It’s back to “old school” for gardeners!

The Leaside Gardener

Mary’s garden: can you see the robin? Photo by Debora Kuchme.
Mary’s garden: can you see the robin? Photo by Debora Kuchme.

The Lea family dedicated most of their farmland to growing apples, but they grew some other seasonal crops too. They would have planted a few lilacs close to the house and not just for the beauty and fragrance but more to observe the timing of the leaf expanding away from the bud. That meant it was safe to plant some beans and when the lilac reached full bloom, the soil was warm enough to plant those tomatoes.

To our early settlers, their lilac was just one of the indicator plants observed for valuable information. Our native oak and Canadian thistle along with the dandelion were others, as there were many clues to alert a crop farmer to a safe planting schedule, pollinator activity, and warnings of pest cycles.

Observations from plants and wildlife through seasonal changes have been used in agriculture for thousands of years. In science this is known as phenology. To a crop farmer and gardener, it’s simply the key to working with nature for the best outcome.

Unfortunately, many gardeners today work without this information and have no idea what an indicator plant is. Few know why the timing of birds and pollinators matters or can tell the difference between a weed, companion or invasive plant.
With climate change accelerating, it’s time to revisit some old school wisdom because we (the gardeners) play an important role in helping our environment adapt to these new changes.

I spoke with Mary Newel of Leaside about this because in my eyes, she is a native plant hero. More than that, I’ve never met anyone who observes nature quite as she does and that’s what phenology is all about.

Mary comes from a long line of gardeners who can be traced back to the early 19th century so gardening is definitely in her genes. But she didn’t always feel connected to the garden.

When her parents bought their south Leaside home in 1952 they started a garden that was very different from what it is today. Ella (her mother) loved colour and exotics while Desmond (her father) cared more about growing fruits, vegetables and his cherished lawn.

But then along came Mary. “As a child, I didn’t connect to some of these garden choices, I see beauty in common things.” According to her, the interest in native plants started at the very bottom or as she says “through the back door” with the simple curiosity of underdog weeds. This fascination led to field guides and local ravine walks which exposed her to native plants and natural ecosystems.

It wasn’t long before Mary inspired her mother to embrace more native plants, including trees, shrubs, sedges and grasses. Each year the lawn got smaller as the garden beds grew bigger with more native plants.

Today, that lawn is just a narrow curving path and the native plants far outnumber the few imports. But she also knows that at this time, going all native may not be wise. With our changing climate, some native plants will adapt, some will migrate but others will die. The hostas, yews, balloon flower, globe thistle, weigela, rhodo and Ligularia in this garden blend beautifully with the natives but are also positive additions. Some may even adapt better to our future weather conditions.

I wish that I met Mary years ago because she would have been my native plant guru. Unfortunately for me and all of Leaside, Mary Newel and her husband Chris Aylott are planning a move. This means another treasured Leaside garden may be at risk.

I hope the buyer will embrace this garden for its value.

Mary Newel’s top 10 list for connecting to the natural world:

Seek out information. The North American Native Plant Society (NANPS) is a great place to start. They have plant sales, access to seeds, The Blazing Star newsletter, and they promote publications like books by local expert Lorraine Johnson.
Use valuable field guides like Newcomb and Peterson.
Maintain a few sources of water in the garden all year. A taller one for the birds and one on the ground for other critters.
Leave all autumn leaves in your garden beds to enrich the soil. The worms drag them into the ground and returning birds feast on the insects. The great creator does not rake!
Toss branch trimmings and small logs around woodland plants. This will slowly break down and enrich the soil while attracting beneficial insects, birds and native bees.
Plant Virginia creeper instead of English or Boston ivy. It’s a native with brilliant autumn colour that works both as a ground cover and a climber. The birds will thank you for a winter food source.
Manage dry shade. Try purple flowering raspberry, zig zag (woodland) golden rod and wild geranium – the three musketeers.
Keep up to date with invasive species. The worst in Leaside at present are purging buckthorn, dog strangling vine, lily of the valley, goutweed, English ivy, periwinkle, Boston ivy, Norway maples and creeping bellflower.
Experiment. Mary usually buys native plants in threes and plants in separate areas of the garden. You can’t be sure which area is best.
Be patient, observe and share what you know. Sometimes the least distinguished looking of native plants may have an important role to play.
About Debora Kuchme 65 Articles
After a 30-year career as a fashion designer, Debora worked at Horticultural Design for over a decade. Now with her concerns about climate change, she hopes to help local gardeners find positive solutions for a greener and healthier neighbourhood. As a board member of the Bayview Leaside BIA, she created the Bayview Pixies, a volunteer group introducing sustainable gardening practice to Bayview.