“A lawn is nature under totalitarian rule”
– Michael Pollan
Having lived in Europe and elsewhere when I left Vancouver at 18 years of age, it was an even 18 years before I had a garden again. We moved to Victoria, the city of Gardens, home of the world-famous Butchart Gardens, a sleepy place affectionately called the Home of the Newly-Wed and the Nearly-Dead. It’s a quiet capital where people love… to garden! Every one and their dog here gardens. Most of the gardens I pass daily are now dotted with tulips and daffodils, awash in the colors of blooming rhodos and bluebells. Poppies are popping up, fuzzy with their grey-green skins and about to burst into color.
We inherited what my neighbour Sydney calls a prize garden. Japanese-y. We have tons of rocks with naturally occurring bonsai pines and firs growing out of them. When we became the humble stewards of this prize, Japanese-y garden it was a sanctuary of Garry Oak trees, pines, rhodos, azaleas, rock plants, mature creeping wisteria and hydrangea, violets and snow stars. A paradise of sword ferns and licorice ferns, controlled ivy, mature sculpted scotch broom, english laurel. Part of me wanted to just keep the garden as it was. Forever.
But how could we not plant berries and vegetables? I grew up eating raspberries grown from carefully kept canes from my grandparents’ Goldstream Berry Paradise. In this new garden we planted descendants of those canes plus blueberry bushes, squashes, and kale.
It took time to gradually determine the practises of those individuals wishing to garden sustainably here on the West Coast. It has been a rewarding process. Shortly after taking possession, we stopped watering the ornamental plants, reasoning that those hardy enough to survive would be adapted to this ecosystem. Our native ecosystems have spent thousands of years adapting and evolving to soil and climate conditions alongside and together with the flora and fauna. Stopping the excessive watering was a first step in the right direction perhaps. A few small bushes and shrubs died along with a Juniper.
In addition to the City of Gardens, Victoria has also been called “More British than the British”. In fact, judging by the plants in many Victorian gardens, we could be anywhere in the United Kingdom. When my nice neighbours stopped by to chat while out walking their pooches (taking a break themselves from gardening), I asked their opinions about which plants to keep and which to pull out. The answer was usually muffled. The fellow who helped mow the lawn shrugged when I asked what were the weeds here. I was told “A weed is what ever you don’t want”. Hmm. I heard that a lot. It wasn’t helpful. I didn’t know precisely what it was that I wanted. At that point.
Last summer I did a tour of local private gardens opened to the public. I asked one of the event volunteers about native plants. Native plants? She frowned and said she has a hard time getting rid of them. Hmm…. She extolled a pretty English garden. I visited it on the tour. It was very pretty. But it didn’t enchant me as much as mine. Was I a mother owl who sees her own drab chick as more beautiful than the peacock? What an environmentally conscientious gardener would wish to plant still eluded me. Didn’t we have a native ecosystem that should be exhalted as must as the imported ideas of gardens?
Now the word ‘Garry Oak Ecosystem’ was something that kept cropping up. Some folks warned, “Get rid of your Garry Oaks seedlings before they grow too big otherwise, you’ll have to keep them forever.” They are protected. Curious, I went on a tour of the Uplands Park which is full of knarled sculptural Garry Oaks and found volunteers taking out ivy and scotch broom. Those are bad invasives to to the native ecosystems. I took them out of our garden too.
Every minor indifference, discouragement or encouragement in a garden can have startling effects. I love my mossy rocks and weed the grass out of the moss where most of my neighbours spend time doing the exact opposite. As a result we have glorious moss. I love moss but as a rule gardeners don’t. A whole industry exists to ‘de-moss’. Maybe I was making very bad, novice gardening choices, faux pas of the floral sort? Where action and inaction can result in overwhelming effects, what in Earth was I to do with each and every plant. Leave it in? Take it out? Water? Withhold drink? Did I have other invasives like Scotch Broom that I should get rid of?
I needed someone to go through, plant by plant, and tell me what was what. What was native? What was useful? What was poisonous? What grows well together? What kind of soil conditions evolved together with the flora? I had question after question, as many queries as plants in the garden. Where were the Elders who knew this land, these plants, the pollinators? At last I knew what was needed.
This little patch of Gaia needed a Godmother (Madrina in Italian). A person (or fairy, shaman, Elder, leprechaun or tree spirit – I wasn’t particular) who would be able to guide the garden to historical harmony whilst not totally abandoning the elegant and carefully considered imported mature plants and trees.
We made a wish on a native dandelion and blew. The stars conspired and instead of Pinocchio’s blue fairy, Nancy Turner descended with an invisible light sabre. She is a keeper and disseminator of British Columbia’s native plant lore.