I enjoy gardening but I don’t think I am a very skilful or successful gardener. Sometimes I am a lucky gardener but often I am a disappointed gardener. Most of my childhood memories of gardening are from spending summers on my Aunt’s farm – growing ‘practical’ plants – food for the family – mostly picking and preparing the produce. At home, decorative gardens were simply a few annuals stuck in the ground alongside the sidewalk or a small bed against the front of the house.
Through years of living in rented apartments and townhouses I continued to plant annuals in small flowerbeds and pots. They were pretty but not really exciting or interesting. I dreamed of some day owning a house where I could have a ‘real’ garden – one with perennials.
When I finally moved into my house the yard was dismal. Through years of neglect and indifference the previous owners had created a mix of overgrown weeds between patches a barren hard earth. My husband tilled the entire front yard – it is not a big space, only about 300 square feet. We spread yards of new soil, created a few small flower beds and put lawn seed in the remaining areas.
For the next five years I continued to plant bushes and perennials and I prayed for their survival. Every year I watched as the yard sucked the life out of almost every plant I placed there. Some of the perennials attempted to hold on for a year or two but the collection of empty nursery pots was the only thing that grew. I was losing hope.
I gave up on the grass and chose to put gravel between the planting beds. I never really wanted a lawn anyway. Neighbours walking by would watch me picking out the weeds from the gravel and comment ‘That must be a lot of work’. Really it wasn’t. In fact, it was a lot easier than trying to get grass to grow and I never needed to mow the gravel. I had never needed to mow the dead grass either but the coloured gravel was prettier.
I persistently chose the hardy shade plants that garden centre staff assured me would be more likely to survive in my North facing yard and compete with the ancient elm trees on the boulevard. It was not the garden of my dreams but there were at least some patches of green between the areas of red and beige gravel. Mostly it was just a bunch of day lilies with a few other survivors.
Then I began to emphasise nature education in my childcare program. Trips to Fort Whyte Alive, Living Prairie Museum, Oak Hammock Marsh and the Transcona Community Bioreserve introduced me to native prairie plants.
I began to understand that many of the struggles that I had faced with my front yard were a result of trying to grow the wrong plants. I had considered myself to be a somewhat lazy gardener but suddenly I realized that my gardening philosophy was very similar to my childcare philosophy. I don’t compel children to follow a rigid curriculum and I don’t like to coerce plants to grow where they don’t belong. For both plants and children I want to create the right environment for them and allow them to grow and develop naturally.
Over the past few years I’ve observed the children and the native plants we have in the back yard. I’ve watched the children stomp on plants as they make their first unsteady ascent up the hill. I’ve seen the children bend and break the plants as they analyze its structure. I’ve also witnessed the plants stubbornly push their way through the pile of gravel that was dumped on them. Those plants are survivors. Together they thrive.
Last year I began making plans — this spring my front yard will be overhauled. I’ve ordered my plants from Prairie Flora and soon the work will begin. Stay tuned….