Not long ago, the typical image of a Canadian garden consisted of a broad sweep of impatiens across the front of the house, a solid mass of unbroken colour that knocked your eyes out. This framing a manicured, weed-free lawn trimmed neat and clean.
“Back in the day,” as recently as 20 years ago, there was a lot of “snipping” going on. And control. Mother Nature was to be tamed, not partnered with. My father was a leader of this pack. Why else did he send me out, at the age of 14, to prune a juniper into the shape of a chicken?
Dad was having fun, of course and I do not mean to make fun of him.
But things have changed significantly in the Canadian garden in recent years and it is worth noting some of these changes.
1. Bring on the insects. Take tent caterpillars for instance. My dad would cut a larvae-laden limb out of a crab-apple tree and burn the colony to get rid of it. I am sure this gave him much satisfaction.
A few years ago, I decided to just leave the tent caterpillars alone in my row of 25 crab-apples. I observed that many of the trees in the native forest along the highway, provide habitat to caterpillars and no one takes them out or burns them. And now I realize that they serve a useful purpose in the natural scheme of things. They are food for many foraging birds including insectivores, many of which are in decline. They need all of the help we can give them, so why not ignore the tent caterpillars and let nature take its course? I decided to do this and it took two years for the birds to discover that I was no longer removing them from tree limbs before they did the job for me. Voila! Less work for me, better for the birds.
We do not kill insects to the same extent that we once did. Native insects (vs. imported, invasive ones like the Emerald Ash Borer) are part of the natural web. Apart from our general distaste for wasps in our soft drinks and ants in our patio, we are gradually learning to live and let live.
2. Killing weeds. Just a few years ago we pulled milkweed from our gardens. It is a “weed,” after all; it is in the name, right? Now we pay good money for milkweed seeds to provide habitat and food for migratory monarch butterflies. When your kids come home from school and ask about your milkweed, how are you to answer? Better stock up now before you must answer to a new environmentally responsible generation.
3. Rot and decay are our friends. Remember when we blew our fallen leaves into piles and stuffed them into brown paper bags, dragged them to the curb for the municipality to haul them away? In the spring, we drove to a depot to pick up “free” compost or worse, some municipalities offered the compost for sale back to the tax payers who gave them the raw material in the first place.
Back in the day we really weren’t too smart.
Now we rake (not blow) the leaves off the lawn and on to the garden. Then we go inside and watch the football game. Or take the dog for a walk in the park.
Over the spring months, those leaves disappear as foraging worms pull them into the soil to convert them into nitrogen-rich earth worm castings. Better for your garden, less work, saves the municipality money.
Oh, some of us still do it the old-fashioned way.
OK, this one is a work in progress.
4. Wildlife Habitat. With over 800 species of native Canadian bees we are indeed blessed with a host of natural pollinators, many of which are in decline. Many are more effective at pollination than honey bees which are a European import.
Now we provide habitat for our dear wildlife: mason bee houses, insect hotels, toad homes, water features that breed frogs, toads, salamanders, dragon flies and newts.
We are getting much better at this but have a way to go. I predict that we will have as many insect enhancing devices in our backyards in 20 years as we have bird feeders now. Stay tuned.
I recently asked a friend, who is a father to a 15-year-old boy, what he thought the world will look like a generation from now. He looked at me with a worried frown, “I hate to think.”
And yet, all of the aforementioned changes in our thinking with respect to the Canadian garden are a result of young people speaking up in defense of a new, greener, cleaner world.
And sometimes they don’t speak up.
They just do it.
Mark Cullen is lawn & garden expert for Home Hardware, member of the Order of Canada, author and broadcaster. Get his free monthly newsletter at markcullen.com. Look for his new bestseller, “The New Canadian Garden,” published by Dundurn Press. Follow him on Twitter @MarkCullen4 and Facebook.