He gardens She gardens

We can’t even agree on the right speed for the windshield wipers, so why did we think that we could garden together? We gardened before there was each other. Sue…

March 22, 2007 | | Back Issues | Spring 2007

We can’t even agree on the right speed for the windshield wipers, so why did we think that we could garden together? We gardened before there was each other. Sue had lots of experience in Toronto before she moved to her property on the banks of Sheldon Creek in Mono. It had plenty of sun around the house and a shady woodland that rolled gently down to the river. She had cleared the undergrowth in the woods, made beds around the house, planted rhododendrons, built arbors, laid a flagstone path, and was generally well along to creating a magic place in English cottage garden style.

My awakening to gardening came in middle age on the edge of Shelburne. The soil was clay loam and bulbs were very easy to grow. In fact, everything seemed easy, except ericaceous and woodland plants. By the time I met Sue I had converted a berm above the pool into a rock garden and planted themed perennial beds, though they weren’t laine pure by any means: bed one was whites, pinks and blues, and bed two was oranges and yellows. The beds were edged with a concrete curb, to facilitate trimming with the mower. Sue’s and my gardening styles were very distinct from each other. Sue thought concrete curbs were “blecchh.”

We lived about fifteen minutes apart and in the first heat of passion this 51-year-old thought that was pretty good. However, it became too far and Sue eventually rented her place and moved in with me, bringing her treasured plants.

Gardening with someone else was a first for both of us. We searched out other jointly-gardening couples to find how they fared. The pithiest comment came from Jan Slater in Pennsylvania. About gardening with her husband, Mike, she declared, “It’s war.” At the other extreme, Ernie O’Byrne in Oregon claims that he and Marietta are in perfect harmony. They have the same tastes and do everything together. Well, once in a while he might suggest something, but if she resists, he drops it, only to have her bring it up later as her own idea.

Gardeners are passionate people by nature, so no wonder we have seen mostly very dynamic relationships between couples who garden together. We are still working on ours, but did glean some insight from my 90-year-old mother. I had told her about a talk Sue and I had given about whether gardening together was easier than not.

“For you it’s easier,” my mother said. “Why?” “Because you get along well – and you don’t mind when Sue does more than her share.”

In fact, Sue does not have a lazy bone in her body. In the Shelburne garden she made a higgledy-piggledy stone wall, built a large curving berm, and charmed a huge boulder out of a bulldozer operator working on a site across the road. She was definitely putting her stamp on the place. One day, chatting over the fence with a neighbour, she mentioned we were getting married. Excited by the news, the neighbour shouted to her husband: “Guess what! Andrew is marrying the gardener!”

However, it seems every woman needs her own nest uncontaminated by her man’s previous history. Sue said that she hadn’t left Toronto to live in the suburbs of Shelburne, so we drew up a description of our ideal property and set a deadline to find it.

A stormy beginning

Our corner of paradise is now six acres at the north end of Mono. It is rolling land with woods and fields on top of sand and gravel. A headwater of Sheldon Creek runs through it in one direction and the Bruce Trail in another. We were told that the 1996 tornado had felled many trees near the stream and that when the woodcutters came to split the wood, they discovered it had been twisted, or torqued, by the tornado. And so we called the property Torqsted. (The name is not intended to reflect on the personalities of the owners.)

Moving our gardens to Torqsted in relatively quick order was not great fun, though the chipmunks blessed us for bringing those many dozens of pots planted with delicious bulbs and corms.

We were starting from scratch here. Where to begin? Jacqueline and Paul Ehnes acquired their place in Erin just before we got Torqsted and I asked them about their design approach. Jacqueline is very organized and comfortable designing on graph paper. Paul tends to let the spirit of the place guide him. I thought my approach would be more like Jacqueline’s, but we’ve ended up being more like Paul. I suspect that is Sue’s doing.

Or maybe it’s just in our genes: like spiders, we toiled away without consciously adverting to the overall design. We both wanted certain things – rock gardens, vegetable and seedling beds, but rather than impose them we let the landscape guide us. The locations of the two rock gardens, for example, emerged as natural solutions to the problems of a sharp ledge to the west of the house and a steep slope on the other side.

The final test of a design is whether the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; whether it captures the spirit of the place; whether visitors resonate with it. As it turns out, with a more or less subconscious approach to design, we have created an informal, comfortable place that nicely blurs the edges between nature and our additions to it.

Of course, Sue and I have not agreed on everything.

To the east is a field bounded by an almost invisible wire fence, allowing a great vista of rolling topography. I was against planting trees by the fence. While the view wouldn’t be obscured in our lifetime, I felt a regimented treeline would detract from the natural harmony and destroy the seamless integration of near and far. Nevertheless there are now shrubs and thousands of daffodils along our side and down the hillside in a meandering sweep. And our neighbours have planted tree seedlings on their side of the fence.

The honeymoon bed

Our first bed was easy to agree on – the shape anyway. We gave absolutely no thought to who would plant what where. Just get the plants out of pots and into the ground.

