Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Gardens I Have Loved Before - Part 5

If you missed the earlier posts in this series please click on the links below:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

For many years I was a city girl, working in a downtown office, but when I met my partner Jody things began to change.  We were both small town kids and while the city has its fun it wasn't the right environment for us.  So we packed up our bags and moved to Bowen Island which is located just outside of Vancouver, British Columbia.  Living on Bowen Island provided the best of both worlds.  We were close enough that we could continue working in the city but our home was a small quiet rural community.  Best of all we were able to rent a small house on 2 acres of land with amazing landlords who were quite happy to let me dig up their yard as much as I pleased. 

My desires started out small, with a couple packets of bulbs at the hardware store.  I was so excited to see those bulbs come up in the spring.  The daffodils were dainty and beautiful, the muscari were like tiny bunches of grapes and the tulips a bright shade of pink. 

And then they disappeared....  overnight. 

Oh those pesky deer. 

And so began my own troubles with deer but unlike my mother I couldn't build a fortress out of fencing.  It wasn't our property so my solution couldn't be permanent.  Instead chicken wire and old railings got put to use in a semi-temporary sort of way.

An old deck railing was repurposed as a fence
I found that deer have difficulty jumping into small spaces so as long as I didn't fence a large area the fences could actually be quite low.  This meant that my most precious plants went behind the fence but I began to experiment with so called 'deer proof' plants in other areas of the yard.  What an education that was.  I lost a lot of plants over the years we lived there.  I discovered is that if you live on a deer trail and have a half dozen or so hungry deer visiting regularly, almost nothing is deer proof.  Only the most toxic plants can keep away those four legged critters.  And even those in winter, when greenery is scarce, will be tested by deer pushed to their limits.

In addition to my struggles with deer I also came to realize that I had shade.  A lot of shade.  Those pretty bright flowers that I craved would not grow in my yard.  They would flop over, refuse to grow, or never sprout a single flower.  Initially my gardening experience was frustrating but I believe these poor circumstances made me a better gardener for I became more obstinate and insisted on finding plants that would grow.  I combed the seed and plant catalogues for any plant that could withstand low light conditions.  Annuals like the lobelia erinus and mimulus pictured below offered the bright flowers I was craving but could stand the low light.

Then I moved on to perennials such as hostas, ferns, columbine, toad lilies, sweet woodruff and the lovely great blue lobelia seen below.

But even shade loving plants aren't all created equal.  I discovered there was a difference between dry shade and wet shade.  I discovered that even though some plants are labelled as shade tolerant they have different levels of tolerance.  Astilbes for instance will survive in quite a bit of shade but will not flower unless they have a portion of sun each day.

The only patch of sunlight I had to work with was at the very front of our yard, right next to the road and thus I became a front yard gardener.
The first year plants were small and far apart.
At first I didn't think anyone really noticed what was happening in my space.  But gradually I realized what it means to garden in a front yard.  People began to stop and chat.  I was often embarassed, clad in dirty clothing, no make up.  I wasn't expecting to socialize with people but gradually I learned the power of gardens.  People were enthralled.  I remember one particular man stopping and telling me that he had been watching my garden grow over the years we had been living there.  On his walks into the village he passed by our home and he anxiously awaited the blooms of tulips, the consistent growth of the perennials, just as any gardener would watch their own garden.  He wanted me to know how much joy he derived from my efforts.  I was awed.  I hadn't fully understood the capability of a garden to capture other people's hearts and minds and now I realized that what I saw as 'my' garden really was out of my hands.  What I had put in motion became something that belonged to the community.  

Plants spread quickly in the 3 years I gardened here
Leaving this house and garden was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do.  We were so very happy there for so many reasons and when we had to drive away Jody almost had to forcibly pull me into the car.   It had to be done though, we had bigger plans, for even then we were busy scheming..... how do you pack a cat, a piano and a bandsaw to drive 6000 kilometres across country?

But before we left there was one thing left to do, something to remember us by - we gnomed them....


  1. You Gnomed them!! You are too funny ))))

    Loved the last installment...or is it the last? Are we going on a roadtrip?

  2. You learned two important things about deer. They munch anything along their trails and will not jump into a tight space. Experience is the best teacher. I liked the gnoming too.

  3. The deer is really sweet... though they are harmful to the plants. This looks like such a wonderful house and it must have been painful to leave it.

  4. 'The power of gardens', I love that phrase. I enjoyed reading about how you've grown as a gardener as you've learned how to deal with your site. The revelation that not all shade is created equal is one that many people never learn since it seems that many shade plant advertised in catalogs are for moist shade. Ah, the nuiances of gardening!

  5. Great great post and story. I too have a ton of deer living in rural New Jersey and like you, realized nothing is deer proof. They are a battle yet I have come to embrace them as well.

