Choreography in the Garden

Parc de Gerland. Lyon, France. Photo by John Harper, 2005.

By John L. Harper, MALA

John earned his Master of Landscape Architecture degree from the University of Georgia College of Environment and Design in 1996. Upon completion of his MLA, he worked in Atlanta for several years where he first got his license to practice. He is now principal at Studio 169 Landscape Architecture in Winnipeg and teaches part-time for the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Manitoba.

In contrast to the earthy realities of soil and plants, the beguiling imagery of gardens often comes to us from art and advertising. We cannot enter these images as we enter a garden, but we often dream of making our gardens like them. As creators of gardens large or small, most of us dream of beautiful places that we never see fully realized. We know that we can never quite capture our dream garden and hold it in a perfect moment. I would suggest that we do not need to, and that a more meaningful relationship may be found through an often-overlooked aspect of garden design—choreography and its open-endedness.

Consider, for example, the meadow garden in its many variations conjuring a gardener’s dream of flowering plants en masse, surrounding us on all sides, so many that we walk over them and dance through them. But as Dorothy found in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, vast meadows of beautiful flowers may present us with new and complex challenges. Obviously, in this case the choreography went astray of the yellow brick road, with Dorothy and her friends instead skipping merrily through a meadow filled with poisonous poppies, which brought them close to their doom. Even the gardener risks toxic results when we try too hard to realize the images that we see in garden publications and design magazines. There is a better way.

When we fully immerse ourselves in the materials of a garden, we return to our humanity, our earthly origins. Imaginary gardens deny us the intimate relationship with nature we crave. Although we are inundated by the appeals of advertisers to first buy into the dream of limitless beauty in our gardens and then to achieve this at any cost including toxic chemicals, this disrupts the connection to nature we seek to create. If we see the garden image on a digital screen and with our feet flat on the floor, we remain safely unenlightened. Instead, I propose that we must venture out, and choreography offers many opportunities to do so.

Choreography, the design of sequences of movements for physical bodies is an important, but often unnoticed element of successful gardens. It is one way of opening a dialog with a garden. Is choreography not for dancers, you ask?

Jack Howard-Potter. Dancer 10. Mathews-Sanders Sculpture Garden, Delta State University, Cleveland, Mississippi. Photo by John Harper, 2019

Perhaps, but famously Anna and Lawrence Halprin, he a landscape architect and she a dancer and choreographer, helped bring new ideas to designers about choreographing the movement of people in space in a process intended to foster environmental awareness. Their proposals were “scored” for environmental situations with the final performance left open-ended. (1) Gardeners who use this approach need not go to the same lengths as the Halprins, but if you consider each walk you make on your garden path a small performance in collaboration with the plants, the wind, the sun, the rain, and snow, you leave the results open to new, alternate garden realities.

Pedestrians. Parc de la Villete,Paris, France. Photo by John Harper, 2005.

As I have suggested, your garden vision and the path system you design for it clearly need to have a conceptual as well as pragmatic relationship. No matter the style you choose for your garden, access for maintenance as well as pleasure will be a necessity. But the path to your plants, its proportions, and its materials, is the way by which you and visitors will interpret your garden. What if you design this “access” to accommodate weddings, birthdays, and cocktail parties as well as the transport of compost? You and your guests benefit from a subtle reminder to be aware of the environment. In that sense, the movement of people about a garden should be natural and comfortable and afford one a pleasant view of the garden’s main attraction—plants. But we do not want to simply stand and stare as if we are at an old-fashioned zoo; we want to interact, so I am with the Halprins in designing choreography for the garden.

Parc André Citroën. Paris. Photo by John Harper, 2005.

Seldom do gardeners daydream during the long winter months about where we are going to walk in our garden visions. The mundane notion of pedestrian circulation may seem to you the territory of city landscape architects with their sidewalks and trees in grates. But the routes we take in a garden need not be simply linear paths from A to B and C; rather they may flow in such a way that we participate more fully in the garden experience, thereby heightening our awareness of nature and the environment. If you allow circulation in your garden to occur by default, you ignore the critical shaping of garden spaces and their relationships to one another.

Open-ended performances may occur with humans in “nature” rather than viewing nature. Plan your dance as well as you select the plants who will be your partners. Consider a hierarchy of path sizes, a broad path for the showiest part of your garden, a narrow path to the compost heap. Choose beautiful materials to complement your plantings: stone, gravel, brick, mulch, and even turfgrass all make excellent pathway surfaces.

Parc du Sausset, Villepinte, France. Photo by John Harper, 2005.

Create mystery with hidden curves that make small gardens look bigger. Locate terminal points for specimen plants, sculpture, or bird baths. And do not forget that night lighting can lengthen your enjoyment time in the garden. With all these tools at your disposal, you become the choreographer of a garden design that is open to infinite possibilities.

