The lone voice of horticultural reason

Lessons From the Wilderness


Near Minaki, Ontario

 I like the way nature landscapes, and always come back from my treks through the Canadian wilderness having learned a few things about gardening and landscape design.

At least I believe I do, though it’s never the case where this fresh knowledge comes immediately into play. The images I bring back from my past three weeks exploring the woods, meadows, stream banks, waterfalls, cliffs, and shorelines surrounding the remote town of Minaki, Ontario, will steep awhile, then in the lifetime to come bring to my puny attempts at gardening a few faint flashes of graceful space that might honestly be deemed natural.


Native landscaping

In northwest Ontario, nature landscapes in broad, sweeping carpets of chaos, a misfiring whirlwind of botanical anarchy that is not so much painted as spewed. No careful, rule-guided placement of plants here. Instead, the native flora claim this granite ground as castaways, dispersed across the jagged territory like stumbling, blindfolded refugees. White pines, junipers, grasses, and the monstrously hardy native perennials cling to the shorelines and form their ragged plant communities as if survivors of shipwrecks.

Even toward the end of August, when many of the native shrubs, perennials and wildflowers are well past bloom, this is achingly gorgeous country. I hesitate to attempt to define the form behind this geographic beauty, to classify it in terms of rules. Perhaps I can express in words at least a few facts about this landscape that contribute to its astonishing splendor.

Fragrant Water Lily (Nymphaea odorata)

Fragrant Water Lily (Nymphaea odorata)

In the wilderness, nature is a cruel beast, and key to the beauty of this land is that liberal mankind has had little impact. This land is the result of design principles of the highest origin, explosive, selective, ruthless, resolute. What grows here and how it appears to me during my brief visit—how it appears to mankind during our brief visit—is ruled by wind and flood and fire. In the garden, we’re much too kind, bestowing a spritz of insecticide to protect a frivolous plant that doesn’t truly belong there from a marauding bug that doesn’t belong there, either. Above all we depend too strongly on man-made, elementary rules of design. Elementary, I’ve decided, is one step too advanced from nature.

In Ontario, first and foremost is the fact that trees and shrubs rule, adding credence to my contention that we humans plant far too many flowers. In typical American fashion, we’ve sold ourselves on a mutated garden landscape style that’s all colorful splash and panache, ramming blooming annual and perennial flowers into our yards in lock-step with the national dictum that more is always better.

Panicled Asters (Aster simplex) cling to the shoreline like shipwreck survivors.

Panicled Asters (Aster simplex) cling to the shoreline like shipwreck survivors.

We didn’t get this floral effusiveness from our English gardening ancestors, whose rules of garden design form the foundation of the present American gardening style.

Oh, the English gardens of the 18th and 19th centuries, through to today, were and are fabulous canvases of colorful flowers, certainly. But the flowers are in rather small proportion to the much grander canvas of trees, hedges, and blooming shrubs. (Americans, beginning in the 1950s, performed exactly the same mutation when it came to choosing the proportion of their properties to devote to grass lawns, but don’t get me started.)

When I gaze across the Ontario wilderness, it’s abundantly clear that key to its beauty is the principle that less is more. The lazy pockets of goldenrod (primarily Solidago canadensis and S. ohioensis) now in golden-yellow bloom tumble across open areas in fits and starts; beautiful, yes, but always second fiddle to the ever-present foundation planting of native juniper, pine, spruce, tamarack, birch and poplar. Here, floral color becomes precious accent, its beauty all the more alluring than if flooding across as gross masses of color.

Island Bed

Island Bed

Thinking of my perennial gardens back home, I realize that for years I have attempted to wring beauty by planting and fertilizing entire beds of flowers, flowers, and more flowers. In a sense I’ve enabled little more than the floral equivalent of a loud, drunken mob scene. I’ve tried to create stylish grace in my gardens by ramming color in your face. You’d think I’d learn; this wilderness lesson had presented itself to me once before.

Years ago, in the spring, at the end of Big Sand lake far north of Minaki, I came upon a lone clump of a bog iris known as Larger Blue Flag (Iris versicolor) halfway down a quarter-mile stretch of wilderness, white-sand beach. There was a large swamp running parallel to the beach about twenty feet inland; heavy rains had caused the swamp to rise, and at a single point, a tiny trickle of bog water had cut through the sand to join the lake below. The iris, or a seed, had escaped the swamp via this temporary passage and rooted itself smack on the beach. I was witnessing one of the most exquisite jailbreaks of all time. Exposed to full sun, the iris burst tall in lush, radiant bloom. Snooping about the shady swamp area farther inland, I spotted more Larger Blue Flag, but none had flowers so numerous or vibrant as the escapee celebrating its good fortune down on the shoreline.

Canada Hawkweed (Hieracium canadense)

Canada Hawkweed (Hieracium canadense)

And how much more glorious were its perfect, violet and yellow-throated blooms as it stood in sunny, solitary independence, than if the entire shoreline were to be choked full of its brethren, as far as the eye could see!

In this case, the iris proved the exception to the rule, for the beauty of this wilderness is that rarely do plants grow alone. The cool blue blooms of Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia)seem to float in air amidst gentle clumps of slender grasses, and above a lazy groundcover that might include three types of moss and five other low, matting plant forms. This time of year, Canada Hawkweed (Hieracium canadense) is in bloom everywhere, bursting yellow from stumps, meadows, pathways and the woodpile. But it is never alone; upon even cursory inspection, one notices the Hawkweed raising hell with no less than a dozen other plant varieties, blissfully butting heads, busy creating a crazy quilt.

A journey of 500 miles due south has brought me home to Deephaven, Minnesota. Coming up the driveway I spot my impatiens bed—impatiens only, if you please. And in a large herbaceous bed I find my polite three clumps of sedum, in front of a carefully edged swath of boltonia, which ends abruptly (and is spaced safely) lest it interfere with the exacting domain I’ve assigned to the fall asters. These and ten other varieties of perennials and annuals grow in the same bed, yet now I see that they barely coexist.

Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis)

Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis)

So what is the lesson, the answer? Cottage gardens? No—not even the most fertile meadow creates such a gangly mess of flowers. We’d be dealing with drunken mobs again, and besides, there isn’t enough Daconil in the world. No, we need to take a strong look at proportion.

Why do many of the smaller city lots, and I’m thinking of the Kenwood and Lake of the Isles neighborhoods, contain such beautiful landscapes? Look closely—half the front yard, sometimes more than half, is dominated by trees and shrubs. The color from the narrow flower beds that seep from the edges serve the same role as does a colorful tie accenting a killer suit, or throw pillows on a magnificent sofa. Proportion.

I must experiment with scattered plantings. Certainly the booming trend toward landscaping with natives will continue to be an important factor in this regard. But must we abandon our exotic favorites, our tropical annuals, Asiatic lilies, and European-born perennials? No, but I think we should loosen up a bit, reexamine our rules of planting in groups of the same variety, ponder why beds need to be contained and defined, and why huge lawns always run up the middle (or why they exist at all).

There is much, much more that I have learned this trip. A purpose may be served some day. Not all of it has come to me yet.

Don Engebretson
The Renegade Gardener