COVER

Branching Out

A gardener’s learning curve Is steep and often slippery

Mary Janigan April 30 2001
COVER

Branching Out

A gardener’s learning curve Is steep and often slippery

Mary Janigan April 30 2001

Branching Out

COVER

A gardener’s learning curve Is steep and often slippery

Mary Janigan

In the beginning, in the spring of 1989, there were only forlorn remnants of once-splendid flower beds in the back garden of our new Toronto home. They were dotted with tufts of crabgrass, a few stray red tulips, stunted weeds and the scraggly shoots of aging shrubs. I didn’t know an annual from a perennial. But I knew that I longed to go out and play. And so began my oft-disastrous, occasionally ludicrous and always wonderfully comforting stint as an aspiring gardener.

That first pitiful year was the toughest. I didn’t know enough to create “drifts” or “clumps” of each perennial. So, during my forays to the nursery, I selected one of every plant that took my fancy, heedless of colour or height or light requirements or bloom time.

Shoved into the ground, each speck of foliage sat alone amid a large patch of unworked soil.

Most promptly died. Only one brave cluster of white bellflower survives today as a reminder of those days of flower folly.

Since then, the learning curve has been steep and often slippery. The next summer, landscape architect Sheila Murray designed the curving shape of the beds, turning the straight lines into graceful waves. She inserted good structural bones such as ever-green rhododendrons. And she tentatively offered a few precepts. “Maybe you might consider putting the tall ones at the back,” she once said, sadly contemplating a domineering spire of purple coneflowers.

Her main lesson, of course, was the importance of soil: I began

by spreading premixed bags of loam, peat moss and manure on the beds. Every year, I have added a little more. I cannibalized the kitchen, strewing coffee grounds around those acid-liking rhododendrons, burying banana peels for trace minerals and tucking garlic around the roses to deter pesky aphids. I studied gardening books and wandered through nurseries, struggling to understand how real gardeners managed to put gardens together.

There have been epiphanies. After years of scrawny disappointments, I stopped fighting the shade. I bought foamflower, Korean wax bells, goatsbeard and giant hostas such as “Krossa Regal” and “Frances Williams ’ and “Royal Standard.” Their frothy blooms and lush leaves have transformed those dismal patches. I finally realized that I prefer blue, purple and pale yellow flowers to any other colour. The red tulips were doomed. Any residual pink is increasingly resented—and probably endangered. Even more than flowers, I like the contrasting colours and shapes and textures of the leaves. Stick a silvery-grey Huntingdon artemisia beside a black bugbane. Plop a few spring and autumn-blooming anemones beside lacy cranesbill. And, as I should have discovered at the start, I now spread a two-inch layer of cedar mulch around sprouting plants each spring. It’s wretched work—but it eliminates most weeding for the rest of the summer.

There have been more mistakes. My garden is too cluttered with too many kinds of plants, all vying for the eye, all competing for space. It would be better to let a few artfully placed clumps unfold in peaceful splendour. There have been laughs: I have toppled down my ravine slope, emerging smeared with mud and surrounded by tiny gnats—just in time to meet new neighbours. There have been satisfactions: I finally figured out that apple mint was the only plant that could survive the rigours of dwelling beside an air conditioner. And there have been finds: by sheer luck, I once picked up hound’s tongue—a member of the Chinese forget-me-not family—and its brilliant blue flowers are now a spring highlight.

But, mostly, there have been joys. I sing aloud to classic Atlantic and Memphis soul on my Walkman while my neighbour shouts, “Keep your day job, babe.” I shuffle the plants into new lineups with such gleeful regularity that I can almost hear them hissing “murderess.” I rake and dig and weed until my muscles ache and my mind is free of gnawing worries. Sometimes, I just sit on the deck, watching the sunshine creep across the foliage, brushing the leaves to life. Gardening is not a hobby. It’s solace for the frazzled soul. E3