A lo­cal gar­den: From vi­sion to re­al­ity

How one wo­man built her own par­adise along the St. Lawrence

Ontario Gardener Magazine - - CONTENTS - Story and pho­tos by Mary Ann Van Berlo

The St. Lawrence River was al­ways spe­cial to Mary Ann Van Berlo. She has fond memories of driv­ing along High­way 2 as a child with her par­ents and two sib­lings to watch the ships move through the locks at Iro­quois, about an hour south of Ot­tawa, and then stop­ping for ice cream. When she saw a large river­side lot for sale near Mait­land in 2010, a vi­sion of a home on the St. Lawrence sur­rounded by gar­dens started to form.

Mary Ann started plan­ning and plant­ing im­me­di­ately after the pur­chase. After choos­ing a spot for the new house and de­ter­min­ing there was space on her 2.4 acre lot for some pre-con­struc­tion land­scap­ing, she im­me­di­ately set to work plant­ing. A num­ber of trees and shrubs she had grown from seed or cuttings were quickly put in place. Mary Ann planted some less com­mon trees and shrubs, sev­eral fruit trees along with some of her favourites such as 'Gold Rush’ dawn red­wood ( Me­tase­quoia glyp­tostroboides), kat­sura ( Cer­cidi­phyl­lum japon­icum), tri­colour beech ( Fa­gus syl­vat­ica ‘Tri­colour’), up­right Euro­pean horn­beam ( Carpi­nus be­tula ‘Fasti­giata’) and shrubs such as cor­nelian cherry ( Cor­nus mas), Wil­son’s mag­no­lia ( Mag­no­lia wilsonii), and Fothergilla ma­jor ‘Mount Airy’. Plant­ing these trees also planted an idea – one half of the prop­erty could be her ‘ar­bore­tum’ and the other half, around the house, could be home to her peren­nial gar­dens.

On the crest of the slope lead­ing to the shores of the river she in­stalled a large shrub bor­der. After plant­ing, she laid down card­board and news­pa­per, then added about 15 cm of wood chips to pre­vent weed growth.

One of the prop­erty’s most ap­peal­ing fea­tures was a stand of ma­ture oak trees along the water­front. In the fall of 2011, with house con­struc­tion slated for spring, Mary Ann set about di­vid­ing a large num­ber of ferns, heucheras and hostas from her old gar­den and planted them un­der the oaks.

By May 2012 the shovel had fi­nally hit the ground for her new home. The trans­plant spade also hit the ground at her old home, as she con­tin­ued to di­vide and pot more plants be­ing careful not to strip her flower beds too much. After trans­port­ing sev­eral car loads full of plants over the spring, a hold­ing area for ap­prox­i­mately 500 pots had to be cre­ated in an open area un­der the oak trees.

The move-in date was set for Septem­ber 29, 2012 but the out­side still looked like a con­struc­tion area. Fi­nally, on Oc­to­ber 25th top­soil started to ar­rive. It was a mo­men­tous day, at last her poor plants, hav­ing sur­vived the sum­mer in pots, would get a per­ma­nent home be­fore win­ter be­gan.

After much prepa­ra­tion, Mary Ann was able to level the soil, mark out the path­ways mak­ing sure the scale was re­al­is­tic for a large peren­nial gar­den while still leav­ing work­ing space for the front walk­way pavers that would be laid the next spring. She cre­ated ca­sual and me­an­der­ing paths that made ac­cess easy to all parts of the gar­den.

Plant place­ment

After de­ter­min­ing the ex­po­sure of the site and di­vid­ing her plants ac­cord­ingly, she fol­lowed the rules of tall in the back (or mid­dle if the bed is viewed from mul­ti­ple sides) and con­tin­u­ous bloom through­out the gar­den.

She dili­gently grouped her plants by genus and species — all bearded irises to­gether, all daylilies to­gether, etc., and then fur­ther ar­ranged each group by height be­fore be­gin­ning to plant. Trees were placed first, then shrubs and fi­nally the peren­ni­als. Plac­ing the peren­ni­als in ap­pro­pri­ate spots around the gar­den so that in June, their blooms would ap­pear through­out she con­tin­ued to plan her lay­out. Tak­ing a fi­nal look at where things

had been placed, their ar­range­ments and colour com­bi­na­tions she made some fi­nal tweak­ing and be­gan to dig.

By this time it was Novem­ber, the nights were cold, and there were morn­ings when the frost had to be chipped away to dig a hole for the now dor­mant plants and about 1000 bulbs. What a sight for peo­ple pass­ing by she thought: “The new neigh­bour is plant­ing dead things!!” It was Novem­ber 30th by the time she was done. Now it was a wait­ing game for spring to see if her labour had paid off.

Lessons learned

When spring ar­rived, each morn­ing’s walk around the yard was a jour­ney of joy and dis­cov­ery, as Mary Ann wel­comed back old friends — happy to see some of her sen­ti­men­tal favourites ap­pear.

Due to plant­ing very late in the sea­son and the stress from liv­ing in pots all sum­mer there were some ca­su­al­ties — per­haps 7 to 10 per cent. Her bulbs, planted and then ex­posed to well be­low freez­ing temps had a poor start but even­tu­ally bulked up over the next cou­ple of years.

