How to let native plants guide your gardening

Bloom of orange butterfly milkweed Photo by Donna Ochoa

On episode 5, season 4 of the Cottage Life Podcast, gardening expert Lorraine Johnson shares the benefits of native plants for your cottage garden. Listen to the show below, and then the rest of the season here.

“Get down on the ground, lie on your back, and look up—just look. Absorb the place…” The strangest, but most appropriate piece of gardening advice I’ve ever received. My guide in the fine art of rapt attention, of learning the spirit of place, is native-plant cottage gardener Jim French. At his cottage property on Stony Lake, in the Kawarthas, French has spent decades perfecting an extensive woodland garden, a small wetland, and a pristine prairie restoration—what he calls his “wildflower preserve.” But before I was allowed to explore the secrets and surprises contained in his garden, French was urging me to take that all-important first step, which actually included no steps at all. I was to lie on the ground and from this prone perspective take in the beauty and peace of this place: trees criss-crossing sky, moss covering rocks, lake breezes soothing city-tense senses…

If there is one thing that draws us to cottage country, it is the landscape—the forests and shorelines and plants and rocks, and on and on. We carve our pockets of pleasure out of these places that are so different from our cities and towns. The unique landscape that grounds—literally and metaphorically—the cottage experience calls for an equally special style of gardening, one that honours and enhances the qualities that draw us there in the first place. Although we head to the cottage to relax, those of us with green thumbs know that the urge to garden demands expression wherever we are—there’s only so much dock-sitting we can do before the trowel calls. Besides, gardening is relaxation for many people, and the cottage is the perfect place for puttering—for trying out new plant combinations or spending lazy afternoons deadheading spent flowers. The challenge is to do it in a way that fits with the natural surroundings and doesn’t command a lot of attention and resources. That challenge is taken up in this four-part, hands-on series of articles: how to achieve high-beauty, low-impact cottage gardens.

All gardening is negotiation, finding a balance between our desires and the landscape’s demands. In cottage country, these demands might seem particularly insistent; the wild is, after all, at your door, and that is the point. The trick is to look at—or as Jim French says, absorb—what it is you love about the wild landscape and build those qualities into your garden design. Whether it’s the rugged rocky outcrops of Georgian Bay, dense forest of Haliburton, sparsely vegetated sandy spit of Lake Huron, or flowering meadow of Prince Edward County, the features of the wild places around your cottage can be mimicked, enhanced, and highlighted in your garden design. In other words, your garden guide is all around you. The rocky outcrops become the inspiration and design basis for a rock garden, the forest for a woodland garden, the sandy spit for a dryland garden, and the meadow for an arrangement of sun-loving wild-flowers. The native plants of the natural landscape—the ruby-red berries of false Solomon’s seal (Smilacina racemosa), for example, the woolly leaves and prolific white flowers of pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea), or the dazzling orange of butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)—are gorgeous candidates in the cultivated landscape. The garden thus becomes something not imposed but that blends right in.

“In some of the gardens I’ve designed, everything is so tied together, with the understory ground covers in effect bringing the forest down to the cottage, that it doesn’t look like anyone did anything, basically,” says Robert Allen with a chuckle. Allen is a landscaper who has been promoting the use of native plants in Muskoka for 15 years through his company, Northway Gardeners, and his design philosophy is based on the idea of the “right fit,” finding a way to connect the surrounding wild landscape to the cottage garden. He’s particularly pleased when the guiding hand of his work is so seamless as to be almost invisible. Rick Wright of Brackenrig Landscaping in Port Carling, Ont., has an equally succinct way of describing this fit: “Living with nature, not opposed to it.”

In practical gardening terms, working with nature comes down to a few principles. The most important is that the garden is based on a natural habitat model: forest, meadow or wetland. Ideally, the plants are likewise ones found in that natural habitat, already adapted to its particular conditions. And where there’s habitat, there’s wildlife. As Bill Dickinson, chair of the Natural Heritage Committee of the Muskoka Heritage Foundation (MHF), a non-profit, charitable organization devoted to protecting Muskoka’s watersheds and landscapes, puts it, “By naturalizing your cottage property, you’re creating habitat that will encourage birds, butterflies, and other wildlife. You’re increasing biodiversity. And at the same time, you’re reducing the amount of maintenance you need to do.” Rebecca Willison, an intern at MHF, concurs: “People come to their cottages to vacation. Who wants to spend their time doing the same things they do in the city, like mowing lawns?”