Vannan Garden. Winnipeg. Photo by John Harper, 2012

(1) Alison B. Hirsch, “The Collective Creativity of Anna and Lawrence Halprin,” GIA Reader 27, no.2 (Summer 2016).

Green is a Verb

By Elizabeth Sellors, Master Gardener

North American’s love affair with lawns is a recent development in the human history of altering our environment. Lawns became the hallmark of homeownership in the 1800’s when North American home owners began to copy the 18th century idea of landscaping with vast swaths of green turf commonly associated with English country estates. North Americans’ dream was to attain a patch of perfectly manicured bright green, lush grass attached to their homes. And, not just any grass but a singular type of grass, weed-free, not a hair over one-and-a-half inches tall and neatly edged. Lawns came to represent shared ideals, collective responsibility and conformity.

Holiday Cacti: Thanksgiving cactus, Christmas cactus and Easter cactus

Photo by: Diane Daignault

By Lori Graham, Master Gardener

Holiday cacti are tough forgiving plants that are easy to care for once established. They store water in their stems making them very drought tolerant. Holiday cacti are not poisonous to humans, cats or dogs and many of us grow these as houseplants. The Christmas cactus still blooms each winter with its message of faith and hope.

Schlumbergera, a small genus of cactus with 6 accepted species, is found in the coastal mountains of south-eastern Brazil. This genus includes the Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata), and Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii). Schlumbergera x buckleyi, by many considered the true Christmas cactus, is a hybrid between S. truncata x S. russelliana. The Easter cactus belongs to the genus Rhipalidopsis with the specific epithet gaertneri but is cared for in the same way.

Drawing by Jo Swartz

Thanksgiving cactus has jagged edged stem segments; these segments, called phylloclades, are serrated or toothed, with two to four pointy spines on each side.
Thanksgiving cacti are commonly sold around this time of year, as they are easier to ship to various locations.

Thanksgiving cactus: Photo by Lori Graham

The stem segments of the Christmas cactus have a more rounded, scalloped edge. The tip of each segment is slightly curved but can look almost straight across.

Christmas cactus – photo courtesy of Angela Sooknanan

I am providing growing tips from my own experiences with these plants.

• Watering – I bottom water my plants once a month. I place the plant pot (with holes in the bottom of the pot) in a large saucer of water then wait at least 30 min. Then I place the pot back into a drip tray and back to its location. Don’t over water. The leaves will go limp or fall off if the plant has been over-watered.
• Location – These plants like bright indirect light. You will know if the plant gets too much light as the leaves will start to turn a purple colour. This happens to mine more in the summer months. Should this happen move the plant farther away from the light source. Try a north or east-facing window, again not in direct sunlight.
• Fertilizer – I use fertilizer only in the growing season April to October.
• Blooms – I don’t have to do anything to mine to make them bloom. If under the right conditions the plant should bloom on its own. If you are having trouble getting the plant into bloom apparently giving them 14 hours of darkness is suppose to will help. Move it to a dark room or place a paper-bag over it.
• Transplanting – Theses plants like to have their roots crowded, so I transplant only if root bound. You will notice roots coming out of the bottom of the pot. You don’t have to transplant these plants often but if you do make sure to only go up one pot size. If plant is in the pot you purchased it in, example 4-inch pot, transplant to a 6-inch pot. Do not transplant when the plant is budding or going into bloom. I use regular potting soil made for houseplants.

Every year when my plants come into bloom it makes me smile to know these plants are happy and in a good place. Wishing you much success should you buy one of these plants.

Know your Manitoba Seed Companies!

By Darlene Belton, Master Gardener

Every New Year gardeners eagerly anticipate the growing season ahead. This year it seems new gardeners are too! In 2020 growing our own food became as popular as hoarding toilet paper and nurturing sour dough starter. The forecast is that in 2021 even more new gardeners will join us in our journey.

This skyrocketing trend means our services as gardening educators will not only be in greater demand but, as avid gardeners ourselves, we can expect to face stiffer competition for seeds, plants and supplies than in 2020. I know I’m not the only gardener who was astounded at the empty shelves in late May last year; some even missed out on their orders as seed companies ran out of stock in March and April.

For weeks already Manitoba’s seed companies have been preparing for what they anticipate to be another blockbuster year. Nevertheless, ordering early is their urgent advice. Therefore this month’s column focuses on food gardening, featuring Manitoba’s own seed companies and what I have learned about this complex industry by perusing their websites and interviewing their managers.

