On this day in particular, gentle fingers of morning sunshine were caressing the foliage of a number of plants that I instantly recognized as being some of my favourites. A stunning specimen of Cornus alternifolia, the native Pagoda Dogwood, not yet displaying its cloak of magnificent foliage, exposed its most infamous trait – the wonderful pagoda styled, near horizontal presentation of its dark brown, near ebony coloured branches! It was enough to stop me in my tracks. Most prevalent was a stunning stand of Picea abies [Norway Spruce] that lined the gently sloping drive. One often speaks of foundation plantings, and it became immediately evident that these majestic giants were the focal point of origin from which the gardens were born from.
Three years have eclipsed my initial introduction to Wayne and Joan, and since then I have been privileged to have made innumerous visits to this wonderful sanctuary of shade. I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Joan and Wayne, in the comfort of a blazing fire, while outside winter whistled and blew for no other reason than to assert it’s presence. As the newly installed editor of the local horticultural society’s newsletter, I was anxious to unveil what I anticipate to be a monthly feature that focuses on a particular member and their garden. For me there was only one place to start.
W: ‘I remember working in the garden with my Grandmother who was English, I would have been six or seven years old. I remember picking the potato bugs off of the plants, disposing of them in a container filled with powder. Toxic I am sure, but this was in the ‘40’s after all! Times were different then!’
J: ‘My first memories were different, they were less than positive. I distinctly remember doing an under planting of perennials in a ring around a tree on my Grandparent’s property, where I went to live when I was 5 or 6. I remember shortly thereafter returning to discover that they had been flattened when this same tree had been cut down. It was not a positive experience for me! The next, much happier experiences with gardening came when I was sixteen, and focused around the gardens of Wayne’s Grandparents. [This fact, in and of itself that Wayne and Joan have been together for fifty plus years is a testament to the longevity of the sanctity of marriage in a day and age when instant satisfaction and gratification rule the day!]
[Amongst their vast inventory of plants is a stunning planting of Phytolacca americana, also known as Pokeweed, with its fabulous spikes of white and pink flowers, followed by sumptuous, shiny purple black berries!]
Wayne and Joan spoke briefly of the fact that it was indoor gardening, inside of their first apartment, where they began to experiment with tropical plants including Sansevieria, Monstera, [including the split leaf Philodendron] and Oleander.
B: Is there a specific plant or genus that captured your attention/imagination during your early gardening days, and is/are [it/they] present in your gardens today?
W&J: As avid campers and canoeists, we were always captivated by the wildflowers that we noticed during our many trips which include Algonquin Park and the French River. The native ephemerals, Trillium, Arisaema [Jack-in-the-Pulpit] Cypripedium reginae [Showy Lady Slipper Orchid] and Erythronioum [Fawn lily, Dog tooth violet] have all captured our attention, and all reside within the shaded areas of the property, mainly in the shaded ‘Wild Garden’ a well protected pocket of shade that boasts wonderful compost and leaf enriched acidic soil – the minimum of requirements for successful cultivation of these very plants.’
Wayne and Joan are both advocates of the wonderful Fergus-Elora Cataract trail-ways that weave in and out of some of the most beautiful unmolested woodlands in the area, and Wayne has compiled a listing of 94 wildflowers present along the trails, using the Peterson Wildflower Guide as a template. Hopefully this tidbit will encourage more people to make use of this wonderful gift that nature has bestowed upon us!
The actual history of the gardens date back 37 years ago, when, captivated by the commanding presence of the stone house, Wayne and Joan purchased the property. Work commenced in returning the inside of the house to as close to its original layout as possible, and included a visit from a former tenant who assisted them on a somewhat daunting dream. A heritage designation, recognizing the property as the Manse of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian church in 1856, is but one its incarnations over the years. It had lastly been divided up into apartments, prior to Wayne and Joan purchasing it.
When they were able to focus their attentions to the outside of the property, they were careful to adhere to the existing topography [notably the stand of magnificent Picea abies] while incorporating a series of cascading levels to help break up what was otherwise a rather flat expanse of property. The results are nothing less than stunning, and have allowed for Wayne to partake in an art form that results in one of the strongest elements of the property: its stonework. Masonry in the form of stone walls help to accentuate the cascade of levels within the front property, while a handsome hand made wall accommodates a wonderful wrought iron gate that Wayne and Joan purchased from Five O Seven Antiques, a company owned by one of Wayne’s former students.
