Gadbois: Advice on the best advice

Where does a home gardener obtain the best advice? There are many reputable design and landscaping experts in Ottawa. Many nurseries and garden centres in our community have designers who can produce lovely plans taking into account the characteristics of our area and can suggest appropriate plantings accordingly.

They can arrange to have the whole job done for us, or we can do it ourselves. Or course, a lot of us inherit a garden from a previous owner so we rarely have to deal with a blank slate.

Getting advice can also be as simple as inviting a friend over to take a stroll around the garden – perhaps with a cup of coffee, tea or a glass of wine – to get ideas about how to fix a particular problem, or to consider suggestions about how to redesign an area. The gardening season is almost at mid-mark now so it would be a good time to invite someone whose garden we admire for a leisurely walk-about. Our gardens are currently showing off their major structure and attributes, and even if all our summer perennials and shrubs are not yet fully in bloom, an experienced eye can perceive the agony and the ecstasy on our plot of land, and can offer solutions as to how to minimize the former and maximize the latter.

For me, 22 years ago, a fellow garden club member came over to drop off a bunch of her unwanted hostas after I had casually mentioned I was always looking for plant material. We spent a good hour strolling around my then rather dishevelled garden beds. I learned so much that day about what should stay, what should go, what should be shared and what should not.   She kindly advised some relocations and substitutions and suggested new plant additions which can thrive in our rather impoverished limestone-based soil.

It just so happened that she is a ‘Master Gardener’ and, with a keen experienced eye, was able to spot my garden problems, including the invasive plants I just thought were pretty but kept finding popping up all over the place, out-competing desired perennials.

The Master Gardeners (MG) are a group of trained and experienced gardeners who volunteer their time to share their knowledge of gardening using a variety of means – newsletters, blogs, telephone call-ins, lectures, courses, workshops. In the Ottawa area, we are fortunate to have two very active groups – the MGs of Ottawa-Carleton and the Lanark County MGs. Both host Facebook pages which answer specific questions from the public and websites which contain their newsletters and other items of interest to the home gardener. Affiliated with the MGs of Ontario, all offer free online gardening advice for the home gardener. I have ‘liked’ all these pages and get tons of advice via my social media feeds.

My MG friend asked me what kind of garden I wanted to have – organized and symmetrical like a French or Italian garden; messy, colourful and cascading like an English garden border; natural and episodic like a wildflower prairie, etc.  I had no idea at the time, but she prompted me to think, research and plan. My garden has evolved into a style which might be called ‘blended country cottage’ – a happy mix of seasonal perennial flower borders, a pond, a veggie and herb garden, a lovely natural limestone patio filled with low growing indigenous and introduced ground covers, a rather and a large expanse of outlying land left free to be itself…at the edge of the alvar. (We are located in the Carp area, not too far from Burnt Lands Provincial Park, a unique protected ecosystem called an Alvar, with limestone flats and prairie-like grassland).

My advice would be to take a good look at the natural environment around you (i.e., what grows wild in the area), and to try to achieve a blend of that and your desired garden style. In other words, capitalize on what you’ve already got in place and don’t fight with nature as you’re just asking for disappointment if you do. We have a lot of limestone outcropping in our area, so we chose to use it as focal points on our property with our paths and patios.

My savvy friend also advised me not to become a slave to the perfect lawn, rather to embrace a multi-cultured turf. My acreage is now covered with ground covers of all kinds which seamlessly blend into a nice green carpet when mowed to the proper height, not too low. In periods of drought when grass-only turf goes into brown crispy recession, my lawn still has the green of clover, ajuga, thyme and other wild and cultivated ground covers to weather the inclemency. No herbicides or fertilizers are required, and it is low maintenance, biodiverse and environmentally friendly.

Finally, one very helpful suggestion which I have heeded over the years, is to observe and take pictures of my garden periodically throughout the growing season, and over the years. This documentation enables me to record how it looks at various stages, in order to identify low performing spots at various times. These can be remedied for next year by dividing perennials in the fall or by adding annuals to fill in.

So, you see, free gardening advice is all around and free for the asking. A good way of benefitting from it is by meeting like-minded people in our area by joining a garden club and attending meetings on a regular basis. Fellow members become friends and some of these friends are very knowledgeable about local growing conditions.

Master Gardeners of Ontario.

Master Gardeners of Ottawa- Carleton.

Lanark County Master Gardeners.

West Carleton Garden Club.