Gardening heritage

Gardeners tend to have a strong sense of history. We tend plants that were established by others, and we know that the perennials, shrubs and trees we plant may well be growing long after we’re gone.

So when an anniversary like Canada 150 comes along, we’re keen to take part. Last fall, many people happily planted drifts of red and white tulips (although a few were unpleasantly surprised this spring when some supposedly bicolour tulips bloomed red and yellow). And this spring, we’ve seen a lot of red and white annuals being planted.

But a deeper look at this country’s gardening heritage goes beyond the red and white – after all, the flag was only adopted in 1965. What were gardeners growing for the hundred years before that?

In many cases, the answer is still with us.

If you’ve spent much time on backroads or trails in Muskoka, you may have come across a lilac bush, or a patch of daylilies growing in the wild. Look closer in the area and you’re likely to find the remains of a foundation where a house or barn once stood.

Lilacs are native to Asia and Europe, but settlers began bringing slips to North America as early as the 1600s. Hardy travellers, they grew quickly and bloomed early, and their sweet scent was a delightful springtime reminder of home.

Daylilies arrived the same way. Like lilacs, they needed almost no care (a valuable asset to the time-pressed pioneers) and cheered up a sometimes dreary-looking farmstead.

Apple trees are another indicator that a farmstead was nearby. There are wild apple trees all over Muskoka, many of them grown from seeds deposited by bears, deer, and other apple-loving creatures. Most of these are small and sour – apples grown from seed don’t produce the same variety as their parent plant. To grow great apples for eating, juice or cider, you need to plant rooted cuttings, which is what early settlers did in the millions. Come across one of those plants, and you’ve probably found a tree that was planted by someone who needed the fruit for winter food.

Other plants haven’t been able to survive as long without care. You may occasionally find some unkempt roses or even a patch of rhubarb or asparagus that’s found a great toehold, but most of the settler gardens went the way of the settler’s fields – reclaimed by the forest that’s grown back with incredible success in Muskoka.

There are a few options if you want to see what those early gardens looked like. One is to find someone who still has one – there are cottages in Muskoka that are well over 100 years old, and some of them still have gardens that date back to the earliest days. We tend a few of them, caring for lush beds of perennials and herb gardens that date back decades. Fern gardens were a rage with Victorians, and our landscaping crews maintain some that were planted before their grandparents were born.

Occasionally one of these old cottages or homes will show up on a gardens tour – they seem to have gone out of fashion a bit in recent years, but various horticultural societies do still offer them.

Another option is to visit a heritage site, where staff sometimes do a fantastic job of capturing the look, feel and scent of old-fashioned gardens. Muskoka Heritage Place in Huntsville, Bethune House in Gravenhurst, and the museums in Bala and Port Carling all have grounds that reflect the period. But perhaps the best place to picture Muskoka’s early gardens is at Black Creek Pioneer Village in Toronto.

You’ll see a great many familiar plants, although some of them have gone out of fashion. Hollyhocks are practically a symbol of Victorian gardening. Foxgloves, daisies, marigolds and geraniums were all prized for their prolific and long-lasting blooms.

Roses were enormously popular, grown as much for their scent as for their blooms. An old-fashioned rose bush in full bloom can be smelled from a surprising distance, making you wonder why anyone would want an unscented hybrid rose.

But perhaps the best way to connect with our gardening past is through herbs.

These days, most of us just grow a bit of mint and basil, with maybe some dill or parsley to liven up a summer meal. But our forbears grew dozens of herbs for food, tea, medicine and perfume.

So this year, as the red and white blooms begin to fade, ask us about adding a bit of lavender, lemon balm, hyssop, or chamomile to the garden.  And next year, as Canada celebrates 151 years with much less ceremony, you can sip a cup of historic tea, and ponder whether your herb garden will still be delighting people in future generations.

Posted in In the Garden.