Home & Garden

Wild and wonderful

Author: Canadian Living

Home & Garden

Wild and wonderful

Dry, sandy, nutrient-poor soil. No water except rain. Little tender care. Seeking beautiful blooms. It all sounds like an ill-fated companions-wanted ad, and to gardeners familiar with traditional horticulture, it invites despair.

To the native-wildflower gardener, however, these conditions sound perfect for a colourful, everblooming, drought-tolerant, low-maintenance meadow garden — a wonderful alternative to a high-input, high-maintenance conventional garden or lawn.

Native wildflowers evolved to thrive in their particular environments. For those of us who have spent our gardening lives coddling exotic species, giving them daily ministrations of fertilizer, water and undivided attention, the notion that native plants actually want to grow is a liberating concept. When you choose indigenous plants that suit the particular conditions of your plot, a native-wildflower garden couldn't be easier to grow.

Indigenous plants 101
In nature every plant has both a native range and a habitat type in which it thrives. Plant habitats can be broadly classified as woodland, meadow, prairie and wetland. The habitat preference of any plant provides useful information. If you find a wildflower growing in a woodland, you can be sure that it needs shade and moist-to-average soil that's rich in nutrients and rotted organic matter. A plant that grows in a dry prairie habitat is there because it needs sun and tolerates nutrient-poor soil and little moisture. Some wetland plants grow right in water; others prefer moist, boggy soil.

Learning about native plants is a necessary first step toward cultivating them successfully; it's also a fascinating lesson in natural ecosystems. You don't need a degree in botany to identify local native plants. Check out a good field guide that lists each plant's native range. Talk with longtime local gardeners to learn about your area's natural history. Explore remnant wild areas in the neighbourhood. Contact the closest field naturalist group or university arboretum; many have compiled detailed lists of the regional flora. All this will provide planting ideas for your garden.

How does my garden grow?
We usually ask, "What do I want my garden to be?", but gardening with indigenous plants is an exercise in working with nature, not fighting against her. Site evaluation begins with a central question: "What does my garden want to be?"

Let's say that you've got a few mature trees and, with much work and little success, you are trying to grow a lawn in their shadow. Instead of a lawn, try a woodland garden of plants that flourish in shade. In urban and suburban gardens, depleted, sunbaked, nutrient-poor soils can be the norm. If this is your lot, plant a prairie or meadow garden of tough natives that thrive in sun and nutrient-poor soil. If your yard is soggy and subject to periodic flooding, create a wetland garden.

A host of factors make your particular plot unique; study them thoroughly, especially the soil, light and moisture. Is your soil sand, clay or loam? Is it acidic, neutral or alkaline? Is it nutrient-rich, average or nutrient-poor? (Take a soil sample to your local university or Ministry of the Environment to have them test these factors.) Is your yard slow draining (Is it still soggy a day or two after a rainfall?) or fast draining? Is it sunny, shady or somewhere in between? Once you know your site, you'll know which wildflowers to choose for it. Whether you plant a meadow, prairie, wetland or woodland garden, your design can be formal or informal.

What will the neighbours say?
My friend Susannah created a wildflower garden in her small city backyard. It was her first garden and she was full of enthusiasm. During the initial growing season, plants soared skyward, blooming all summer long.

When I asked Susannah what the local reaction was, she laughed and told me a story that many wildflower gardeners could tell: the neighbours on one side were making pointed remarks about lawn mowers and offering to help chop down the "weeds"; the neighbours on the other side were wondering if Susannah would share seeds and cuttings so they could start their own wildflower garden.

While native-wildflower gardens are gaining in popularity, chances are your garden will be unique in your neighbourhood. The best way to ensure neighbours' support is to let them know what you're doing and tell them about the environmental benefits such as low water use. Also, less need for chemical help cuts costs and makes your garden more welcoming to butterflies, birds and other species. Let the neighbours see you out in the garden actively enjoying your plot, not "letting it go." You can even post a small sign that proudly announces your garden as a "wildflower preserve." Chances are, soon all the neighbours will be asking you for samples.

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Wild and wonderful

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