Beyond beautifying the neighbourhood, beyond glossy magazine trendiness, beyond the elitism that sometimes goes with gardening; the garden itself, in most of its variations and conditions, has value. Gardens can be a retreat and a refuge, not just for the owners but for a variety of life, from plants to the feathered and the furred and the spineless. Gardens not only reflect and enlarge the minds of their creators, but they can also contribute to the community and the broader environment, and, at their best, serve as a physical and mental link to a wider and wilder world. As human populations expand and natural habitats become more and more encroached upon, the true value of gardens needs to be recognized, and their growth and expansion encouraged.
While there is little chance in my lifetime that people will come to appreciate an abandoned, weedy lot over a meticulously groomed lawn, it is important to understand that for wildlife, the abandoned lot has far more value than the almost sterile lawn. Now I am not suggesting we allow our home landscapes be allowed to run rampant! Society is not ready for that yet. However, it is possible to create naturalistic gardens that would have the same value as the abandoned lot in regards to the diversity that it can support. Gardens that matter welcome both wildlife (in all its forms) and humanity.
Perfection in the garden can often be counter-productive because expecting perfection in a garden is at odds with the natural basis of its existence. Perfect plants, crystal clear ponds, and perfect unchanging designs often come with the broad use of herbicides and pesticides and constant interference in the natural processes of plants. Besides, trying to achieve perfection in creative endeavours ignores the subjectivity that governs the appreciation of any creative act.
The root of a garden is in the living soil and photosynthesizing plants under the care and guidance of imperfect humans–all within an ever-changing environment. However, seeing gardens as essentially natural contrivances reflecting human creativity, while still connecting to a wider natural world does allow us to make some generalizations about some key features that all naturalistic gardens benefit from. So, within a framework of sound gardening practice, but still allowing for human creativity and imagination, I offer the following as a list of essentials for gardens that matter:
- a variety of plants–annuals, perennials, grasses, shrubs, and trees–mostly locally native if possible.
- limited areas of groomed lawn
- plant moisture requirements in tune with the local climate
- no bare soil (use plant ground covers and organic mulch)
- water access for all
- a pond
- logs, snags and woodpiles
- little or no pesticide or herbicide use
- space to sit and surfaces to socialize (but not too much)
- a willingness to accept a certain amount of natural disorder.
Whether or not we like it, gardens extend beyond their boundaries by affecting the air we breathe, and by serving as avenues for all sorts of life, so that even when walled they do not hinder those with wings, and even when covered they can’t halt incursions of invertebrates and the ebb and flow of micro life. The recognition that gardens are always part of a wider ‘natural’ environment, but still reflect the minds of their creators, is the key to the door that leads us to consider what best contributes to the making of a nature-friendly garden, a garden that truly matters.
(All photographs from our garden in Edmonton, Alberta)