Heritage Harvest Seeds   Click Here 

Compared to other Manitoba vegetable seed companies, only Heritage Seed Company owner, Tanya Stefanec of Fisher Branch Manitoba grows, harvests and distributes her own heirloom seeds as well as other heirloom varieties she sources from growers across Canada who produce for her. Reviewed by Dave’s Garden ‘Garden Watchdog’ and (a homesteading and permaculture site), Heritage Seed Co. received excellent customer ratings for both seed viability and variety, and fast order processing and delivery (now only within Canada). In business for 18 years, Tanya’s website claims her company has become Canada’s No. 1 source for rare and endangered varieties of heirloom seed (over 800 varieties in 2021). She also sells Seeds of Diversity’s Seed Saving Book ($24.95). Though not certified organic, all seed stock is “open-pollinated, non-hybrid, non-GMO, untreated, natural heirloom seed”. Tanya has a bachelor’s degree in horticultural technology and has been an avid gardener since a small child. She has been able to combine a fascination with history and gardening with her passion to preserve our local gardening heritage. “I am not able to grow enough seed to meet demand,” Tanya says. “Every year the interest in rare and endangered seed increases.” Ordering is online only in 2021.

Sage Garden Seeds   Click Here 

Sage Garden Greenhouses is a 100% organic garden centre known primarily in Manitoba. Sage Garden owner, Dave Hanson, also sources, rebrands and distributes about 350 varieties of certified organic seeds across Canada. In his usual helpful, knowledgeable style, Dave gave me a lot of information about the Canadian seed industry. Unlike what we might assume, most seeds, he says, originate in the U.S. via large-scale producers; the seeds are purchased and then rebranded by Canadian companies. Dave uses trusted sources of certified organic seeds from large American producers, “partners” he calls them. He has also found small “niche” Canadian growers of around the 50-acre size, such as Annapolis Seeds, that offer more specialized varieties better adapted to our short season. Both types of sourced seed he then packages, rebranded with the Sage Garden logo for online ordering and distribution. Sage Garden also offers seeds under other brand names, all certified organic. Like everyone else in the seed industry, Dave was caught unprepared for the rush of demand last spring, but feels ready for 2021 with more inventory, and a more efficient processing system now in place.

Why the insistence on certified organic seed I asked Dave. “Buying and planting organic seed goes beyond our own gardens,” he said. “The process of producing certified organic seed enhances land use in distant areas where the seeds are grown and harvested. It supports regenerative agriculture and is more holistic overall.”

What trends does Dave see in food gardening? “Vegetable gardeners are becoming more adventurous. They want colourful unique varieties that present beautifully,” he said. “There has been a revolution in varieties of tomatoes, for example. People want seeds that will do what they say they’ll do – especially compact varieties of favorites suitable for small space gardening and containers.”

Browsing the Sage Garden website is an education in itself; check out the podcasts and the seed-starting supplies. Dave especially recommends heat mats for starting your seeds (greater uniformity and speed of growth, plus stronger roots). He says hot season plants such as hot peppers and eggplant really need that extra boost.

T&T Seeds   Click Here 

Started in 1946, T&T Seeds has grown to offer a full range of vegetables, herbs, roots, bulbs and fruit shrubs and trees, plus supplies. The website claims no other Canadian seed company has such extensive refrigeration facilities for storing dormant fruit and berry root stock – shipped at appropriate times to customers across Canada. The website is worth a prowl, featuring a Canadian hardiness zone map, and the ‘Garden Guru’ tips & library. T&T’s chock-full charming print catalogue is a “must-have” for Manitoba gardeners (with online ordering also offered). Manager Brian Twomey says T&T is already one month into heavy sales – sooner this year, confirming his sense that 2021 may repeat the incredible demand of 2020. Ordering by February 15 rewards you with a 10% discount. Brian notes that sprouts have become a big seller and there is a growing market for sweet potato cuttings which sold very well last year and will be in greater supply in 2021.

Lindenberg Seeds   Click Here

This year, 2021, is the 86th year in business for this Brandon-based seed company. A simple website promises online ordering is coming soon; in the meantime you can download a PDF catalogue, or order a print one. Manager Rick Lindenberg is witnessing an across-the-board increase in food gardening seed sales. He is pleased to see the surge of interest in home gardening, and is hoping it will last. Lindenberg Seeds carry no GMO seeds or seeds treated with neonicotinoids. The company sources seed primarily from Idaho, California and Oregon, some of which is originally grown in Chile and other South American locales. There are no extra shipping or handling charges for orders over $60; orders under $60 are charged $8.95. Ordering/shipping is only within Canada.

