Oh, Canada!

Sunday, 21 July 2019

Paeony, Les Jardins de Metis/Reford Gardens, Grand Metis, Canada

My original ideas about gardens were shaped partly by the storybooks I read as a child and teenager. English and Canadian authors were favourites, describing cottage gardens filled with pretty cold-climate flowers, and woodlands smothered in delicate blooms. When I began creating my own garden in the 1980s, I travelled to England for an extensive garden crawl to study what to do. As I have mentioned a few times in this blog over the years, the garden of my dreams never materialised, despite my best efforts of trying to cosset at home in Sydney all the gorgeous plants I saw on that trip. It took a number of years for me to understand that climate and geography have the final say in whether or not plants will thrive.

Dogwood, Cornus species, Halifax Public Gardens, Halifax, Canada

I eventually accepted this reality and turned my efforts towards finding plants that truly enjoy growing in Sydney's climate of mild winters and hot, humid summers. I do try to combine these plants to emulate in some small way the profusion and colour of those sublime herbaceous borders I saw in the English summer of 1987, so all my research wasn't completely wasted! And failures do teach some important lessons!

Allium aflatunense, Les Quatre Vents, La Malbaie, Canada

However, in the process, I completely lost interest in cold-climate plants. Since I couldn't grow them, why should I want to even look at them? (Sour grapes, I know!) Yet on our recent trip to Canada, we did visit a couple of gardens that were nearby where we were travelling. To my delight, I found that I can now truly enjoy just looking and admiring the plants in cold-climate gardens, and rejoice in their ethereal beauty, as they flourish in their rightful place. Once more I was gazing on plants whose names I once knew off my heart, and had sought far and wide, even trying to grow many of them from seed.

Cornus canadensis

A huge proportion of Canada is forest, and when walking along trails through the trees, which include spruces, firs, maples, balsam poplars and birches, shade-loving native wildflowers can be seen amongst the ferns from spring to early summer, including wild lily of the valley (Maianthemum canadensis), anemone (Anemone canadensis) along with local species of violets, Polygonatum Dicentra and Trillium. Most of these had finished flowering when we arrived in mid-June, but the so-called bunch berry or pigeon berry (Cornus canadensis) was in full bloom, in vast sheets between the trees, giving an idea of how glorious it must all look when they are all out.

Blue poppy, Les Jardins de Metis/Reford Gardens, Grand Metis, Canada

In the two gardens we visited on the St Lawrence River in Quebec Province, shaded woodland areas had impressive plantings of cold-climate treasures from other parts of the world too, growing in enormous clumps. Possibly the most ubiquitous plant was the Hosta. I have never seen such robust specimens, sometimes clumps a metre across. Ditto Pulmonaria, Brunnera, perennial Primula, lily of the valley (Convallaria), Astilbe, Dicentra spectabilis and the most exquisite of all, the blue poppy, all growing vigorously!

Crabapples and irises, Les Jardins de Metis/Reford Gardens, Grand Metis, Canada

In sunny areas of these gardens, other superb perennials flourished. Luscious peonies that seemed almost unreal in their perfection; towering fluffy white foxtail lilies (Eremurus himalaicus); massive stands of bold purple Allium; and so many different species of Iris, putting to shame the pathetic display of tall bearded Iris in my own garden. Species roses, such as rugosa roses, were thriving, and just coming into bloom. I realised once again that there is definitely something almost other-worldly in the beauty of cold-climate flowers. I totally understood how I had once upon a time been in their thrall, yet I no longer felt I had to possess them.

Lilacs near La Malbaie, Canada

The flowering shrubs in bloom in the gardens were also a joy. The stars of late June and early July were the crab-apples (apparently late this year due to a long winter), Kolkwitzia, rhododendrons, dogwoods and lilacs. The lilacs! I have never seen or smelled so many lilacs of so many hues. Nearby one of the gardens was a whole village (Cap-a-l'aigle) filled with lilacs, because all the locals swapped cuttings with each other over the years and a lilac enthusiast had donated 200 different cultivars for a park in the middle of the village.

I was intrigued to see that a number of shrubs growing in Canada that hail from China, growing brilliantly in the gardens, are ones we too can grow in Sydney: Deutzia, Spiraea species, Weigela, Viburnum macrocephalum, Buddleja and Philadelphus, making me feel in awe of the adaptability these plants.

Eremurus himalaicus, Les Quatre Vents, La Malbaie, Canada

Wandering through the gardens and simply revelling in the beauty of the flowers reminded me of why we gardeners love our hobby. Seeing plants look so right in a climate that was to their liking was uplifting. Canada has a growing season that generally runs from April to October. During that time, growth is fast and furious, assisted by lengthy hours of daylight. Plants must be able to withstand temperatures that can sometimes plunge to -40 degrees Celsius and several feet of snow in winter. I simply cannot imagine what it is like to garden in such a climate. Our own challenges in Sydney seem trivial in comparison!