and whether it is in harmony with the actual, physical place it is to occupy, or a violation of that place. The conscientious gardener, I think, would seek to befriend the earth rather than subdue it.

In this garden, the unnatural business of leaf management is under way.