A liv­ing lab­o­ra­tory

Ontario Gardener Magazine - - CONTENTS - Story and pho­tos by Sean James

Evolv­ing over the last 12 years, this gar­den has been a se­ries of ex­per­i­ments in eco-friendly beauty – a liv­ing lab­o­ra­tory and li­brary of plants and an­i­mals. The crew and de­sign­ers at Fern Ridge Land­scap­ing & Eco­con­sult­ing have been us­ing the gar­den to trial plants for ev­ery­thing from salt tol­er­ance to pol­li­na­tor sup­port. Sean James, the pro­gen­i­tor of the gar­den, is pas­sion­ate about en­sur­ing that beauty is a key part of ‘green’ de­signs. It’s been de­scribed as an “English cot­tage on steroids”. It’s not ev­ery­one’s gar­den, which is fine. Gar­den­ing is an art form as le­git­i­mate as paint­ing and sculp­ture. Good art should po­lar­ize view­ers.

Since the gar­den is the home and of­fice of a land­scape com­pany, it’s also used for de­sign in­spi­ra­tion. Gar­den de­sign­ers get some­thing akin to writer’s block. A walk in the gar­den re­laxes the mind and re­veals many com­bi­na­tions of plants. Dur­ing a stroll, ideas can spring up like seedlings. And, since the plants do well in the lo­cal soils, cus­tomers can be as­sured that plant choices will thrive in their gar­den. It’s not just beau­ti­ful – it’s prac­ti­cal.

The gar­den is also used as stock for up­com­ing land­scape pro­jects, fo­cus­ing on hard-to-find na­tive species and other rare peren­ni­als, help­ing pay for its own up­keep. Cus­tomers can come and stroll through to see what sorts of plants they grav­i­tate to­wards and even check out the low-volt­age light­ing – also an art form worth in­vest­ing in.

Ed­i­ble de­lights

Graz­ing through the gar­den is a favourite past time for em­ploy­ees. The prop­erty came with sev­eral fruit trees, grape vines, as­para­gus and more. Now, with their new ad­di­tions, even more ed­i­bles are dot­ted through­out the gar­den, but they are not rel­e­gated to a re­mote cor­ner like a pun­ished child. This en­sures a bet­ter preda­tor/prey bal­ance with lo­cal wildlife and in­sects. While many folks have colour­ful pots of an­nu­als by their front door, in this gar­den, toma­toes, beans and squash are given pride of place. Peo­ple for­get that many ed­i­bles are beau­ti­ful! Kale adds colour­ful tex­ture. Fruit trees have lovely spring flow­ers which also of­fer the al­limpor­tant early nec­tar for but­ter­flies

and bees. Toma­toes and squash have at­trac­tive fruit, flow­ers and fo­liage, as does egg­plant. The les­son for gar­dens is not to un­der­es­ti­mate the or­na­men­tal value of veg­gies.

Na­tive plants

Ev­ery­one has their own favourite as­pect about the gar­den. Ac­cord­ing to Mike Prong, the lead de­signer at Fern Ridge, “When tour­ing the Fern Ridge of­fice gar­dens, one thing, al­though not im­me­di­ately no­tice­able (which is by de­sign), is the abun­dant use of na­tive (and cul­ti­vars of na­tive) plants. The rea­son I find this par­tic­u­lar as­pect so in­trigu­ing is that there seems to be a gen­eral dis­po­si­tion that a na­tive plant­ing will look wild or weedy. This couldn't be fur­ther from the truth, and, as ev­i­denced in the Fern Ridge of­fice gar­dens, na­tive plant­ings can blend seam­lessly with "tra­di­tional" styles of land­scap­ing.”


