Little Bluestem in Autumn

Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) is at its best in autumn when the slanting autumn light burnishes its warm coppery colour and catches the small but fluffy white awns on the seeds. This clump of little bluestem is growing in a perennial bed with clumps of evergreen foliage of alumroot (Heuchera spp.) and prairie smoke (Geum triflorum) and the deep scarlet basal leaves of foxglove beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis).

Big Plants

I like big herbaceous plants. When the only space I had to garden in was a Toronto backyard about 20′ by 20′, I grew spikenard, glade mallow, pokeweed and royal fern.

Glade mallow in a Toronto garden.
Glade mallow (Napaea dioica) in a Toronto garden.

I have lust in my heart for gunnera (out of the question in Quebec) and western skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanus), (possibly possible with snow cover). I am especially covetous of umbrella leaf (Diphylleia cymosa), from the southern Appalachians but considered hardy to our Zone 4. Although I am, of course, officially only interested in North American native plants, I can see throwing my scruples aside if I ever encounter a really robust variety of red-leaved ornamental rhubarb.

I added seedling glade mallows to the swale planting last year. I am hoping my little pokeweeds will make it through this brutal winter. Yes, I do know how annoyingly fecund pokeweeds are further south, but at the extreme northern edge of their range, only very, very sharp drainage allows their roots to survive the winter.

Spikenard seeds are stratifying in the fridge right now; they may not germinate until next spring (2016). Prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) and giant coneflower (Rudbeckia maxima) are two big-leaved species I will be sowing this spring.

Prairie dock
Prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum).

Big herbaceous plant fill an important design niche at the farm: they take the place of foundation shrubs anywhere snow comes off the roof. We have a big clump of goatsbeard (Aruncus dioicus) doing shrub duty on the downhill side of the shed roof.

This is not the place to plant woody shrubs.
This is not the place to plant woody shrubs.

Big-leaved plants provide contrast in texture. So many of the grassland plants for sunny meadows and prairies are, naturally enough, grasslike — fine textured and vertical — or they have non-descript bitty leaves, that the few prairie species with big, bold leaves are valuable design components.

Pokeweed does not have individually big leaves; it is just a potentially big herbaceous plant with fine presence in the fall when its stems turn burgundy and the fruit ripens. Poke and spikenard are shrub-sized perennials that should be considered whenever one is thinking about adding native fruiting shrubs to attract birds.

Fall fruit of spikenard  (Aralia racemosa)
Fall fruit of spikenard (Aralia racemosa).

Native Plants in Gardens: Is there Progress?

At a remote fly-in cottage this past summer, I came across a well-aged copy of Cottage Life magazine from June 2003,  which featured an article by Lorraine Johnson: “The Natural Garden”. Lorraine has been writing about using more native plants in gardens since 1995’s The Ontario Naturalized Garden.

Lorraine and I served on the board of the North American Native Plant Society at the same time. I sought out and saved many of her native plant gardening magazine articles from that time but I missed this one in Cottage Life. Like the others, it is a fine article full of useful and accurate information, written in Lorraine’s light, sometimes humorous, style. I’d like to be able to say that I have visited many cottages in the intervening years where the plant choices reflect an increased awareness, thanks to the efforts of Lorraine and others, but I can’t.

Remote cottages in the north woods seldom see any gardening efforts at all, which is just fine, and the most ecologically responsible approach. However, more accessible cottage areas are increasingly turning into a new suburbia, carpeted with the same few, cheap-to-produce, often invasive, plants that make suburban gardens so dreary and lifeless.

Also last summer, a local gardening society Michael and I belong to offered two garden tours of large country gardens nearby. According to the write-up, one garden was entirely devoted to hostas, the other to day lilies. Now, I do quite like some hostas and am appreciative of their merits, and if I had a small, shady urban garden, I suspect I would be growing a few hostas. They are easy; they stay put. So easy, they are the mainstay of people who own a piece of land but have no real interest in husbandry of the land. I cannot imagine, being interested in, and skilled enough in gardening, to proudly open my garden to visitors and yet have so little interest in the natural world as to fill a garden with plants that have so little connection or meaning. Needless to say, I was not interested in visiting these gardens.

In the news this summer was a story about lack of compliance of cottagers at Meech Lake in Gatineau Park with a regulation regarding shoreline restoration. Essentially, the cottagers have had 4 years to plant some native wetland species in a strip at the edge of the lake to try to counter the ecological degradation in the lake, and more than 80% have not done it. Native plants are not difficult, not punishment. What’s not to like about more dragonflies and hummingbirds? Who so hates blue flag iris that they must break the bylaws to avoid planting a few?

Although the internet, and social media, and blogging has connected me to other native plant enthusiasts, I wonder if we are merely preaching to the choir. A few gardening bloggers have posted recently about hearing Doug Tallamy talk — if you haven’t yet read Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home, it should be on your list — and some of the comments were the same dispiriting things I have been hearing for years.

For the record, native plant gardeners are not purists, nor tyrants. Nobody wants to take away your peonies and tulips. We all agree the gardens are for enjoyment. Just, please, tip the balance a bit by including  more plants that have connections to the ecology of the place. Because so many North American natives have been neglected by horticulture, learning about native plants actually increases the choices gardeners have to make their gardens colourful and fragrant and easier to maintain. Yes, we ask you to please not grow the invasive purple loosestrife, but in its place we offer prairie blazing star, rough blazing star, New York ironweed, Virginia meadow-beauty, shining rose,  Douglas spirea and many others.

DSCN0528The Ye Olde Gardening Emporia are full of twee crap* from China: facsimiles of the real birds and dragonflies and butterflies and bees that  impoverished non-native plant selections banish from gardens. Bird-feeders are everywhere while actual birds are decreasing in variety and in absolute numbers. I think Liveliness is a quality that, for most gardeners, and garden visitors, adds to enjoyment, and is a quality that many are seeking.

*Full disclosure: I actually own some twee Made-in-China garden crap, only when I own it, it’s not twee, it’s whimsical (or so I tell myself); it is a small addition to a garden where we try to restore ecological diversity through planting native plants.