A Wet Habitat Garden Project at Albrin Lake Park

Wet garden area – all photos by Debbie Innes

by Debbie Innes, Master Gardener

Debbie Innes has been the primary volunteer caretaker of Albrin Lake Park since 1999. From the beginning Debbie has been supported in her work by her husband Stuart who provides tree pruning services and general help. The Branching out Study Group of the Manitoba Master Gardener Association joined to help with maintenance of the garden beds three years ago. Every other year volunteers from the nearby neighbourhood come together to help spread wood chip mulch on all the garden beds. Debbie proudly states ”the park has never looked as good as it does this year despite the drought”.

Monarch butterfly

Now you may be asking yourself, “Where is it possible to find a wet area to create a garden this year?” I have the good fortune to have a drainage area in Albrin Lake Park near me that is low lying and collects runoff from much of the park area. It used to lie six inches deep in water in the spring but with our drought of the last two years it no longer does. Nevertheless, it’s still wetter than the other four garden beds in the park. I have been the primary volunteer caretaker of this park since 1999 and am aware of the challenges of establishing some of our best butterfly and pollinator plants in a park where no water source exists. The park has gone from having swaths of swamp milkweed (a plant that likes a moist to wet location) to one that is struggling to have one or two. This year I’m watering to keep the milkweed going so they can both produce seed and feed our hungry Monarchs. We also have showy milkweed, Asclepias speciosa to fill the gap this year, an uninvited and rather an annoying guest that will pop up just about anywhere. I’m putting up with this annoyance for the sake of the butterflies.

Monarch caterpillars

Joe Pye weed, (Eutrochium maculatum) is a beautiful plant that likes a wetter location and has all but vanished from the park. New England Aster (Symphiotrichum novae-angliae) grows but the blooms turn brown instead of opening fully. Other plants that do better in a wetter location are tall meadow rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum), Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), helenium (Helenium autumnale), blue vervain (Verbena hastata), northern bog violet (Viola nephrophylla), Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis), tall coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata), giant hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), turtlehead (Chelone glabra), cut leaf anemone (Anemone multifida) and flat-topped goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia). Prairie Originals is a great source of information about the plant selections for different locations. I’m looking at seasonally-flooded garden selections, and selections for medium moisture to moist locations. This area could be both depending on the year. Prairie Flora has another, but similar, plants list, and some great plant collections as well. The Winnipeg Wild Flower Project has plans, seeds and some other help.

Bee on Verbascum (non native)

It’s important to determine the site specifics in terms of light exposure and moisture. Inevitably there will be changes to plant selections along the way. I do see having this kind of location a real bonus, and an opportunity to provide some suitable conditions for butterflies and pollinators. I may need to create a small dam to collect the water when it rains but I’m ready to explore all options.

I’ve been gathering native species for years and I have some of almost everything I’ve mentioned and more. This past week I traded for Philadelphia fleabane (Erigeron acris), acquired Lewis flax (Linum lewisii) and narrow-leaf coneflower (Echninacea angustifolia), and am trading a cactus for some side oats grama grass (Bouteloua curtipendula). So, I will be using suitable plants in the new area and plan to expand my use of native plants in the park’s four other beds.

Existing Garden Bed

I have a long range plan to convert one of the beds to a tall grass prairie. Tall grass prairie creates habitat for ground nesting birds and will bring many more species to the park. The park will be teeming with new life. I look forward to exploring all the native grasses as well and welcome the fact that many are capable of handling drought.

You may be wondering what grasses there would have been in a tall grass prairie of the past. Seeds that I have include nodding brome (Bromus anomalus), big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), green needle grass (Nassella viridula), blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis), and June grass (Koeleria macrantha), which are in the tall grass prairie seed selection I received. I failed to mention that I took six sessions this winter with John Skinner of Skinner Native Seeds. The series was called “How to start a Manitoba Revegetation Project”. This project, though exciting, is a little out of my league so I’m starting with the flowering plants first. This is a subject for another time and another project for the future.

Due to several Covid delays we are still waiting to meet with our city Park Rep and Naturalist. Meeting with city reps would be one of the important first steps if you are planning a pollinator garden in a public space or park near you. I will share my plan with the City Naturalist and ask for his recommendations as well.

Last week I invited Marilyn Latta and Julie Shoen of Nature Manitoba to do an evening walk about to get feedback on the plan, answer questions about plants I’m not sure of, and share plants and ideas. This was very helpful and a good first step to take. I learned that the plant I thought was iron weed (Vernonia noveboracensis) is indeed fireweed, Epilobium angustifolium and pretty invasive. We exchanged bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) and Canada violets (Viola canadensis) and a promise to share others.

It is part of my plan to move some plants from the beds they now live in to the new area. Some prairie wildflowers tolerate a range of habitats; most will grow in stature and health with a little more water and some plants will survive an amazing amount of dryness.

As an aside, starting your own seeds is also an option to consider but it can be daunting. Most wildflower seeds need specific treatment prior to growing: either scarification or stratification. Scarification is breaking the seed coat by actually scratching the seed coat with sand or something sharp. Stratification is a period of cold storage for the seed (often six weeks) with some moisture as well. You can also sow the seed in the fall and let the winter cold give you a hand. Back to the topic at hand.

Seed Starting

I have recently had great success with scarified purple prairie clover (Dalea purpuerea) seed from Skinner Native Seeds and untreated showy goldenrod. Showy goldenrod will germinate without treatment so I chose it to try to grow. I also tried some of my stratified milkweed seed and I got 7 plants out of 50 seeds. I will need to improve my stratification skills and get some fresh seed next time. Many seed selections came to me via the Winnipeg Wildflower Project.

I plan on diving into wildflower seed starting again next spring to grow a few more varieties and expand on my use of native plants in the park and in my home landscape. My hope for this first project is that I can take advantage of this wetter habitat to create an awesome pollinator garden and in so doing I will learn a great deal about our native pollinators and butterflies. There are also plans to offer the newly created and changed beds as a site for school field trips and for on site talks about the importance of such gardens to everyone. Our park will be part of the Butterfly Way and the initiative by David Suzuki, of which I’m proud to be a part.

Albrin Lake Park is located at 40 Lake Albrin Bay, Winnipeg. There is parking on both Lake Albrin Bay and Swan Lake Bay.
Note: I will be looking for Master Gardeners and Master Gardeners in Training in the future for planting and maintenance of the garden.
If you are interested please contact Shannon Coughlin at volunteers@mgmanitoba.com

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Published: June 2021