My Childhood Dream to Create an Indigenous Garden – Part 1

By Elizabeth Sellors, Master Gardener

An indigenous garden is one that respects the flora that evolved over millennia and that established itself prior to the introduction of European settlements. An indigenous garden is one that cares for wildlife through synergistic relationships. An indigenous garden is one in harmony with nature, put together as nature would, without geometry and controlling structure and with minimal interference from a gardener.

My obsession with native plants began when I was about forty-five inches tall. I do not remember a time when I was not enthralled with native plants and wildlife. As a child, I spent most spring, summer and fall weekends exploring an original tall grass prairie. This tall grass prairie remains intact today, one of only three tall grass prairie sites remaining in Manitoba. This experience was pivotal to many of the decisions I made in my life. It was a world of exciting sights, smells and sounds. The wildflowers were like precious gems, hidden in the grasses. My favourites were the gentians. Most of the grasses were as tall as I was. Being open prairie, when the wind blew the grasses, they made a euphonious rustling sound as they swayed and rubbed up against each other. I related the smell of the grassland to that of the smell of nature. I spent my time in this prairie landscape looking for wildflowers and ground-nesting birds. Killdeers were my favourites. They would tease me with their broken-wing act, as they ran away from their nests. At the perimeter of the grasslands, was the strange aquatic world of ditches. The water in the ditches was clear and abounded with peculiar looking insects, some striding on the surface of the water while other amazing coloured ones swam below. The sound of frogs was everywhere. It was exciting to push my way through the rushes to examine this exotic world of strange water creatures. The tadpoles were my favourites.

For a few weeks each summer, my parents rented a cottage near Kenora. The lake experience was entirely different from that of the prairie, but every bit as exciting. The landscape was rugged and messy and smelled earthy. Most of the wildflowers were different from the grassland ones, but just as amazing. The wildlife was entirely different. In this environment, I could search the woods and rock formations for garter snakes and look for leeches and bloodsuckers in the lake. The insects were different but equally strange, like “walking sticks” and dragonflies emerging from nymph casing. The best lake sound was that of the wind blowing through the red pines.

My parents’ home was in central Winnipeg. The lot was big enough for a vegetable garden, flower beds, a few fruit trees and some specimen trees. It had the ubiquitous turf grass, front and back. Except for the tulips, poppies and daffodils, all the flowering plants were annuals. My mother liked gladiolas, petunias and geraniums. This was not the natural wonderland I loved, but it allowed me to tend plants. I even liked cutting the grass. The gardening experiences at my parents’ home allowed me to get my hands dirty and see the fruits of my labours. I learned a lot about gardening from my mother, but I knew I did not want a similar property of my own when I grew up.

My husband and I were married in 1980 and bought a house in an older Winnipeg neighbourhood. We took possession of the house that May, the perfect time of year for me to be able to examine the property. It was a good-sized yard for central Winnipeg and in typical fashion, was predominantly turf grass with border planting. I viewed it as a blank canvas ready for a complete make-over. I was excited at the thought of beginning the process of transforming this yard into my interpretation of the prairie landscape and woodlands of my childhood. It was primarily going to be a meadow of native plants with a few of “friendly non-natives” I had come to love.

My first summer in the house was spent planning my landscape. I began by doing a site analysis, studying the conditions I had to work with. This meant determining which parts of the site were shady, part-sun, dappled, sunny, where the wind might be an issue, where the low spots were, poorly drained areas, overly dry areas, soil type(s) and the predominant pH. It would not be a constant, but I took readings to determine the hours of available sun, and I sectioned off areas of 0 to 4 hours of sun, 4 to 6 hours of sun and what I was not going to have (6 + hours of sun). It would be seasonal, but I marked down the time the sun first appeared on the yard and its arc. Under normal circumstances, when the sun is shining, meadows have access to it, but most of my plants would not be given that luxury. Being an older neighbourhood, the majority of the trees on my property and the boulevard were large with spreading canopies. For parts of the day, the boulevard trees (two elms at that time) shaded parts of my front yard, making sunny locations a premium. Nowhere on the property did any part get anywhere close to six hours of sun a day. Based on sun availability, I determined the areas best suited to prairie plants, woodland plants and wetland plants. My plants were going to get the best exposures I could give them. After that, the hope was that they would adapt to the available conditions.

Starting that first June, and working through the summer, I took inventory of existing plants, trees, shrubs and determined their health and value to the project. I took measurements of the site and recorded the locations of existing vegetation, hardscape, fences and buildings. I noted services such as water and gas lines. When I had the existing layout established, I created a demolition drawing and produced rough sketch ideas for a new layout. Once I had compiled the information I needed, I began the detailed drawings, working with pencil on vellum. It was a slow labour of love, as I attempted to replicate natural plant habitats. I have a design background which meant I was able to prepare accurately drafted plans. Once the conceptual drawings of existing conditions and early design ideas were completed, I moved on to creating a functional diagram to show areas where I wanted to locate features such as seating areas, a dog patch, compost bins, rain barrels, a work/potting bench, storage areas, bird baths and bird feeders. I defined the areas of the yard by the conditions in which the plants would live. I marked out the main walkways and the smaller pathways that would allow me access through the planted areas. The functional and aesthetic criteria began to come together in spatial organization, form and materials in the design development stage. Specifications for the materials to be purchased was next. The final design drawing was the implementation document.

