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Gardening Column
by Marjorie Harris
July 11, 1999

We've been hit with such a drought in Ontario that we're now beyond the usual Canadian obsession with weather. We're discussing how we must rethink our gardens, our plants and, most important, our watering habits. Unless I don't get around enough, I haven't noticed all that much watering going on anyway, certainly not in my neighbourhood.

I've seen three gardens recently that just amazed me. They prove that part of a nursery's job is to educate the public and, I'm proud to say, just how very well they do it. Xeriscaping, or water efficient gardens will be among the important gardens of the future. They are also low on maintenance as well as water and here are three places to look for inspiration.

The first is Sweet Grass Nursery on the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford, Ont. I don't know what I thought a native-plant nursery would look like but I wasn't prepared for such huge, gorgeous demonstration borders. Here in the baking sun, in heavy clay, or roadside type gravel, in boggy lowlands were borders of unsurpassed beauty.

We too often think of native plants as being weedy. But when they are used properly, as Nature intended, they make gardens that are an absolute knockout. And that's what Ken and Linda Parker have done at their home/nursery. The borders will change every week of course and when I was there it was the time for Penstemon digitalis to be strutting its elegant foxglove-like flowers; native cactuses, Opuntia spp, were in full flower in a new sand bed with superbly placed rocks; a dry shade meadow on the north side of the house was filled with the stringent yellow of lance-leaf coreopsis and bright orange of blanket flowers.

Every part of the 2 acres will eventually be filled with native plants growing in a variety of tough conditions to give homeowners an idea of what they can plant and where. The whole concept is brilliantly executed. By this week purple coneflower, prairie coneflower and a host of other prairie flowers will be peaking.

Mr. Parker is a wealth of information and knowledge and if he takes you on a tour you'll end up totally seduced by his enthusiasm. I have no room for any more plants. None whatsoever. Among my new plants are a native yew, Taxus canadensis (rare I'm told); yet another goldenrod, Solidago riddellii; more silver plants such as fringed sagebrush, Artemisia cana; and Four-wing saltbush, Atriplex canescens. A plant I'd never even heard of before called bundleflower, Desmanthus illinoensis, which as the most amazing foliage (rather like the edges have been cut with pinking shears) and white-pink balls shaped flower in August and September.

The other bit of inspiration is the xeriscape garden at Mason-Hogue Nursery in Uxbridge, Ont. The soil here is hopeless you'd think: all sand, little humus and relentless sun. Unwatered from its inception in September 1993 (best time to plant a xeriscape garden) there's a slope outside the house and all along a fence. Mason-Hogue couldn't design badly if she tried and here she's put drought-tolerant plant such as dianthus, helianthemums and penstemon in a glorious profusion. Right now lavenders, alliums and yuccas are making stunning borders.

Mason-Hogue and her son Jeff have also designed a water-efficient garden for the Durham region tucked in at the edge of a huge swathe of grass surrounding the area's public offices. In one corner there is this fabulous riot of magnificently co-ordinated colour. The examples include a cottage garden; slopes held back by a host of drought-tolerant plants; a formal herb garden and a rose hedge. It is all breathtaking.

I was excited bouncing around this place because it's all on a scale that anyone with any kind of a garden condition can get inspiration from. Whether it's dry shade or total sunshine, or a pokey place in cement, there's a really good plant list to go along with it.

The cottage garden is the most obvious just because it's so lovely. Except for watering-in when the plants were installed in spring of 1997, only Nature has watered since and, remember, we've been in a drought for the past year. No matter. The day I was there the following were in bloom: Salvia verticillata ‘Purple Rain', Dianthus deltoides ‘Flashing Light', and Nepeta ‘Dropmore Blue'.

The hedge of rugosa roses is growing in the worst of all circumstances: on a slope at the edge of the parking lot where salt will run off and the conditions are poor. They look great. All these gardens were alive with bees and butterflies. It really makes the huge grassy sward look dull, silent and lifeless.

Durham Region Water Efficient Garden: Rossland Rd and Garden St, Whitby, Ontario. 1-800-372-1103. Open all the time.

Call the nurseries first before visiting to get open days: Sweet Grass Nursery, R. R. #6, Hagersville, NOA 1H0, 519-445-4828; fax 445-4826

Mason-Hogue Nursery, 1520 Durham Rd #1, R. R.#4, Uxbridge, Ont L9P 1R4. Phone/fax: 905-649-3532.

Copyright Marjorie Harris, 1999 Marjorie Harris is Editor-in-Chief of Gardening Life; her most recent book is Pocket Gardening (HarperCollins). Visit her web site: www.marjorieharris.com

199 Albany Avenue, Toronto, Ont. M5R 3C7 florana@interlog.com fax: 416-531-3774 phone: 531-3774 Marjorie Harris is working on a social history of native plants of Canada and the United States. this is the end

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