Planting a garden densely and diversely

As part of my goal to dejunk, I have been scanning old prints and slides and, once scanned, tossing the hard copy. I am of course keeping the impossible-to-replace pictures of friends now gone and babies now grown, but I have literally thousands of fifth rate photos of plants, landscapes, bits of gardens, and such, that if I am ever going to need again, I am going to need in easily-findable electronic versions.  I’ve used photo-organizing software to sort these scans by subject and location and date.

Hairy beardtongue (Penstemon hirsutus) growing at the edge of the driveway.

One of the things that emerged from all this was a record of my late mother’s garden, the way it changed over the years as I added more native plants, and tore up more lawn, and the plants grew and matured and sometimes disappeared as they were shaded out. FaceBook and blogging didn’t exist at the time. I would have enjoyed blogging about the garden, I think. Over the years, the number of native plants that grew in that tiny garden in a big city swelled into an impressive total. In my mother’s garden I put into practice the concept of making every square inch count.

It was a garden, not a restoration, so my concept of “native” was a bit loose, as I still think is quite appropriate for gardens. For example, tall ironweed, which is not native to Toronto, is native to southern Ontario, so in it went as a native plant and very successful it proved, feeding many butterflies and seeding gently into the edge of the lawn. I learned to distinguish it, and many other natives, as very small seedlings, rescuing them from the lawn, or the spaces between the paving stones, and moving them to other gardens.

Cabbage whites on tall ironweed.

Other city gardeners who are interested in native plants have created gardens as densely and diversely planted. We have tiny plots to steward but we do what we can. However, one has only to drive into the new suburbs and exurbs to see how rapidly we are losings habitat for birds and beetles and frogs. So many of the owners of executive estate-ette type developments seem to have no concept of what to do with the acre or five which surrounds the house. It is not that they have diabolical plans to plant garlic mustard and dog-strangling vine or misplaced ambitions to grow rhododendrons on the clay till. There are developments north of Bolton and east of Newmarket, now ten or fifteen years old, in which few of the properties have been planted with even a useful clump of rhubarb. Just acres of the lawn the developer laid, and maybe a scattering of blue spruce, usually planted way too close to the driveway.

The difficulty with establishing a garden on that scale is, of course, the cost of the plants, and the labour of maintaining traditional landscaping. Garden centres contribute to the dilemma, filled as they are with fancy and costly pruned specimen evergreens, and the latest cloned cultivars, and impractical high-maintenance roses. Yet these are what folks want, this is what sells. And  properties which could be both a source of delight for the owners and habitat for wild creatures remain barren and ugly sod-maintenance systems.

It doesn’t have to be this way but there is a great deal of educating and outreach to do. I don’t think the majority of suburban property owners are actually hostile to the idea of providing for nature – just count all the bird feeders.  But the concept that the birds need the caterpillars and beetle larvae on native plants far more than they need millet seed, that concept doesn’t sell well.

American painted lady laying eggs on plantain-leaved pussytoes in my mother's garden, Toronto.

Published by

Trish Murphy

Artist: botanical, still life, and natural history illustration. Garden designer: native plants and naturalistic gardens