My Childhood Dream to Create an Indigenous Garden

by Elizabeth Sellors, Master Gardener
Part 2/3

In order to achieve the prairie and woodland experience I wanted the garden would, in many respects, just “happen”. It would be loosely planted, not rigidly controlled by specifically positioned plants. My principal considerations for placement were light requirements, ensuring the health of my plants and their height. Formally landscaped properties tend to plan bed selections by bloom time, and often select species using a colour wheel. By comparison, my approach was a seemingly mismatched aesthetic. Native plant species have a broad range of bloom times and colours so I knew I would have plenty of interest during the growing season. Although I did not select my plants for a specific appearance, over the years my plants have provided more than enough aesthetic interest and wonderful blended colour combinations. Some plants eventually form drifts while others are more prone to singularity. I grow some plants for the beauty of their leaves, not their blooms. While the plants are mostly left without intervention, they all receive water while establishing. They are also mulched with leaves. The benefit of the leaves is weed control, reduce temperature fluctuations, provision of nutrients for the soil organisms and retention of moisture. Leaves that fall in my garden, stay in my garden. Since nature does not like empty spaces and bare soil, my plants are tightly grouped leaving little to no space between them. By treating my garden this way, it mimics natural habitats and offers sources of food for wildlife, insects and birds. Close proximity of plants attracts bees, allowing them to move quickly from one flower to another. At the end of the season, I leave my beds intact. The plant stalks, leaves and seed heads remain to be seen through the snow, allowing me to enjoy a completely different aesthetic of their end-of-season colours. The seed heads provide birds and voles some nourishment during the winter months.

Water plays many roles throughout the garden. I elected to have no hardscape on the property, and instead used limestone for my walkways. The walkways are crowned to allow rainwater to run off and percolate into the soil. A low area in my front yard, which I refer to as my rain garden, captures rainwater. I installed a rain chain at one corner of my house, down which cascades a tremendous amount of rain from the roof. A swale from the chain to the centre of the front yard, allows rainwater to find its way into the low-lying area and filter into the soil. Nowhere is water diverted off the property.

While my plants have the moisture they require, many indigenous plants are well suited to both moist soils as well as drought conditions. Over the millennia native plants adapted to dry prairie conditions by forming extensive root systems, some of which can penetrate the soil to a depth of fifteen feet. This makes them self-sufficient in accessing water even in the driest year. Because most areas of my yard are mulched heavily with leaves which are not disturbed from one season to the next, the soil stays moist. Each fall and spring my gardens receive a new layer of leaves replacing older generations of leaves that have turned to humus.

There are very few areas of my property where I use city water for my plants. What I do need city water for are my free-standing planters. The planters are almost exclusively planted with herbs and attractive vegetables. Most do not flower and are grown for their leaf interests. Most are quite unusual in appearance, colouration, fragrance, leaf shapes, forms and height. In addition to having to water my planters, I use city water for the one remaining, fully mature elm tree I have on the boulevard. I water the boulevard regularly, in accordance with the advice of Trees Winnipeg. Elms can consume seventeen gallons of water a day. This means the tree does not leave much moisture in the ground for the plants I grow on the boulevard. Even though the plants on the boulevard are heavily mulched, it is difficult to compete with the elm. The feather reed grasses (Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’), Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), common sunflower (Helianthus annuus), Maltese cross (Lychnis chalcedonica), common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Caucasian comfrey (Symphytum caucasicum), silverweed (Argentina anserina) and wild strawberry (Fragaria vesca), even the swamp red currant (Ribes triste) on the boulevard are probably grateful for the addition of city water intended for the elm. I occasionally water the trees in the back yard, but there is a considerable amount of shade from the oaks making the ground less prone to drying.

In keeping with my childhood fascination with ditches, for a long, long time, I have wanted to construct a pond in my yard. I feel it would be a suitable substitute for a ditch. There is a section of the back garden that would be ideal for it. Some years ago, I created a bog in this particular location that allowed me to have moss and a few of my favourite water loving plants such as turtlehead (Chelone glabra), astilboides (Astilboides tabularis), rodgersia (Rodgersia podophylla), swamp red currant (Ribes triste) and water smartweed (Persicaria amphibia). The bog was moderately successful but today the only remnant of a riparian appearance is its resemblance to a dry riverbed. Since some of the bog plants remain, I keep this area well watered. For the time being, my current water features are in the form of bird baths that serve as a drinking water source for birds, bees, butterflies, squirrels and my dog.

Rocks are a feature throughout my yard. I have rocks of many shapes and sizes to define areas and add interest. My love of rocks goes back to the rocky terrain I experienced at the cottage in Kenora where I spent summer months as a child. There is a statement boulder positioned in my front yard. It is approximately 50” high and equally wide. Its only purpose is to satisfy my love of rocks, but it serves as a suitable perch for squirrels and birds. The boulder is a dramatic back drop for Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum multiflorum), Canada anemone (Anemone canadensis), ligularia (Ligularia przewalskii), pigsqueak (Bergenia cordifolia), snakeroot (Bistorta officinalis), astilbe (Astilbe arendsii) and lots of ostrich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris). I have used rocks and stones of various sizes to accent various plants, using really small ones as mulch to keep the soil cool. The “prettiest” looking ones are features throughout the yard.