Artistry flows forth from the talented hands of Joan as well. An accomplished painter and sculptor, many of her artworks are lovingly displayed within the gardens. I remember being enchanted beyond words upon my initial discovery of a series of sculptures dispersed in a decidedly whimsical manner throughout the gardens. Immediately my mind leapt from plant materials to embarking upon an adventure: a light hearted game of hide-and-seek, determined to find out exactly how many of these lovingly handcrafted sculptures were present, and more importantly to tie them together cohesively to find out their underlying story. In total there are four pieces, each depicting a different body pose: crouching, sitting, lying down and reaching, and each one includes a brilliant red bird within its composition.
While starting off thirty years ago, with ‘little experience,’ both are more than happy to share some of the knowledge that has come their way over the ensuing years:
‘It wasn’t until we did a tour of the great gardens of England in ‘87, did we realize that there was something evidently wrong with our borders. We discovered that the scale was all wrong. When we looked at the house, and the size of the property, it was evident that we needed to increase the depth of the borders!’ Joan is quick to speak up: ‘Imagine doubling the size and suddenly having to find the plants to fill them!’ [Sheer orchestral maneuvers in this gardener’s mind!]
Both are advocates to what I refer to as the ‘Beth Chatto’ gardening philosophy which is essentially, ‘Right Plant, Right Place!’ Joan is the first to admit that she places rather stiff demands upon the plants that make up the garden’s repertoire. As such, she is an adamant proponent in ensuring that in return, she provides the plants with the utmost in essential elements to ensure their success. I am hesitant to comment that from this specific perspective, I probably fit into a niche, albeit somewhat uncomfortably, at the opposite end of the spectrum. Ever aware of their surroundings, Wayne graciously alludes to the fact that Joan has also dabbled with pushing the boundaries! An awkward moment dissolves before my eyes!
‘Its amazing when you start to play around with the amount of sunlight and shade that plants are able to tolerate. You can still get an impressive amount of bloom with little sunlight. Its a different situation with soil requirements. Most are very specific in their ‘demands.’ And its true, especially where the shade loving native plants that make up a large part of the ‘Wild Garden’ are concerned. Maintaining the optimum level of acidity often involves near constant amendments being added to existing soil. This is where the complexity of their composting station comes into play. There is a wonderful quotation that both Wayne and Joan use that sums up their dedication to the gardens and more importantly their personal gardening practices: ‘Everything that comes out of the garden, goes back into the garden!’ Their black gold, the ultimate byproduct of a complex series of decomposition and screening, is perhaps the essential element that ensures their garden’s success.
Joan willingly admits that she is the first to notice the ‘problem areas’ within the garden, always on the lookout for those pockets that require even the minutest of tweaking. The overall flow and presentation is very important to her. This carries over into the ‘criteria’ that she employs when selecting new plants:
‘They [the plants] have to look good all season long. From the moment that their foliage breaks through in the Spring, right through their bloom and deadheading stage, and up until they are cut down with the first serious frost of the season. I guess you could say I am pretty demanding of my plants!’ A slight twinkling in Wayne’s eye alludes to an underlying private joke, one that brings forth an illicit smile on my behalf – hopefully unnoticed by my gracious hosts!
Both are also very frugal gardeners, this evident from the humorous anecdote of filling their VW van with stones collected from surrounding areas, to the fact that both understand the importance of dividing their plants to ensure maximum growth. One overgrown Hosta can often result in three or four, one to give to a fellow gardener or as a donation to the annual plant sale, and two or three to fill in existing [‘we do not replace those plants that do not do well for us’] or new spaces within the property. Luckily for me, they are adding to, or creating new borders, especially in the front of their property, where, thanks in part to the magnificent stand of Norway Spruce, they are finding themselves cloaked in heavier shade. I consider it a wonderful privilege to be able to pass on the divisions of some of my most cherished rare and unusual shade selections. Imagine the thrill, last year of receiving an email from one of the ‘kids’ who had graduated and moved on to Hort.University!
Gardeners tend to gravitate towards one another, and for me there is no better way of meandering a day away than in the company of fellow self professed plant lovers and aficionados. Heartfelt thanks to Wayne and Joan, not only for the gracious ‘opening’ of their shaded sanctuary on innumerous occasions to fill [or at the very least, to assist in satiating!] this gardener’s desire to surround himself in the peace and tranquility of this shaded sanctuary, but for compiling a collection of some of their favourite photographs from their private collection to assist me in telling the story of this fascinating property.
Coming in April: Plantaholics Unite! The Gardens of Julie and George Kron.