Gardening outside the box
Carol Carlson has a crystal chandelier for a night light in her carport. There’s an iron hay bale holder that serves as an arbour, and a weathered trunk overflows with flowers in the front yard. Her Niakwa Park garden in southeast Winnipeg is no ordinary patch of suburbia, but then, Carol Carlson is no ordinary gardener. She embraces a green thumb philosophy that mixes imagination with can-do determination, allowing her to garden outside the box. “My inspiration comes from other people,” she muses. “I live and learn.”
Learning began with Charleswood living and a backyard that included a swimming pool. “I wanted it to look nice,” she says, “so I grew buckets.” Soon she was tagging along with a friend to the local greenhouses, and by the time the Carlsons moved to Pawnee Bay, a truckload of perennials came with them, wintering at a neighbour’s house until the new yard was ready for Carol’s magic wand.
“When I first saw the property I knew right away what I wanted,” Carol says. “Most people have a beautiful back yard. You sit in your living room which looks out onto the street and you don’t see the back yard unless you’re outside. This house had big windows for sitting in and a good place to plant. I had the plants and we wanted to do the deck and other things in the back so the plants had to go in the front yard.”
The main bed is a swath of colour that sits like a tongue between the house and front street. Grass pathways connect it to a second large bed running parallel to the corner of the bay. At first glance, the plants look like they’ve been into the MiracleGro; they’re full and lush and tall. Textural plants such as the dramatic plum spikes of purple millet, and downy grey-green lobes of silver leaf sage, mix with crayon bright mari-
golds and yellow heliopsis. Prairie staples, like goldenrod and asters, are right at home with imports like kiwi vine and Japanese bamboo. There’s no three of this or five of that. Single plants hold court, including the elephant ear-shaped leaves of wild rhubarb and the crepe paper foliage of giant corn. Plume poppies and Jerusalem artichoke, normally back of the plot tenants, have been used as edging plants to force the eye to the centre of the bed. An old trunk filled with petunias and heliotrope seems to have fallen from some phantom stagecoach and a giant butter coloured daylily has surely landed from Mars.
There are plants whose name she doesn’t know, purchased from greenhouses she can’t remember. But that’s of little matter. She has a keen eye and courage and isn’t afraid to use both. This is a woman who washes her cucumbers in the dishwasher before she makes pickles. “I went through
my weed book and I have ten of what they call awful weeds, but I quite like them,” Carol says. “It’s a matter of keeping them under control and I tell people when I give them away what they’re in for. “
Even the soil, mounded like a mini berm, packs a visual surprise. “I didn’t want to dig out the grass, so we put newspaper on the grass, edged it and we’ve probably got 40 yards of soil in the front and back,” she says. “That’s why it’s so high.”
The garden in front of the house, often just a strip of shrubs, is a deep mixed border of smoke bush and Shasta daisies, Culver’s root and climbing Explorer roses. A woodland garden by the side of the house draws you to the back yard, masked from the street by a fence cut to look like a city skyline. A seven-foot hedge of cotoneaster runs the across the back of the property, providing a textured backdrop to more plantings. The bowl of an old cream separator spills over with hens and chicks and a wheelbarrow, long past its sell-by date, is chock-a-block with blue salvia and purple lobelia. It doesn’t look forced; it looks natural, as if some busy gardener forgot to plant the last of the annuals, which happily thrived in the wheelbarrow’s soil.
Regal Himalayan impatiens, clustered with orchid-like flowers, appear foreign and exotic, while an old chair rescued from garbage seems strangely at home. “I sit in it when I’m weeding back there,” says Carol.
She may be sitting but she’ll not be
resting. She’ll be cooking up some other garden idea, some new colour scheme or wildflower mix.
Six years ago she started Friends of Assiniboine Park Conservatory garden tours which are now an annual Winnipeg event. “We do it for ideas,” says Carol. “People like to look in other people’s yards.” There are 10 to 13 gardens available for viewing one Sunday in July. The tour fee provides funds for the Conservatory, allows gardeners to show off the flowers of their labour, and visitors to take home fresh ideas. An apple tree, newly espaliered against the Carlson back fence, was spawned from visiting a Japanese garden on one of the tours. “It’s not stealing but borrowing for the purpose of betterment,” suggests Carol.
She’s just as willing to share her ideas and her plants. “No one should ever throw away a perennial,” she says. “I don’t care if you have 500 bachelor buttons . . . pot ‘em up . . . someone will want them.” She keeps a notebook of who fancies what and if there’s a plant she no longer needs, she’ll dig it out right away, divide it into smaller pots and have them ready for giveaways.
The Carlson garden is only two years old but Carol is already on a transplanting mission. She has begun an ABC garden containing plants that begin with every letter of the alphabet, and a purple, orange and white garden is taking shape at the back of the house. The carport is full of treasures waiting for reincarnation and ten yards of soil sit next to the fence. Should you do a midnight drive-by, she’ll be the gardener working by the streetlight, pairing the calendula with a cactus, slipping dandelions into a border or liberating the newspapers from the neighbour’s Blue Box.
A backyard planting of lobelia, blue salvia and pink salipiglossis in old wheel barrow.
Part of the backyard vegetable garden, with tomatoes, an obelisk and assorted flowers.
The jewel-like tones of annual salipiglossis.
Celebrating our 20 years!
Begonia, prettier than a picture, with phlox in the background.
Exuberant growth, with Carol’s trademark layering: looking out over the street are Veronica, delphinium, Maltese cross, plumed poppy, rudbeckia, among others.
Filipendula, lilies, monarda, spurge, layered on a steeply rising bed in front.
A yarrow plant.
In Carol Carlson’s eclectic, lush, eye-catching yard, the big garden is out front. In view here are rudbeckia, lilies, nepeta and much, much more.
Here, a pot brimming with hens and chicks replaces the seat on an old chair.
Lily, monarda and spurge.
Hens and chicks are tucked into a pottery head in front garden.
Filipendula has extra height thanks to banked garden bed.
A hay bale rack has become a striking arch between the perennial border around the house and the border near the front street.
A tractor seat makes an interesting container.
A gaillardia mix.