McKenzie Seeds   Click Here 

In business now for 122 years, Brandon-based McKenzie Seeds claims it is “Canada’s number one packet seed company”. Its packages are a familiar sight in Canada’s larger retailers such as Canadian Tire. The website’s strong message to “Order now to secure inventory” and its early acceptance of pre-orders for spring planting materials both attest to the now-familiar anticipated shortages down the line in 2021. There is free shipping on orders over $55 (pre-tax) and the company is front and centre about no GMO products or neonicotinoids – “never has, never will, because of the impact on pollinating insects”. The website hosts rich garden tips and “How to Grow” (specific vegetables) sections, worth perusing, plus a gardening help line. Online catalogue and ordering only.

Garden Tour that did not Happen!

By Shelley Walker, Events and Fundraising Director

Every July Master Gardeners and the public alike look forward to the Manitoba Master Gardener Association Tour. This year, due to Covid-19, the tour had to be cancelled.

A big thank you goes out to all the gardeners who volunteered their gardens for the tour. They had certainly made plans well ahead of time to ensure their gardens would look the best at the time of the tour. Almost all were able to confirm their gardens for next year’s tour and sent us photos to create anticipation.



First Vegetable Garden – a Retrospective

By Darlene Belton, Master Gardener

What a gratifying summer! Although I’ve done ornamental gardening for almost 30 years, including 15 years following sustainable permaculture principles, I’ve always inter-planted small numbers of herbs, tomatoes, lettuce, kale and squash amongst the ornamentals. I’ve found this an excellent way to ensure pollination and to reduce vegetable pests (that then can’t find the plants they seek among all the others). However, this past summer I wanted a much larger harvest and decided that a dedicated vegetable garden was the only way to go.

Monarch News Clips

By Anne Marie Van Nest

Anne Marie Van Nest is a GAREDENCOMM Past President, Fellow and member of the Sustainability Committee. She is a freelance garden writer and copy editor. When away from the computer she can be found working and talking about sustainability in greenhouses and gardens in the Niagara Falls, Ontario Canada area.

What’s a Gardener to Do?


By Derek Yarnell, Master Gardener
This past winter as the climate crisis Click Here and scale of the biodiversity crisis Click Here became more apparent to me, I had an epiphany regarding the importance of gardening with native plants Click Here. It’s no exaggeration to now say I see the gardening world with new eyes. My evaluation of a garden is no longer just about its beauty; I now also evaluate it based on how interconnected it is with its surrounding environment. And I’ve realized just how under-represented native plants (and the ecosystems they support) are in our gardens, including my own.

Perennials for Northern Gardens – Zoom Presentation

Perennials for Northern Gardens is a discussion about the wide variety of perennials that have adapted to Manitoba gardens. Illustrated by over 200 photographs, Hugh Skinner will talk about the historic development of perennial flower gardening and reasons for using perennials. He will also talk about the design of perennial gardens, procuring perennials and methods of propagating perennials from seed and by vegetative means.

Our guest presenter, Hugh Skinner, caught the gardening bug early. He spent his summers as a child working and playing in his father’s nursery. He studied horticulture at the University of Manitoba and graduated with a B. S. A. (Hort.) in 1972. Since that time he has been involved in the nursery business, growing a wide variety of trees, shrubs, perennial flowers and bulbs. Currently, he is specializing in lily bulbs, with an emphasis on martagons.

Hugh began speaking and advising groups and individuals soon after his graduation from university. As well, he has developed and delivered a number of courses for Assiniboine Community College. In the past 6 years he has judged for Communities in Bloom in Manitoba. In 2002 he was presented with the Prairie Garden Award of Excellence for his work to preserve the Skinner horticultural legacy. He is currently president of the Manitoba Horticultural Association.

His most recent project is a book on “perennial flowers for northern gardens” with Sara Williams. They are currently seeking a publisher. Hugh and Sara believe that gardeners need accurate information to help them in designing garden projects and in choosing plants that are suited to our climate. Previous books include Gardening, Naturally, A chemical free handbook for the Prairies (co-authored with Sara Williams) published by Coteau Books in spring 2011, Best Trees and Shrubs for the Prairies and Best Groundcovers and Vines for the Prairies, also co-authored with Sara Williams.


Butterflyway Project Webinar Series – Fall Gardening Tips

The David Suzuki Foundation(DSF), Senior Strategist, Jode Roberts, will host. Presenters are: Manitoba Master Gardener, Susan Leblanc and Kelly Leask, owner of Prairie Originals, a native nursery garden centre in Selkirk, MB. The theme is getting your garden ready for winter. Although this webinar is intended for Butterflyway Rangers in Winnipeg, the theme is relevant to many prairie gardeners. MMG with native gardens might find this webinar especially helpful. Kelly is an expert on native plants. The webinar is open to everyone. Anyone can register for the webinar.For your information, we have 10 Manitoba Master Gardeners’ gardens listed on the David Suzuki Butterflyway (pollinator highway) map for the Winnipeg (area).

If you missed this presentation:
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