Since I was about 17 years old I wanted to live outside the city—far outside, on a homestead with a few wild acres of my own. For a variety of reasons, circumstances did not allow for that, so I developed an urban “wild” instead.
At the time I was studying Horticulture and Landscape Gardening, trying to make a career for myself, but I soon came to realize that much of what I was being taught was counter to the goals I was trying to achieve. While inspired by a variety of garden styles, I wanted a personalized space that mimicked a natural environment — the planting full and intertwined and requiring less maintenance than a typical urban yard. I wanted to rid the yard of useless lawn, and replace it with a full garden that encouraged biodiversity. I wanted more bugs, birds, and other critters to be part of our garden. I wanted our garden to reflect the person– eclectic, eccentric and, yes, and like my thinking, sometimes unkempt. I wanted a space that I could retreat into. However, much of what they teach in gardening and landscaping is about conformity, order and control.
Naturalistic gardening – is an idea I first examined in my last year of horticulture studies. It was born out of frustration with the sterility of the yards in the surrounding neighbourhood and throughout our city. Typical front gardens were lawn and a spruce tree, lawn and a birch tree, lawn and a mountain ash tree… or often, just lawn. Foundation planting was the norm: cedars and junipers, (and sometimes even the ubiquitous spruce or pine) crammed tight against walls, blocking windows, covering paths. Flowers were almost always annuals, also planted along the foundation or in a ring around a tree trunk. The bolder gardener would line the front-door walk with pelargoniums or petunias. Or, more practically, potatoes…
During our first years of homeownership, we were mostly concerned with paying the mortgage and maintaining the house, and my only environmentally friendly garden acts were the use of a reel-type push-mower and the use of compost bins. Our front and backyards were typical and dissatisfying – we had a large spruce tree in the front edged with a cotoneaster hedge, and in the back was another spruce, tucked against the west side of the garage, with a row of three Nanking cherries and the rest all lawn.
Why is all this land devoted to a monoculture of lawns? Why own a home with land at all if it was just a weekly chore requiring regular mowing and irrigation, with the required fertilizing, pest and weed control, aeration and de-thatching that a “healthy” lawn demands? There seemed to be no actual use for the lawn. Children rarely, if ever, used the front lawn, as most play happened in the backyard. Lawns added nothing to the character of the neighbourhood, except a uniform dullness. Worst of all, it did nothing for the environment and the natural areas these homes had displaced.
It also brought up a larger question. Homeownership seems to be the goal of many young Canadians, yet so little was actually done with the land to justify the purchase. Why was there so little character in the homes and gardens around us? Why this conformity? “Little boxes… made of ticky-tacky, and they all look the same.” Certainly, the affordability benefits of package housing make that understandable, but surely the garden and landscaping could be more of a zone for affordable self-expression, an area that lets more nature in?
I have been a nature lover since a child. Owning a home and a small piece of land was a chance to express myself as never before. What I had learned through my studies and wide reading outside of conventional Canadian horticulture, I now began to put into effect. I planned the backyard first. The space was to include a maximum of trees, shrubs and perennials and a minimum of lawn. A pond was essential, as well as more compost bins, rain reservoirs and an area for growing vegetables. In 1996, with encouragement and a great deal of help from my wife, we pulled the plan into three dimensions. A few years later we started in the front garden, with an even more radical approach — all the lawn was removed to be replaced by a mixed shrubby border containing a central meadow-like perennial planting.
What would the neighbours think? And what was the end result? What has the garden become over the last quarter-century?
I realize that all the above may come across as somewhat sanctimonious and naive, but my intent was sincere. The best-laid plans of mice and men… I’ll share how my concept progressed, and what it has become, in future posts.