"Oh, Canada!"

A journey in flowers.
Sunday, 21 July 2019     

Paeony, Les Jardins de Metis/Reford Gardens, Grand Metis, Canada

My original ideas about gardens were shaped partly by the storybooks I read as a child and teenager. English and Canadian authors were favourites, describing cottage gardens filled with pretty cold-climate flowers, and woodlands smothered in delicate blooms. When I began creating my own garden in the 1980s, I travelled to England for an extensive garden crawl to study what to do. As I have mentioned a few times in this blog over the years, the garden of my dreams never materialised, despite my best efforts of trying to cosset at home in Sydney all the gorgeous plants I saw on that trip. It took a number of years for me to understand that climate and geography have the final say in whether or not plants will thrive.

I eventually accepted this reality and turned my efforts towards finding plants that truly enjoy growing in Sydney's climate of mild winters and hot, humid summers. I do try to combine these plants to emulate in some small way the profusion and colour of those sublime herbaceous borders I saw in the English summer of 1987, so all my research wasn't completely wasted! And failures do teach some important lessons!

However, in the process, I completely lost interest in cold-climate plants. Since I couldn't grow them, why should I want to even look at them? (Sour grapes, I know!) Yet on our recent trip to Canada, we did visit a couple of gardens that were nearby where we were travelling. To my delight, I found that I can now truly enjoy just looking and admiring the plants in cold-climate gardens, and rejoice in their ethereal beauty, as they flourish in their rightful place. Once more I was gazing on plants whose names I once knew off my heart, and had sought far and wide, even trying to grow many of them from seed.

A huge proportion of Canada is forest, and when walking along trails through the trees, which include spruces, firs, maples, balsam poplars and birches, shade-loving native wildflowers can be seen amongst the ferns from spring to early summer, including wild lily of the valley (Maianthemum canadensis), anemone (Anemone canadensis) along with local species of violets, Polygonatum Dicentra and Trillium. Most of these had finished flowering when we arrived in mid-June, but the so-called bunch berry or pigeon berry (Cornus canadensis) was in full bloom, in vast sheets between the trees, giving an idea of how glorious it must all look when they are all out.

In the two gardens we visited on the St Lawrence River in Quebec Province, shaded woodland areas had impressive plantings of cold-climate treasures from other parts of the world too, growing in enormous clumps. Possibly the most ubiquitous plant was the Hosta. I have never seen such robust specimens, sometimes clumps a metre across. Ditto Pulmonaria, Brunnera, perennial Primula, lily of the valley (Convallaria), Astilbe, Dicentra spectabilis and the most exquisite of all, the blue poppy, all growing vigorously!

In sunny areas of these gardens, other superb perennials flourished. Luscious peonies that seemed almost unreal in their perfection; towering fluffy white foxtail lilies (Eremurus himalaicus); massive stands of bold purple Allium; and so many different species of Iris, putting to shame the pathetic display of tall bearded Iris in my own garden. Species roses, such as rugosa roses, were thriving, and just coming into bloom. I realised once again that there is definitely something almost other-worldly in the beauty of cold-climate flowers. I totally understood how I had once upon a time been in their thrall, yet I no longer felt I had to possess them.

The flowering shrubs in bloom in the gardens were also a joy. The stars of late June and early July were the crab-apples (apparently late this year due to a long winter), Kolkwitzia, rhododendrons, dogwoods and lilacs. The lilacs! I have never seen or smelled so many lilacs of so many hues. Nearby one of the gardens was a whole village (Cap-a-l'aigle) filled with lilacs, because all the locals swapped cuttings with each other over the years and a lilac enthusiast had donated 200 different cultivars for a park in the middle of the village.

I was intrigued to see that a number of shrubs growing in Canada that hail from China, growing brilliantly in the gardens, are ones we too can grow in Sydney: Deutzia, Spiraea species, Weigela, Viburnum macrocephalum, Buddleja and Philadelphus, making me feel in awe of the adaptability these plants.

Wandering through the gardens and simply revelling in the beauty of the flowers reminded me of why we gardeners love our hobby. Seeing plants look so right in a climate that was to their liking was uplifting. Canada has a growing season that generally runs from April to October. During that time, growth is fast and furious, assisted by lengthy hours of daylight. Plants must be able to withstand temperatures that can sometimes plunge to -40 degrees Celsius and several feet of snow in winter. I simply cannot imagine what it is like to garden in such a climate. Our own challenges in Sydney seem trivial in comparison!

 Reader Comments

1/6  Ian - 2506 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 22 July 2019

Hi Deirdre, Very interesting to read about all the plants in Canadian gardens and so glad you had a wonderful time there. A village devoted to lilac sounds like my kind of place. Cheers Ian Yes you would have loved that village. I felt I was in some sort of lilac dream! Deirdre

2/6  Kerrie - 2104 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 22 July 2019

I"ve wanted to go to Canada particularly Vancover for a long time so thanks for sharing this wonderful gardening travel experience. I do think gardening in Sydney is one of the best places in the world. We can grow bulbs like daffodiles & also more tropical plants like Bee Hive Gingers & Bat Plants on the coast so we get a bit of both worlds in coastal Sydney. Sadly those bulbs are getting harder to grow here thanks to climate change so I get a real kick out of them. We can grow a lot of things and so we are very lucky. Hope you get to Canada one day. It is a beautiful country. Deirdre

3/6  Pamela - 2158 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 22 July 2019

Wow Deirdre how wonderful to read all about your marvellous trip.I too am in awe seeing plants grow and thrive so beautifully in their right climate.Beth Chatto always said use the right plant for the right place .I gave up many years ago trying to grow cold climate bulbs and perennials that I knew would struggle here but what a delight to be able to grow so many tender plants our NH gardeners can only dream about. Hostas in Italy blew me away too, so lush! Thanks, Pamela. I chuckled when in Canada to see Agapathus carefully tended in pots (no doubt put under cover in winter) and lots of public plantings of tender perennials in containers and hanging baskets that would no doubt have to be thrown away as soon as the weather got cold. Deirdre

4/6  Janna - UK Monday, 22 July 2019

It sounds like you had a really super time in Canada, Deirdre! I haven"t been to the east coast, but adored the west. Must add it to my wish list. And I think Sydney is the hardest place I can think of to garden in, so don"t be too hard on yourself. The range of plants that grow well don"t necessarily gel well aesthetically and it"s right on the edge of having seasonality and not having it, which makes for a rather confused winter garden. What you have achieved in yours is very very special. Thanks, Janna. Perhaps we have too many plant choices! The seasons seem to be getting more and more muddled these days. Today for example is meant to be mid-winter and the temperature was 24 degrees C!? Hope all going well in your garden. Deirdre

5/6  Lisbeth - 2075 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Tuesday, 23 July 2019

So enjoyed seeing your beautiful pics of Canada. Im headed there today & cant wait to see the gardens of Vancouver. Your blog is such good timing & has whetted my appetite. I know I will be very inspired & want to grow all the plants I see, back in Sydney. But I will follow your wise advice & stick to enjoying what I see, photographing, & leaving it at that. Have a wonderful trip, Lisbeth! It is a beautiful country and the people are so friendly. Vancouver is a lovely city. We were not there long enough to visit any gardens but I believe they are gorgeous. Deirdre

6/6  Pam - 2159 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Tuesday, 23 July 2019

Hi Deirdre, I did flower a Blue Poppy once after spending a fortune on seeds over several years, and ending up with one blue poppy with one flower. I now plant more of plants that grow well without coddling. Gosh that was a fab achievement, Pam. I planted the seeds but none ever even germinated! Deirdre

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