One of the foci of the gar­den is to sup­port bio­di­ver­sity. It’s not just for eth­i­cal rea­sons. At­tract­ing birds to the gar­den with shel­ter and food means that birds will eat the bugs. The gar­den has never had pest is­sues get out of con­trol and it’s all taken care of by na­ture. Monar­chs and bees need all the help they can get right now and the big patch of milk­weed helps tremen­dously. Adding pol­li­na­tor habi­tat helps too, since many of the pol­li­na­tors such as wasps and hov­er­flies are ex­cel­lent preda­tors. Leav­ing the gar­den stand­ing through the win­ter en­sures a good pop­u­la­tion of preda­tor in­sects and spi­ders. When the

pre­vi­ous year’s growth is cut down in the spring, it’s set on the grass on the boule­vard, mulched with a bat­tery­pow­ered mower (the com­pany is Bull­frog Pow­ered so even the elec­tric­ity is green!) and put di­rectly back on the gar­den as mulch.

Rain­scap­ing is a huge part of the land­scape with all the paths be­ing per­me­able and cov­er­ing in­fil­tra­tion trenches (glo­ri­fied French wells), along with rain bar­rels, and drought-tol­er­ant plant­ings. The park­ing pad has been ex­panded to in­clude an in­fil­tra­tion zone and wa­ter that runs off the old asphalt drive is chan­neled, via a grate across the end of the drive, into a rain gar­den. The front yard fea­tures an evap­o­ra­tion pond, de­signed, first, to be beau­ti­ful and sec­ond, to clean and hold rain­wa­ter chan­neled off the roof. It evap­o­rates away an im­pres­sive inch per day. It’s a rare rain­drop that es­capes this gar­den.

The gar­den is de­signed to be light­hearted and fun – to pro­voke joy and re­lax­ation, and to push the bound­aries of artis­tic com­fort; all the while help­ing our beau­ti­ful planet Earth.

Sean James is a grad­u­ate of the Ni­a­gara Parks School of Hor­ti­cul­ture and owner of Fern Ridge Land­scap­ing & Eco-con­sult­ing. He’s been speak­ing pub­licly and writ­ing about eco-gar­den­ing is­sues since the early 90’s. He’s also the Chair of Land­scape On­tario’s En­vi­ron­men­tal Stew­ard­ship Com­mit­tee and sev­eral other eco-com­mit­tees.

Tol­er­at­ing clay, sand and salt, the low-main­te­nance duo of anise-hys­sop and cone­flower of­fers ev­ery­thing – blooms for half the sum­mer, great win­ter in­ter­est and feed both birds and pol­li­na­tors... you can’t ask for more than that! .

Adding an­nu­als like coleus in planters means wa­ter can be se­lec­tively ap­plied to give a trop­i­cal feel while heart-leaf aster and pur­ple cone­flow­ers are the work­horses. You don’t need to sac­ri­fice beauty to sup­port bio­di­ver­sity.

Many folks think the gar­den is done af­ter July. It doesn’t need to be that way. Visit gar­den cen­tres through­out the sea­son and buy what suits your soil and light ex­po­sure to en­sure beauty year­round.

In a coun­try where win­ter lasts half the year, adding low-volt­age light­ing can dou­ble the hours of gar­den en­joy­ment.

This On­tario na­tive pale cone­flower – is a very del­i­cate flower which com­pli­ments more showy plants like daylilies per­fectly. Echi­nacea ‘Raza­matazz’, ver­bas­cum thap­sus and platy­codon.

Gar­den­ing is an art as le­git­i­mate as sculp­ture, paint­ing and mu­sic. It is not just push­ing wheel­bar­rows and dig­ging holes. It’s also one of the best in­vest­ments one can make in their prop­erty.

This English-cot­tage-on-steroids gar­den re­quires lit­tle wa­ter and sup­ports a va­ri­ety of life, pro­vid­ing in­spi­ra­tion for the land­scape de­sign­ers who work here and passers-by alike.

There are species in our world that need our help and our gar­dens are a great way to of­fer that help.

Plants don’t all have to be na­tive to do good. The white-flow­ered, na­tive big-leaf aster is great for dry shade as are va­ri­eties of non-na­tive monks­hood and both are great for pol­li­na­tors.

At­tract­ing birds to the gar­den helps con­trol pests and adds beauty.

De­sign­ing in vi­gnettes: Iris siber­ica ‘Ruf­fled Vi­o­let’, nepeta mussini and Al­lium gi­gan­teum, each comes in and out of bloom con­sec­u­tively through­out the sea­son, en­sur­ing the gar­den al­ways looks great.

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