A quick review of my bookshelf will stand as a record of obsessions that have gripped me in the course of my gardening life. In the beginning, my first garden in the UK was on impervious Hampshire clay. This did not deter me from a love affair with heaths and heathers, and in 1975 I purchased ‘Heathers in Colour’ by Brian and Valerie Proudly (published by Blandford Press). After having learned the hard way that only Erica carnea would flourish on my lime-infused clay soil, this passion soon fizzled out. The following year, enthused by pictures of dwarf conifers in gardening magazines, I purchased ‘Garden Conifers in Colour’ by the same authors. This was a more successful obsession, and I added ‘Ornamental Conifers’ by Charles R. Harrison (published by David & Charles) to my bookshelf. At about this time I discovered the wonderful ‘Hillier’s Manual of Trees and Shrubs’ produced by the Hampshire nursery of Hillier and Sons. So indispensable did this Manual prove, with its huge number of species and cultivars, useful lists of plants for various purposes, and metric/imperial measurement conversion tables that I still possess both the fourth and sixth editions.
Around 1978, I discovered fuchsias. Again I turned to Brian and Valerie Proudly, whose ‘Fuchsias in Colour’ answered my search for knowledge. I now began to concentrate on indoor plants in earnest. Previously, I had only possessed two slim volumes by John Warren entitled ‘House Plants’ and ‘Greenhouse Plants’ in the Ilford Color Book of Flower Identification series. Now I purchased ‘The Complete Indoor Gardener’, a collaborative tome published by Pan Books, and someone gave me ‘The Love of Indoor Plants’ by Lovell Benjamin, a coffee-table book (published by Octopus Books Limited) with huge colour plates. During a brief fling with ferns in 1979 I bought ‘Fern Growers Manual’ by Barbara Joe Hoshizaki (published by Alfred J. Knopf) and ‘Terrariums & Miniature Gardens’ by Dawn Bunce (published by Ure Smith of Sydney, Australia).
I was still learning about outdoor plants too, and in the late 1970’s I added to my bookshelf ‘The Dictionary of Garden Plants in colour’ and ‘The Dictionary of Shrubs in colour’ (both published by the Royal Horticultural Society), and Reader’s Digest’s weighty ‘Encyclopaedia of Garden Plants and Flowers’. I also bought ‘Perennial Garden Plants’ and ‘Plants for Ground-cover’ by Graham Stuart Thomas (published by J.M. Dent and Sons) and developed a fondness for hardy perennials.
Aware that I should be arranging my plants in some kind of aesthetically pleasing order, I purchased ‘Garden Design’ by Kenneth Midgley (published by Pelham Books in conjunction with the RHS), and forever after ignored all its good practical advice on planning and site preparation. More to my taste was ‘Colour Schemes for the Flower Garden’ by Gertrude Jekyll (published by Country Life), a sixth edition of which I unearthed in a used-book store. I became ever more enthusiastic about the artistic side of gardening, and so I appreciated getting a copy of ‘The Startling Jungle: Colour and Scent in the Romantic Garden’ by Stephen Lacey (Viking) a few years later.
The 1980’s brought an abrupt change to my gardening parameters, as I exchanged the gentle climate of southern England for the (to me) shockingly hot summers and punishingly cold winters of Ontario, Canada. A sudden interest in plants adapted to extremes caused me to add Will Ingwersen’s ‘Alpine Garden Plants’ (Blandford Press) to my library. Then, inexplicably, I became so interested in New Zealand alpine plants that I purchased ‘Hebes and Parahebes’ by Douglas Chalk (Timber Press). Several ‘whipcord’ hebes and miniature hebes with small, glaucous leaves perished horribly before I came to my senses.
One thing had not changed: I was still gardening on clay. Roses now began to obsess me. I obtained four booklets in the Jarrold Book of Roses series, with text by Peter Beales and photos by Keith Money, covering ‘Georgian & Regency Roses’, ‘Early Victorian Roses’, ‘Late Victorian Roses’, and ‘Edwardian Roses’. Graham Stuart Thomas’s three lovely rose books, ‘Shrub Roses of Today’, ‘The Old Shrub Roses’, and ‘Climbing Roses, Old and New’ (J.M. Dent) captivated me. Sadly, few of the roses that I coveted were hardy in my climate Zone, even if I buried them for winter.
