Thursday, April 13, 2017

Making the desert bloom

Vaccinium vitis-idaea
I can't remember which came first: the presentation at Douglas College on native plants, or the planned devastation of our lot. The devastation was a result of the demolition of a decrepit detached garage and the construction of a back deck/carport. When the machines were gone, the back yard was a mess of dirt and rocks. There was still lawn along the side of the house and in front.

The native plant presentation fascinated me. I had never been that much of a gardener, but now we had our own house and some virgin territory. The idea of creating a native plant habitat was very attractive. A garden that would be good for bees and other local fauna, that would not need to be watered, that would flourish (or not) on its own.

I can't find any photographs of the devastation, which would have been at the end of summer 2003. I know what I did to rehabilitate it. I thought about renting a Cat to level the area, but it's not that large and I decided to do it by hand.

The land naturally slopes toward the south corner. I dug out rocks and got creative with some of them. There was a bunch of blacktop from an old patio that did not get removed with the other demolition and construction debris. I ended up piling that in the sunny centre of the back yard, over which I shovelled some of the sandiest soil and arranged rocks to create a sort of rock garden area. We didn't have a ledge, so I made one, and covered up a bunch of sins while doing it (which someday will need to be atoned for).

Little by little, the place took shape. I found sources of native plants, I think starting with the annual sale at the Van Dusen Gardens. I created beds and paths around the rock garden. I planted trees and shrubs around the perimeter, some large shrubs near the back deck, and lots of smaller plants in between.

The earliest photos I have are from March 2005, by which time I had put in quite a few plants. That Vaccinium (the lingonberry in the top photo) did not thrive and is long gone. I don't even remember having chosen that one! The specimens all looked great to start with, but my experiments in placement did not always work. The soil is acidic, which these plants like, but it lacks clay. Thus it drains well but there are few spots that hold moisture for any length of time.

Ribes sanguinium
By that time I took photos, we had cleaned up the back yard, and I had removed the turf from along the side fence to create a bed for shrubbery. As you can see at the right, the Ribes sanguinium (red flowering currant) was already thriving. I believe that original is now gone, and the second that I planted nearby is the one that's there now.

Looking at the oldest photos, I notice how manicured everything looks. The garden was more like a garden when I started and less like a habitat. Over time, I determined that these plants aren't all that great about staying put in nice neat beds. I also determined over time that it's not a bad idea to let these plants find the best site for themselves.

It was a long, slow process to remove the turf from the rest of the lot. It's also the kind of thing that tends to alarm one's neighbours. There was not much conversion of lawn to flowers or food or both at the time. But I was inspired by front of the house of our neighbours (both in the horticultural trade), which was all garden, and I did not hear any objections to my efforts.

One more, from the middle of that summer, a Penstemon richardsonii that sadly is no longer with us:

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