That bed is now chock full of spring bulbs, including merenderas, crocuses, hyacinths, ornamental onions, and species and hybrid tulips, followed by perennials and annuals, ultimately ending up with Phlox decussata hybrids, Lavatera cachemeriana and late-summer cimicifugas. As the season progresses the area gets messier, but there is always something of interest. A path leads into the woodland behind the garden where spring ephemerals, including cyclamens, corydalis and hepaticas prosper.

Perhaps the chief moment of glory in this garden comes when Phlox stolonifera blooms. I brought several clones of this native Ontario plant with me, and they took off here in the sandy soil, spreading with great enthusiasm to create large, brightly coloured mats. Incidentally, this has been our experience with other Ontario natives.

The front of the house faces north. A perfect place for rhododendrons. The soil was amended with peat and sulphur mixed with the rocky, sandy soil. About twenty rhododendrons and azaleas thrive here, giving a great show each spring. Lilies provide later colour, and a small urn-flowered clematis clambers through. All peacefully created and planted.

Name calling

Much of our conversation is about the property so it was necessary to name various areas. A query about the “chokecherry on the hillside” was too non-specific. Some names like “scree,” “north vegetable garden,” “west crescent bed” are precisely geographic and descriptive.

Other names are historic or contextual. For instance, when the guys were cleaning up the tornado damage, Sue wanted a beech tree cut so it would fall across the lawn, not back into the bush, crushing trees. The man assured her that, yes, he could do that easily. No problem at all. The tree fell into the bush. Sue raced out and shouted at the man in her plummiest English accent: “You fumbling moron! Don’t touch another thing on this property!” Sue gained a lot of face with the men that day – and the area is still referred to as the “moron bed.”

Against the house is the “piano bed” with bulbs and roses, then the rock gardens, waterfall and pool. The rock garden west of the pool is designed, planted and maintained by me. Sue calls it the “quarry,” because she thinks the rocks are far too many and intrusive.

The rock garden east of the pool is designed, planted and maintained by Sue. I christened it the “plum pudding,” because I think it resembles rock gardens described in English books, with a few rocks scattered here and there, like raisins in a pudding.

On the west is the scree. Huge boulders edge the two terraces, with saxifrages and sempervivums in their cracks. This area has excellent growing conditions for alpines, fragrant cyclamens and tiny treasures that are close to nose and eye level. We can look up into pendant flowers, like epimediums. Here a grassy path snakes into a woodland path down to the pondside. This area is anchored by a large irregular perennial bed, bisected by a deck between two clumps of trees.

Heading into the field, you unexpectedly come upon the huge streamside primula plantation, hidden by a bank from even a little distance away. This is one of Sue’s triumphs. The season starts in the spring with Primula denticulata in the various intense primrose colours, then come the tall multi-storied Primula japonica in white, pink and crimson. Later yet, the hues change to yellow and orange with PP. bulleyana, burmanica and sikkimensis. It just doesn’t get any better than this.

Finally, there is the “contentious bed.” On the back patio of my Shelburne house, I had an eight-foot diameter lazy-Susan table, very handy and much used. There was no good location for the table at Torqsted, so it sat sadly between two beds, neither practical nor attractive. We could not agree on what to do with the area, but Sue definitely wanted the table gone. On the other hand, I really disliked a corkscrew hazel that was lording over the scree. We made a deal. If I got rid of the table, Sue would agree to moving the corkscrew hazel.

Now the question was what to do with the space? Well, we couldn’t agree on anything: the shape and size of the bed; the composition of the soil; the plants that were going into it, and so on. In the end, it somehow evolved into Sue’s exclusive domain, full of variegated plants and shrubs and hellebores, none of which I like.

Sharing beds

This is the ultimate test. From the beginning, we were determined to share in the planning, planting and maintenance – and each of these is progressively more difficult. Planting is most problematic. Sue’s style is islands-in-the-Pacific, while mine is euphemistically called Persian-carpet, meaning that plantings are close and interwoven.

The person clearing a good spot must immediately plant it, or the other one will soon be subconsciously and irresistibly drawn to it with plant in one hand and trowel in the other. Once I was readying a segment of the seedling bed to plant out a flat and I stuck in a little sign: “Keep out!” Sue sweetly asked if I was warning off the rabbits.

The most controversial activity is maintenance. We are both deeply committed to maintenance. However, Sue notices all kinds of things that escape my vigilant oversight. Accordingly, she is endlessly titivating the beds and plants. This is very generous of her, of course, but it also leads her to the mistaken idea that I am shirking my responsibilities.

Her solution was to move around a little sign of her own which shouts at me: “Don’t just stand there, weed!”

Deadheading is another issue. Received wisdom is that deadheading will help a plant to retain vigour, continue flowering, look neater and not seed around. But I want to collect seeds! The inelegant solution is that I tie tags to the plants I don’t want deadheaded; it works, sometimes.

All this has led to two beds each with a single commander-in-chief, while the others are under joint command with ill-defined rules of precedence.

And since you wanted to know, we resolved the windshield-wiper issue by the application of the driver’s rules. The driver makes all decisions, picks the route, decides on the speed, the temperature in the car and the radio station, and Sue sets the speed of the windshield wipers.

About the Author More by Andrew & Sue Osyany

When not gardening, Sue Osyany volunteers with the Dufferin Arts Council as a fund raiser; Andrew Osyany practices law in Shelburne.

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