In my enthusiasm for hardy woody plants, I bought Agriculture Canada’s ‘Trees and Shrubs of the Dominion Arboretum’, and embarked upon the ambitious project of obtaining all four volumes, plus fat supplement, of W. J. Bean’s ‘Trees and Shrubs Hardy in the British Isles’, eighth edition (published by John Murray). Michael A. Dirr’s ‘Manual of Woody Landscape Plants’ (Stipes Publishing) also entered my library.
The 1990’s brought another move, this time to southeast Pennsylvania, and for the first time I was confronted with the twin challenges of dry soil and voracious herbivores. I put woody plants aside to concentrate on perennials. Now I purchased ‘Perennials and their garden habitats’ by Richard Hansen and Friedrich Stahl (Timber Press) and began to select plants for my growing conditions instead of buying plants that had no hope of success. Also, ‘Herbaceous Perennial Plants’ by Allen Armitage (Varsity Press) provided information about North American cultivars, while the pictures of wild plants in Random House’s two-volume set of ‘Perennials’ by Roger Phillips and Martyn Rix helped me to understand where the plants were coming from.
Although I did not have a rock-garden any more, I was still keen on high-altitude plants, and I needed low-growing perennials capable of surviving in full sun on a windy hilltop. I supplemented my reference library with Will Ingwersen’s ‘Manual of Alpine Plants’ (Cassel), and ‘Rock Garden Plants’ by Baldassare Mineo (Timber Press). I bought ‘Gentians’ by Fritz Kohlein (Timber Press), but did not succeed in growing any. Gardening in USDA Zone 6, I became convinced that I could grow Mediterranean plants on the south side of my house, and bought UK National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens pamphlets on ‘Oreganum: the herb marjoram and its relatives’ by Susie White, and ‘Phlomis: the Neglected Genus’ by Jim Mann Taylor.
Ten years on, I moved back to Ontario, and I got my first greenhouse. I was suddenly gripped by an enthusiasm for growing small bulbs in pots. At that time I only owned ‘The Bulb Book’ by Martyn Rix & Roger Phillips (Pan Books), and an ancient Penguin Handbook ‘Hardy Bulbs 1’, and so I added to my library ‘Bulbs in Containers’ by Rod Leeds, and ‘Cyclamen’ by Christopher Grey-Wilson (both from Timber Press).
Then I was bitten by the hardy cactus bug. Several of my early cactus acquisitions languished and declined in the garden, despite being planted in gravel and given full sun. Planting the cacti in pots, so they could be overwintered in the greenhouse, was my next craze. I bought ‘Hardy Succulents’ by Gwen Moore Kelaidis (Storey Publishing) and ‘Cacti & Succulents for Cold Climates’ by Leo J. Chance (Timber Press), both of which provided excellent guidance.
I’m currently waiting for the next obsession to strike.
As a small child I spent a lot of time playing games of the imagination in my parents’ garden, but I took the garden itself for granted. I watched my parents toil in the garden, but took no part in the work myself. In my English family there was a strict division of labor: Mum grew flowers, Dad grew vegetables. I’m not sure how that came about. Dad knew botany from having studied to become a pharmacist, but his family had no gardening tradition and he taught himself from books how to grow fruits and vegetables, make compost, and keep the soil fertile. Mum came from a farming family, but she had no interest in growing anything not ornamental, and gardened according to folklore and country habits as she never read anything other than knitting patterns or recipes. She had a “green thumb” and could take cuttings and make them grow when science and logic (and my Dad) said it was impossible.
My latent horticultural desire surfaced when I was in my early teens. I withdrew 12 shillings and 6 pence from my piggy-bank and bought a little book called the ‘Amateur Gardening pocket book of Garden Flowers’ by J. S. Dakers, with 176 exquisitely-drawn colour illustrations by Cynthia Newsome-Taylor. I read the book from front to back, and while a few of the flowers were familiar – such as snapdragon, Canterbury bell, wallflower, and pansy – I was surprised to find that most of them were totally new to me. I hungered to grow something and begged parental permission to make a small flowerbed and sow some annuals in it. For my flower garden I bought packets of Nemesia, Clarkia, and Godetia seeds. Dad gave me some advice on sowing and let me get on with it, while Mum shook her head at the strange names on the seed packets. She offered me some of her wallflowers and pansies to cover the bare soil, but no, I was determined to do my own thing.