The naturalistic garden is one that, in effect, sustains itself—if not totally (it is still a garden, after all), then certainly more than the manicured landscapes found in urban areas or, increasingly, along cottage waterfronts. That’s why this kind of gardening makes so much more sense at the cottage—it leaves you time to go for a paddle around the bay, or stretch out on the deck with a paperback, or just sit amid the flowers with a g-and-t, enjoying the fruits of your labour.

Encouraging the waxwings to visit and upping your hammock time are two persuasive arguments in favour of the naturalized garden, but there’s another that makes great sense at the cottage: conserving water use and quality. Because native species have evolved over thousands of years in a particular place, they’re adapted to the conditions at hand, and you won’t need to use harmful pesticides or fertilizers that inevitably end up in the lake, or do much supplementary watering.

Although naturalistic cottage gardens share an ethic of resourcefulness, the gardens themselves can vary widely in form. Some people, such as Bill Gray, whose cottage is on Lake Joseph in Muskoka, start out small, adding natives gradually to an established garden bed. In Gray’s case, the garden is very well established—his family began it in the 1890s—and the bed in which he’s adapting is the vegetable patch. “I’m including more and more native flowers for the simple reason that, because they’re native, they’re less work,” he says. Some gardeners whose cottage properties consist of bald rock plant in containers to deal with the no-soil situation. There are those who let seeds rain in from the surrounding wild areas (an approach that requires patience and an eye for spotting weeds at an early stage), and others, like Lake Simcoe cottager Lynne Pringle, who take a more active approach, moving soil and rocks and buying dozens of seedlings from local nurseries. Pringle is gradually replacing the lawn running down to her shore with beds of native wildflowers and “the most beautiful rocks I’ve ever seen,” which she discovered buried beneath the turf.

Whatever gardening method you choose, be forewarned: All is not rosy contemplation from the deck chair. The challenges of gardening at the cottage are the same as those encountered by gardeners everywhere—only more so. Extreme conditions tend to be the norm: water tables close to the soil surface, or the soil itself only a thin layer barely covering rock, or the soil almost pure sand with instant drainage. The extreme dryness of weeks-long droughts has become a regular summer problem cross-province, and when rain comes, it’s often a gale-force storm rolling off the lake. Even the wildlife in cottage country seems more extreme, with gardeners having to contend not just with raccoons, rabbits, and groundhogs but also deer, bears, and porcupines.

Such challenges might wilt your garden dreams (along with your plants), but again, your guide is all around you: Look to the wild landscape, where plants survive the challenges nature throws out. How, for example, do forest plants cope with weeks of no rain? Through the protection offered by a thick layer of dead leaves. What does the naturalistic gardener learn from this? The importance of a moisture-conserving layer of mulch. Thin soils? The necessity of planting species with shallow root systems. Water-logged soils? The value of choosing moisture-loving wetland natives. Instant drainage and dry conditions from sandy soils? The need to plant drought-tolerant species. Incursions by creatures? The sense of planting a lot of species so the garden functions as a system that doesn’t “collapse” when animals pluck out their favourite plants. All those things that seem like challenges are, in fact, crucial information sources that can lead to a better understanding of your habitat’s inclinations, which in turn leads to garden success.

More and more gardeners are embracing that possibility for success. Naturalized gardening, having taken off in cities across the country, now has a toehold in Ontario cottage country—a rare instance of an urban habit actually adding something positive to the cottage experience! “There is definitely a growth in interest in native plant landscaping at the cottage,” says Brackenrig’s Rick Wright. “Maybe it started off as somewhat of a ‘plant-of-the-month’-type thing, but it’s become a movement.”

If all this hasn’t quite sold you on the virtues of the natural cottage garden, there’s one more irrefutable argument: Quite simply, native plants are beautiful. And to discover that, you just need to get on the ground and look around.

Lorraine Johnson is an avid native-species gardener and frequent visitor to cottage country. In Part Two of our series, in the June issue, Lorraine will discuss how to start a naturalized garden at the cottage, from sizing up your soil and light conditions to devising a growing strategy that fits with your holiday schedule. Or some such.

This essay appeared in the May 2003 issue of Cottage Life as the first part of a four-part series. You can find the rest here: Part 2: Understanding soil and landscape quality when gardeningPart 3: Overcoming your garden’s critters and septic beds, Part 4: Seed-planting guide for natural gardens.

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