Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Garden Voices

It's a rite of spring, the first trip to the garden centre at Canadian Tire in Shediac.  Although snow is still covering frozen N.B. ground and the transplanting of seedlings will have to wait until June,  I am keen to expand the herb garden with more rosemary, peppermint, tarragon, oregano and parsley.   A few pots of green sprouts sitting on a windowsill indoors would be a symbolic gesture, ushering in the brief but happy growing season.

The view from the parking lot was not encouraging.  My heart sank and my thumb started to ache. We didn't even bother to get out of the car.

Still snowed in

Back at home I settled into an armchair and escaped into "Garden Voices: Two centuries of Canadian Garden Writing" edited by Edwinna von Baeyer and Pleasance Crawford.   The book is a collection of letters, magazine articles, poems, speeches and diary entries written by amateur and professional gardeners who have one thing in common - they've all faced the nasty weather conditions and short growing season that limit horticulture experiences in Canada.  Successful northern gardeners are, by necessity, hardy perennial types who simply won't give up.


The book is arranged thematically, with articles chronologically ordered within each chapter, a structure that takes the reader meandering on a winding path through historical and contemporary plantings.

The drawbacks of the Canadian climate are outlined by H. B. Dunnington-Grubb, an Ontario landscape architect in an article first published by the British Institute of Landscape Architects in 1935.
"I doubt if you people at home have the slightest idea of the difficulties encountered by landscape architects in a climate like this.  The winter of 1933-34 destroyed old established apple orchards.  Shrubs like common privet were frozen to the ground, resulting in dead hedges in every city.  The only evergreens we can grow here are a very short list of conifers and even the Austrian Pine may not survive in Montreal.  Roses and perennials are often carried off wholesale in spite of every possible protection.  And then, the insects -but no, I won't start on the insects.  And yet people persevere."

A letter from Juliana Horatio Ewing from Fredericton N.B. describes her attempts to force bulbs during the winter.  On February 23, 1869 she wrote to a friend back in England:

"anything green - growing & sweet is doubly & trebly welcome when every trace of one's garden in buried 4 or 5 feet deep in snow - & the ground is frozen so hard that you know that there is not getting at anything that you did not take up in the Autumn (or even a bit of garden mould) till May! I have been much more successful this year than last ... Our little house will keep out the extreme frost & the other we lived in last year would not.  (We used to carry the hyacinth pots up to bed with us -put them round the stove & bury them in dressing gowns etc., but the poor things were frozen & thawed over and over again!!"

In the chapter "Laying out the Grounds"  an excerpt from William Lyon Mackenzie King's diary records the Prime Minister of Canada fretting over the design and placement of a balustrade at Kingsmere, his country estate.  He wants to get the picturesque framework for his garden just right.

September 11, 1931
"I spent the forenoon revising the location of the balustrade, its openings etc.  I came to the conclusion that it was too far into the garden, it lost the intimate touch with the house and crowded over too much towards the garden & the tree..."

I love reading the words of Lucy Maud Montgomery from 1910, as she reminisces about  her grandmother's garden in P.E.I.

"It is foolishness to speak as we do of "old" gardens: gardens are perennially young, the haunt of flowers and children.  And Grandmother's garden was always full of both...."

"The garden was intersected by right-angled paths, bordered by the big white clam-shells which were always found in abundance by the bay, and laid with gravel from the shore - coloured pebbles and little white shells well ground into the soil  In the beds between the paths and around the wall grew all the flowers in the world, or so, at least, we used to think.  The same things were always found in the same place; we always looked for the clove pinks, sown in grandmother's bridal days, behind the big waxberry bush, and the shadowy corner behind the sumacs was always sweet in spring with white narcissus."

"Garden Voices" offers comfort for the disheartened gardener stuck indoors at the end of April watching a snow storm fling a fresh white sheet over the land.  There is hope that this, too, will pass.

My lavender garden, on ice