Gradually, seedlings appeared. I thinned them out, pinched them back, and supported with twigs as required. At last, they bloomed. We were all amazed at the blaze of colour and the beauty of the individual flowers. I felt an immense pleasure, and my fate was sealed. I would be a gardener for the rest of my life.
I’m taking a walk in the woods and as I cross the bridge over the stream I look down and see a small, brown, glass bottle beached on a sandbar. I scramble down into the streambed, wade across, and pick up the bottle. Then I look upstream and see something bright yellow in the water. Walking through the shallows, I soon reach the object. It’s a large, plastic, jug-like container. There’s no telling what it once contained, since immersion has removed its label, and if it held something toxic the substance is now in my pond, where unsuspecting herons, kingfishers, mergansers, and osprey are eating the contaminated fish. I remove the yellow container from the water and add it to a pile of similar objects awaiting proper disposal.
I used to think that littering and dumping was an urban problem. Since coming to live in the countryside, I have discovered the problem is universal. In the countryside, it seems there is a long-standing tradition of making your trash somebody else’s concern. Who wants to go to the trouble and expense of hauling hazardous waste to the county dump, or of buying a permit to put an extra bag of household waste at the kerb, when trash can so easily be thrown off the back of a pickup truck into the ditch or onto the side of the road? Or even better, into a ravine that abuts an uninhabited side-road, where out-of-sight is out-of-mind?
The ravine is in one of the farthest, most inaccessible parts of my property. When I eventually found a way up the brush-choked valley to the point where the stream ran close to the road, I beheld a horror. The precipitous slope between the road and the stream is covered in old tires, rusting barrels, construction waste, and ripped-open garbage bags. Down in the water are household appliances and fittings, paint cans, buckets, more garbage bags, and unidentifiable machine parts. This is the mother-lode. When the stream is running strongly in the spring thaw or after heavy rains, it picks up the lighter bits of trash and sends them on a journey, and then downstream I collect up the disposable cutlery, beer cans, light bulbs, and plastic bottles bobbing along in the water or caught up in snags. The contaminants leaching out of rusting barrels and open containers are unfortunately invisible and non-removable.
If you are in any doubt as to the impermanence of your garden, go away for a week during the growing season, and come back. If it has rained in your absence, there will be weeds everywhere. If it has not, there will be wilted plants. Go away for a month, and you might not recognize your garden when you return. If you sell your house, don’t go back a year later to see how the garden is doing.
My first house, in England, was purchased by a couple as somewhere for their student son to live and rent out rooms to other students while he attended the nearby University. I have no doubt that the small garden, which I had filled with little treasures, soon became a tangle of bindweed and beer bottles.
The next house, in suburban Toronto, had a bigger lot. After adjusting my horticultural expectations to the climate, I spent ten years transforming two blank squares of grass and some indifferent foundation planting into my best imitation of an English garden containing assorted alpines, perennials, shrubs, trees, stone retaining walls, and curving lawns. When the “For Sale” sign went up, total strangers began dropping by, telling me they had admired my flowers from afar, and asking if could I possibly give them a bit of this, that, and the other. I was kept busy digging and potting things to give away, and I worried that all the holes in the flowerbeds might put off potential buyers.
I should not have been concerned. A bidding war ensued between a builder who wanted to raze my lot to put up a “monster home”, first-time-buyers who had never gardened in their lives, and a Chinese family fleeing from Hong Kong who, if they had gardened before, would have been growing tropical plants. The Chinese won. I took them on a tour of the garden and pointed out all the plants of Chinese origin - Rosa hugonis, Miscanthus giganteus, Rubus cockburnianus, Hydrangea heteromalla ‘Bretschneideri’, various Magnolias, and so on – but I could tell they were sizing-up the back yard for a vegetable plot.