  6. I understand what you mean about front yard gardens impacting others. At our last house we redid the front and had lots of feedback, 99% positive. Although, I did observe that people take a vested interest in the front gardens of their neighbourhoods and some are resistant to change.
    An added benefit was that it inspired other neighbours to tackle some landscaping as well. Gardeners spread the love. :)

  7. I've never had to deal with deer but a good friend loses a portion of her garden to them every year. I admire your tenacity at trying to keep them at bay. I love the picture of the columbine. So pretty!

  8. Marguerite, I've really been enjoying this series and the various garden lessons you've learned along the way. The front yard garden story resonated for me. I'm a walker: when I'm in PA during the school year, I walk back and forth to work; and when I'm at home in Maine, I go for a walk of an hour or more most days. I always plan my walking routes to take in people's gardens; and I always feel my anticipation grow as I approach favorite gardens along my route. I especially look forward to the blooms of plants that I don't grow in my own garden -- the rugosa roses growing on a fence at a farm in Maine, the tall pale blue bearded irises blooming on the strip between the sidewalk and the street in Gettysburg. In some fundamental way, gardens are for sharing. -Jean

  9. Greetings from Southern California, USA

    I added myself to follow your blog. You are more than welcome to visit mine and become a follower if you want to :-)

    God Bless You, ~Ron

  10. Every gardener starts out without understanding the subtleties of plants. Buy it, plant it, water it, and it will grow. I can remember back to when I didn't understand that there were plants for shade and plants for sun. It was a while later that degrees of shade entered my consciousness. Some time after that I figured out that researching where a plant grows in the wild might be a good first step. The subtleties never end, but isn't it fun.

  11. I love your description of discovering that your garden meant a lot to more than just you. And your tales of struggling with shade! I love reading about the evolution of a gardener. And I am so glad I don't have deer to contend with!

  12. Gardeningbren - seems I had a lot more to say than I originally thought so, nope, this isn't the last yet! but we're nearing the end

    Gardenwalk - It's funny, as much as I've read about deer I don't think anyone ever mentioned about deer disliking tight spaces. Experience is indeed a good teacher.

    One - I was constantly at odds over deer. They are really peaceful sweet creatures and it's a joy to see them in your yard. BUT they eat everything in sight and watching them munch away was seeing all my hard work and money wasted.

    Debbie - I read a lot about shade gardening when I lived in that spot but there's nothing like putting a plant in the ground and watching it grow to teach you. I was always looking for part shade plants but quickly realized part shade could mean a lot of things!

    ONG - welcome to my blog. It seems deer are a problem for almost all gardeners. So frustrating to see them eating your plants but such a lovely animal too and just doing what they need to survive.

    Ms.S - front yard gardening is a very touchy subject isn't it? Luckily my front yard garden wasn't bordered by neighbours with pristine lawns so I had little to worry about. I've heard about some of the fights that go on and it's such a shame. But you're also right that there's a good side where we can inspire others to care about their yards and learn more about nature.

  13. TS - One of the benefits of moving to PEI is that there's no deer here! Although I've managed to deal with deer for years I was very happy to leave them behind.

    Jean - something I failed to mention was when I volunteered at the Botanical Garden many of the volunteers and staff referred to this public garden as "MY garden". It was quite hilarious how people laid claim to this publicly funded space but again, it just made me realize there's this odd relationship we have with gardens where it touches us personally and we end up claiming it as our own. There's a study in there somewhere.

    Hi Ron, welcome to my blog! Glad to have you here. I'll have to go visit your blog in sunny california, I woke up to -18 degrees this morning and considered moving back to a warmer climate.

    Carolyn - You've hit on it exactly. I didn't even consider that I needed sun to grow plants at first. It was just a matter of buy something and plant it. I think my interest in native plants took root in that garden because I became obsessed with the fact that something must grow there, I just to find out what. So I looked at the plants growing around me and started learning about natives.

    Plantaliscious - Me too!! PEI has NO DEER. One of the best things about moving here is I don't have to worry about that anymore.

  14. loved reading about your Bowden island garden exploits, when I lived on Scalpay my first house/garden here on the Hebrides, I lived on the route the sheep took twice a day going 'in and out' (nights spent inland days spent on the shore) the garden hadn't been fenced ~ well it wasn't a garden just a piece of land, I fenced it, the sheep went around but the lambs can get in any gap and reek havouc, lambs are wonderful and beautiful but are worse than anything in a garden, so pleased for you your garden is safe on PEI,
    love the 'gnomed' in the next post,

  15. Island Threads - I can imagine sheep are probably just as bad or worse than deer. Seems to me I've heard sheep are good for killing tree stumps because they'll eat any growth that continues to try and push through. That's one hungry animal to eat shoots from a tree stump.

  16. Marguerite I can believe that the sheep would eat the tree stump shoots, some even eat things they are not supposed to eat like daffodils coming through, they are part of the reason I moved, here on Lewis the sheep are fenced in and more people take an interest in their gardens, Frances