Adventures in native gardening

Wild bergamot (Photo by Nicole Senyi/NCC staff)

Wild bergamot (Photo by Nicole Senyi/NCC staff)

April 25, 2020 | by Nicole Senyi

If you live in Ontario, as I do, you’ll know we had a run of some pretty nice weather in early April albeit with the odd blizzard mixed in here and there! But now, with the sun shining, birds singing and nowhere to go, getting outside has never looked so tempting. But how to do it safely?

  

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As the weeks of social distancing and isolation stretch on, and our waistlines expand from all that bread we’re baking, now is a great time to turn our attention to another comforting, therapeutic hobby: gardening. Whether you have an acreage, a yard in the suburbs, a small patio or balcony, or just a window in your city apartment, growing and caring for a living thing can do wonders for your mood, and for the planet.

In the fall of 2018, my husband and I moved into our first home with a garden. So by last April, I was eager to get outside and get my hands dirty. Throughout the winter I conducted internet research, pestered my gardening-savvy colleagues and bit by bit formed a plan. I wanted a native garden. Something that would be good for wildlife, insects and my water bill.

The beds and bushes were a mess. Non-native hostas abounded, their yellowed, slimy leaves blanketed the soil and spilled out onto the walkway. Ugly, European variety bushes that would not die and refused to be excavated ran amok. And that most pernicious of all garden weeds, goutweed, overran what was left, poking up like a many-headed hydra from among the garishly dyed-red mulch.

I had my work cut out for me.

In May of 2019, the war against years of neglect began. The hostas were hoisted, the bushes banished and the goutweed grappled with over several weeks.

Now I was ready to plant! But where to get those lovely, native novelties? Some were donated by aforementioned coworkers; for others I headed out to local plant sales and Native Plants in Claremont, a nursery north of Pickering, Ontario.

Black-eyed Susan (Photo by Nicole Senyi/NCC staff)

Black-eyed Susan (Photo by Nicole Senyi/NCC staff)

I learned that the first year of a garden is the hardest. For most of the summer, my black-eyed Susans, wild bergamot, foxglove and wild geranium looked sad and lonely among a sea of brown dirt and the odd weed (curse you, goutweed!) but slowly, each bloom flowered, and my garden began to take shape.

A few weeks ago, I started to poke around in the soil once more. I was happy to see that almost everything had survived the ravages of cold, snow and wind. Even the wild ginger, a favourite of the local bunny community, started to poke through the leaves and twigs. Now, as the temperature is finally above 10 degrees, I can clear away last year’s leaves, cut back the dead stems and prepare the soil for the warmer months ahead (and yes, pull out some more goutweed).

Interested in creating your own native garden? Here are a few tips and resources:

  • When to clean up? it’s a good idea to not get too proactive in tidying up, as there are probably still insects — including beneficial pollinators — making use of dead stems, fallen branches and leaf litter. If you need to clean up, choose a warm, sunny day among several other warm, sunny days to give insects a good chance at moving away. For more information on cleaning your garden the right way, visit Savvy Gardening.
  • Creating habitat for critters? Consider creating a brush pile in a sheltered spot in your yard: mourning cloak and comma butterflies overwinter as adults in piles of brush, so give them a home for next year. 
  • Removing invasives? Spring is a great time to be looking for and removing invasive garlic mustard, as it is popping up right now.
  • Looking for ideas of what to plant? The Ontario Invasive Plant Council puts out a Grown Me Instead guide for both northern and southern Ontario.
  • Where to get native plants? Many garden centres are starting to carry native varieties of perennials, shrubs and trees. Smaller, local garden centres are offering curbside pickup and Native Plants in Claremont does delivery for a fee. Ontario Native Plants is another option. This online nursery ships native flowers, shrubs and trees across the province for very reasonable rates. 
Nicole Senyi (Photo courtesy of Nicole Senyi)

About the Author

Nicole Senyi is the communications manager for NCC's Ontario region.

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