Calgary Horticultural Society: Let nature colour outside your lines 

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Recently, I’ve made profound changes to my oddly shaped 70-year-old property to create a more naturalized space. In the past, I let the yard be. I cut the grass, raced to garden centres on opening day, and then stalled out. If I had my fingers crossed, a few plants would get into the ground. Plus, I had a lot of weeds.

I wanted my property to look more natural, but I also wanted to be involved in it. As I’ve learned, gardening is more than just buying plants and following the directions on the tag.

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My journey has integrated gardening craft, an evolving esthetic, and an abiding love of our wilderness. That’s led to adding native plants to my yard – easier said than done.

As an artist, I realized I could create the frame, but it really was up to nature to fill it in. I had to ask myself, was I aspiring to Claude Monet’s luminous impressions, John Constable’s bucolic peacefulness, or the Group of Seven’s showcasing of the Canadian landscape?  Looking at the art world, and seeing the new trends in gardening strengthened my conviction that my yard was for critters first, not people. It’s gloriously messy and dense throughout the seasons. A mass of plantings for whatever needs shelter, food, rest, overwintering, and quiet.

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Golden currant makes a nice display. Photo, Deborah Maier cal

It has taken a while to understand that I was creating a diverse ecology, a complexity of living components that make up the soil, the plants, the birds and creatures, and all the living beings relying on and contributing to its continuity. Adding more native plants is just one component. Understanding what happens below the soil, within or on the plants, and what comes by to have a nosh, some shade, protection, or a sip and dip in some water helps create an ecosystem.

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The change came through a slow-building crisis in my yard. You know that a couple of big spruces are ailing, you know that spruces love to come down in a windstorm, and you know that removing those spruces will take away your privacy, shade, and quiet. Ultimately, those trees had to be removed. I had no idea, until recently, what I was removing. I knew, abstractly, that there would be less shade and more groundwater. I did see a few birds flying away when the chainsaws came closer. But, what else?

In that opened space, I imagined a grove of trees, shrubs, and groundcover where the spruces had dominated and, later, a meadow of prairie perennials beside it.

The grove planning was a bit haphazard and an act of faith. Now, two native tree species are thriving: a quirky lodgepole pine (it is our provincial tree that grows everywhere) and the common, but amazing, trembling aspen. To fill it in, I added the unsung, easy-to-grow golden current with cascades of beautiful yellow flowers and tasty fruit.

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Monika Smith looked for inspiration on what to plant in her meadow area. Photo, Monika Smith cal

For the meadow, I used an actual site as inspiration. A roadside area leading to the Highwood Pass had at least 10 flowering species. This is a dry, windy stretch with no shade. The plants are growing on disturbed, hard-packed dirt used to make a highway. So, if those flowers can grow there, they can grow in my yard.

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Ken Fry, the well-known bug guy from Olds College, stated in a talk, “If you love butterflies, you have to feed the kids.” But, who likes chewed-up leaves? Then Doug Tallamay added to that thought. This renowned entomologist said that 96 per cent of terrestrial birds rear their young on insects, and caterpillars are a particularly important food source. Conclusion: no caterpillars, no chickadees. And caterpillars need the right trees.

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Put some thought into what you plant to attract birds and insects. Photo Deborah Maier cal

So, fellow bird lovers, seeds are not enough. While we now think about creating winter interest by leaving the stalks and seed heads, there’s a bird that might find one more seed to survive and that stalk might be harbouring something important well into spring.
This is another level of gardening to support an active ecology. It’s watching self-seeded fireweed grow into a tall, elegant plant full of amethyst flowers abuzz with bees. Then, as the season changes, watching as the big fluffy seed heads are captured by the wind and move on.

Let nature colour outside your lines! Don’t fight it; this makes naturalizing fun.

Monika Smith is writing for the Calgary Horticultural Society.

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