A local garden: From vision to reality
How one woman built her own paradise along the St. Lawrence
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.
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.
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.