I moved to south-east Pennsylvania. My garden there, while in a warmer climate zone than Toronto, suffered from the depredations of deer, rabbits, and groundhogs. Ten years later, by trial and error and with the marvel of nearby Longwood Gardens to give me encouragement, I had accomplished the near-impossible and was growing a wide range of ornamentals in three large island flowerbeds plus some smaller beds near the house. Once again, it was time to move. The buyers agreed to do their best to maintain the former swimming pool that was now a lily-pond full of goldfish, and although they were moving from Florida they had previously lived in a cold climate zone, and so I crossed my fingers that the garden would be in good hands. That was before the house inspection and the report on the state of the septic system. It turned out that (a) I had constructed a flowerbed on top of the drain field, (b) the drain field was on its last legs and needed to be replaced, (c) the only area available for the new drain field was where another flowerbed was situated, and (d) the sewer pipe from the house to the new drain field would go straight through the middle of the remaining flowerbed. We mercifully moved before construction began.
Now I’m gardening in Ontario again. We’re north of Toronto and at a higher elevation, so it’s colder, but there are fewer deer than in PA. Since we’re out in the countryside there’s a constant bombardment of airborne seeds such as dandelion, thistles, golden rod, aster, milkweed, plus all the grass, tree, and vine seeds dropped by birds and small mammals, and so weeding is a full-time occupation. I estimate that my now ten-year-old garden would last just a couple of months before reverting to pasture and forest.
When retirement time arrived, hubby and I decided we wanted to live out of town and be surrounded by nature. We moved to a small house on a big property that included a wooded valley, a wetland, and a large, stream-fed fish pond. My dear spouse insists on mowing large areas of grass, going right up to the pond’s edge in several places, and in doing so creates an ideal environment for Canada geese: short grass, with lots of new growth, and excellent sight-lines for spotting predators a long way off.
My previous experience of Canada geese was minimal, but negative. I knew they could be aggressive, and that after having spent all hours of the day eating grass they would deposit green “butter” everywhere. So I was not terribly thrilled to see the pairs of geese arrive that first spring. With time, however, I have come to terms with their presence. They arrive surprisingly early. With snow still lying in the shade and the pond only partially ice-free, each goose couple picks out a nesting site close to the water, and defends it from all comers. Every evening they fly away, and every morning they fly back again for nest-site defence duty.
After the pond ice melts, the couples stay overnight and disport on the water. Males go into hyper-testosterone mode, attacking each other while the females passively ignore the ruckus. Some couples seem totally devoted, while others break up before starting a family. It’s a sad thing to see a dejected male goose, calling forlornly for a female who has taken off and isn’t coming back. And he’d better not cast an eye on any of the ladies who are spoken-for, or there will be trouble.
Then the pond suddenly empties of females as they all start sitting on eggs. The males lurk, watching for predators, but trying not to give away the location of the nest. The weeks pass. Some nests are predated by raccoons and coyotes. Nests too close to the waterline are inundated by flood-water. The atmosphere is strained. At last, one morning a pair of geese appears on the pond bracketing a line of tiny yellow balls of down between them. Another day passes, and there’s another pair of proud parents. Hubby and I start counting the offspring. Not all of them will make it.
It’s hard not to love the eager and inquisitive goslings. They are fluff on legs, rushing around full of energy one minute, snuggling under mother’s wing for a snooze the next. When they get too big to fit next to mother, a thyme carpet makes a lovely soft day-bed for them. I hear them wittering to each other quietly, in voices totally unlike an adult’s strident cries. They develop a fascination for my basement window screens and stand there pecking at the wire.
In a normal year, after the goslings pass the age where they can mistake another goose for Mom, the adults join forces and share guard duty. This year, though, a strongly territorial male goose dominated the pond, driving off other pairs by attacking their goslings. Only after being bested in battle did he tolerate one other family on the pond – the others all had to walk their offspring to a pond downstream. Being attacked by a goose is scary, as they fly straight at your head. This happened to me one time when I walked too close to a nest, and so I learned to stay out of the nesting area while the females are sitting on eggs.
This year’s goslings have fledged now, and their parents have taken them off on a tour of the neighborhood. When fall arrives, they’ll be back for the big migration muster. Some years there are upwards of 300 geese on the pond for a few days. And then there are none.