The new gar­den was by no means com­plete; but then, a gar­den never is. More plant­ing and ‘hard­scap­ing’, took place through the sum­mer of 2013 bring­ing Mary Ann closer to her vi­sion. Three gar­den clubs were wel­comed for tours that year.

The fruits of her labour

Over the past three years the gar­dens have evolved: plants have ma­tured and be­come more es­tab­lished, new plants and thou­sands more bulbs have also been added. To im­prove the soil and sup­press weeds, she uses a mulch of wood chips. Upon view­ing the thriv­ing gar­den, Mary Ann is of­ten asked what fer­til­izer she uses — the an­swer is she doesn’t fer­til­ize. She im­proves the soil with or­ganic mat­ter and that’s it. The next ques­tion is usu­ally about whether she has an ir­ri­ga­tion sys­tem, which she does not. The hu­mus in the soil and the mulch helps hold in mois­ture quite well on its own.

While the gar­dens have been cer­ti­fied as both a Monarch Waysta­tion and a CWF Wildlife Habi­tat, that was not a spe­cific goal. To her, gar­dens and pol­li­na­tors go hand-in-hand — any gar­den needs to have a wide va­ri­ety of bloom from early spring to late fall. Bees are seen on the first blooms of the win­ter aconite, right through

to hard frost when the asters and hardy cy­cla­men fade away. Wa­ter and shel­ter for pol­li­na­tors are also part of the land­scape. No pes­ti­cides are used in the hopes of achiev­ing a bal­ance of ben­e­fi­cial in­sects to take care of the pests. All of these prac­tices make the gar­den more at­trac­tive to wildlife and pol­li­na­tors (if you build it, they will come). In the de­bate of ‘fall vs spring gar­den cleanup’, Mary Ann tends to only dead­head ag­gres­sive self­seed­ers, but tries to leave any­thing that is still flow­er­ing as long as the bees are still buzzing around. Even after a hard frost, she leaves many of the plants for win­ter in­ter­est and to catch snow for in­su­la­tion.

As a self-con­fessed plant col­lec­tor, she has many genuses of plants and it is hard to chose a favourite. Daylilies fea­ture promi­nently with about 375 named cul­ti­vars in­cor­po­rated into the front gar­den along with col­lec­tions of pe­onies, irises, core­op­sis, grasses and as­sorted other peren­ni­als. Hostas, ferns and heucheras form a tapestry in the back gar­den un­der the shade of ma­ture oaks. Mary Ann seeks the un­usual and of­ten pushes the zone limit.

In 2014 she was ap­proached by a lo­cal gar­den en­thu­si­ast who had the goal of es­tab­lish­ing a ‘gar­den trail’ in their County — a net­work of both pri­vate and pub­lic gar­dens that would open their gar­dens to vis­i­tors. In con­junc­tion with the United Coun­ties of Leeds and Grenville’s Eco­nomic Development Depart­ment, other

gar­dens were sourced, a brochure de­signed and a web­site developed. The trail opened in 2015 with nine gar­dens and will have 14 di­verse gar­dens this year on the 1000 Is­lands and Rideau Canal Gar­den Trail

Par­tic­i­pat­ing in the Gar­den Trail has meant ex­tra work (wel­com­ing 450 vis­i­tors to her gar­den last year), but it has been a very pos­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ence. Shar­ing her pas­sion with other gardeners is spe­cial, as they un­der­stand and ap­pre­ci­ate what has gone into the creation of this ‘ca­sual’ land­scape.

Be­sides ‘play­ing in her gar­den’, Mary Ann Van Berlo vol­un­teers (Pres­i­dent) with her lo­cal Hor­ti­cul­tural So­ci­ety and with Mas­ter Gardeners of Ot­tawa-Car­leton. She is also a mem­ber of the On­tario Daylily So­ci­ety as well as the Amer­i­can He­me­ro­cal­lis So­ci­ety. You’d be cor­rect in think­ing that gar­den­ing is a big part of her life.

A shady spot on the banks of the St Lawrence River pro­vides a serene sit­ting area un­der­neath the ma­ture oaks.

The empty lot that en­ticed Mary Ann in the fall of 2009.

Fi­nally, by Oc­to­ber 2012 she was lay­ing down the ground work.

Hostas that were di­vided and brought from her pre­vi­ous home.

The nurs­ery where Mary Ann kept plants for the sum­mer prior to plant­ing.

In April 2013, her ef­forts from the pre­vi­ous fall could be seen..

The gar­dens are cer­ti­fied as a Monarch Waysta­tion and a CWF Wildlife Habi­tat.

Mary Ann uses wood chip mulch to hold in the mois­ture.

There are over 375 named daylilies in the front gar­den.

View of the back of the house from the river.

The front yard be­came her peren­nial gar­den.

No fer­til­iz­ers are used, only or­ganic ma­te­ri­als.

Mary Ann seeks the un­usual and of­ten pushes the zone lim­its.

Trails, trails, trails me­an­der through­out her beau­ti­ful gar­den.

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