June 1, 2012

The deep end of the pool


Our local gene pool is important to us. This is the United Nations Decade of Biodiversity, so it seems like a good time to speak about using native plants in the landscape, not just for their beauty and ease of care, but because they support so many different kinds of life.

The trick to using any palette of plants is to consider beauty first. Combining plants is a question of mixing foliage textures. I’m a big believer that flowers come and go, but texture will make or break your landscape. When I’m designing a garden, I create a list of every type of plant within the chosen restriction (edible, native, drought tolerant, etc.) that suits the soil, sun exposure and other on-site factors; then I figure out how to use them together for the best-possible visual effect. I try to use trios of bold, feathery and grass-like textures, often aiming for different foliage colours as well. If the plants flower, that’s a bonus. Using natives in drifts or as single accents takes the ‘wild’ out of the look by giving it more impact.

For example, a drift of Prairie Blues little bluestem backed by several tall purple coneflower, and fronted with, say, three golden Canadian juniper, is a dramatic combination that offers multiple seasons of interest. It feeds the birds, shelters predators, and offers support for pollinators. A nice exclamation point behind this planting would be a Joe Pye weed or Diablo ninebark. (You could even sneak this combination into a ‘traditional’ landscape and, because it’s so beautiful, no one would be any the wiser).

In the shade, Christmas ferns, Solomon’s seal and Canada wild ginger complement and contrast each other. (Mulching your plantings with composted pine mulch helps natives establish better, which is important since they often take a bit longer to get their feet in the ground).

Always try to live within your soil and moisture types. Don’t fight it and you’ll have greater success. Planting for clay, sand, moist or dry will create a landscape that shines out in a world of conformity that seems to prefer to flatten the hills and fill in the valleys. So many customers want to have a swale filled in or clay soil removed and replaced with ‘good’ soil. It can be tough to change their minds since they are set on that idea. But the possibility of saving money may convince them. (The technique of landscaping within your environment is often cheaper.) Also, the thought of having a landscape different from what most people have will often win them over. Planting a moist swale with drifts of blue flag iris, Carex grasses, blue or red lobelia, sparkleberry and dogwood or sage-leaf willow is far more interesting than more yews, euonymus and daylilies.

If you need groundcovers, some great examples include Canada anemone, bush honeysuckle, bearberry and flowering raspberry. They are aggressive in the wrong place, but amazing in the right one.

With all the available new cultivars —ninebark, non-invasive goldenrods, Purple Dome and Vibrant Dome aster, Tiger’s Eye sumac, even an Ontario native Heuchera ‘Stainless Steel’ — adding the local gene pool to your garden is easy and, in fact, desirable. In some cases such as sandy soil, our local plants even allow you do that which is perceived as nearly impossible. We designed and installed a beautiful (if I do say so myself) cottage garden on pure sand in a very urban area of Toronto. Folks thought it couldn’t be done.

Even just finding room for a couple of drifts of ornamental natives would be better than nothing and more interesting than the common non-native palette. They also make the landscapes you design stand out from those of your colleagues, which is good for business. Better yet, they bring birds and butterflies to the garden, making you look like a magician!
Sean James is owner of an Ontario-based environmentally-conscious landscape design/build/maintenance company. In addition, he is an eco-consultant and a popular speaker.