With the planning complete, I moved on to the construction of the new design. I did not have my soil tested by a laboratory, but instead tested it myself using a store-bought kit. I had my reservations about its accuracy, but I had used the kit to test a friend’s garden soil that he suspected had some nasty chemicals lurking in it. My pH indicator clearly could read the dangerous soil condition in my neighbour’s yard because during testing, the indicator needle leapt off the end of the dial. That experience gave me confidence that my tester was likely to be at least sufficiently accurate to determine the pH in my garden. Using distilled water in each probe hole and taking samples from several locations in my yard, the combined analysis showed my soil to be slightly acidic around 6.8. Since prairie soil is typically 6.5 to 6.8, the results would be appropriate for the majority of what I planned to grow. And, from observation, I was aware that I had predominantly clay with a lot of compaction.

I was fortunate that at least some of the plants I inherited with the property were indigenous. There was a lovely patch of black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta). Non-native plants that came up that spring included Chinese lantern (Physalis alkekengi), daffodils (Narcissus) of various kinds, tulips (Tulipa) of various kinds and Siberian iris (Iris sibirica). I was going to keep the black-eyed Susans and the iris clumps. I also had a patch of Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) appear that spring, which I found odd since the only other time I had seen it was growing on the ocean shore in Vancouver. I was surprised it would grow in zone 3, but I soon discovered it is more than happy to grow here. I was not sure I shared that happiness. There were a number of established trees on the property. They included two mature black spruce (Picea mariana Mill.) in the back yard, a clump paper birch (Betula papyrifera), several Manitoba maples (Acer negundo L.), three bur oaks (Quercus macrocarpa) and two mature elms (Ulmus Americana L.) on the boulevard in front of the house. By far the largest and most impressive were three native Manitoba bur oaks in the back yard. Because they created a fair amount of shade, they would dictate where the woodland garden would be located. They were magnificent trees and there was not a moment’s thought that they would be removed to allow more access to sun. The bur oaks were then, and still are, beautiful examples of what has been referred to as the “hub” of a native garden. Bur oaks are the best trees for providing benefits to insects, birds and small mammals. Reportedly, they benefit as many as 450 insect species. Birds search for insects on oaks and small mammals like gray and red squirrels, mice, voles, rabbits, raccoons and red foxes eat acorns as a major part of their diet. Woodpeckers, crows, and blue jays also feed on acorns.

Not wanting to overwhelm myself with renovation work the first year, my plan was to start in one area and expand outward. The worst condition I had was a swath of ground elder, also known as goutweed (Aegopodium podagraria) which originated in the neighbour’s yard and had begun encroaching into mine. The area was shady with an established row of Pembina plum trees (Prunus nigra x salicina ‘Pembina’), Arnold red Tatarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica ‘Arnold Red’), and red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea) along the property line. Removal of the Aegopodium was going to be my first task of the renovation. Removal was carried out by physical labour using a sharp landscaper spade, a garden fork and brute force. Its removal required deep digging, to a depth of as much as 1’6”, turning the soil, looking for every segment of roots and its web of underground rhizomes. I treated the assignment according to standards of the day. I was well aware that soil preparation was vital, but my garden was established prior to a common understanding of the harm that would be done if the ground was dug over or tilled. And, in this case, I had no choice. Compaction from walking on the site was less than ideal. Fortunately, Aegopodium roots are bright white and easy to spot. When I was finished, new soil and composted manure were added to amend the much-disturbed soil in the area. I inserted a barrier I made using sheets of black coroplast which I pushed down to a depth of about 1’6”. It was my hope that this would help to stop the Aegopodium from re-encroaching. I was rewarded in that regard, and that site is Aegopodium-free today. Unfortunately, the neighbour’s field of Aegopodium did a work-around and has encroached at another location in my yard, a location far worse since it is planted with a number of my native plants making it impossible to dig out the Aegopodium. It is an on-going war with this nemesis.

Once the Aegopodium had been dispensed with, the next step of the project was removal of the front yard turf grass. It was thin and clearly both it and the soil below had suffered neglect for years. Weathering, cracking from excessive dryness with rain entering the cracks, had left it in poor condition. It was so compacted that it was difficult to pierce the soil with a probe. It was not going to be a quick fix. For the most part, I did little damage to the existing soil. It was going to need overhauling with organic matter before new plants could be installed. Wetting the location a few days in advance, using a sharp landscaper spade, and a fair amount of effort, I was able to stab, split and under-cut the sod, splitting it into sections, prying, lifting and removing only the top-most portion just below the thatch with little disturbance of the soil below. For the most part, I removed enough of the sod to ensure that the grass would have a difficult time reemerging, particularly because it was in poor condition. I transferred the cut pieces of sod to a location in the back yard to compost them. I stacked larger pieces face down one on top of the other. My husband had an interest in composting and was instrumental in determining how this effort should be carried out. In a sunny location we laid the sod out for decomposition. We stacked substantial sized pieces, face down, one on top of another, wetting each piece before adding the next. Because the sod was such poor quality, we added nitrogen rich fertilizer between the layers and placed black plastic on the pile to make it lightproof. We left the pile there until spring. Smaller sod pieces were simply composted.

I amended the soil where the sod had been removed, applying a significant layer of new soil, leaf mulch and composted manure, then watered it to break up the existing compacted soil. I think I included straw in this rehabilitation, but I do not recall what I did with it. And, I seem to recall newspaper having been used. I mulched with leaves. One resource I had plenty of was leaves! Back in those days, there were many mature, healthy trees in my neighbourhood, which meant there was an abundance of leaves. Since that time, many of the trees have become diseased and have been taken down. Oak leaves break down slowly. The rest take much less time to decompose. I hoped that I had not confused the microorganisms too severely and that they would be encouraged to decompose the organic matter, cycle nutrients and improve the soil structure so that I could start planting the following year. The microorganisms rewarded me the next spring by having done a pretty good job of loosening the soil. I left the rehabilitation project as long as I could, knowing that the fall would be the best time to do this work, but I was itching to get my project started.