Gardens - Featured Gardens

A Japanese garden in Alberta

Greg Polkosnik
Photography by
Marilynn McAra

An award-winning Edmonton garden proves patience is a virtue

Garden at a glance
Size: 9 x 13 metres
Orientation: south
Conditions: heavy clay soil, augmented with peat moss and composted manure
Growing season: April to October
Garden focus: traditional Asian elements, flowing rock paths, cold-hardy perennials, self-sown annuals
Zone: 3

If extreme makeovers and overnight overhauls are the current fashion in landscaping, Roberta Rolf's tiny, Japanese-style garden is certainly bucking those trends. Well before winning Canadian Gardening's Best Renovation Under $5,000 category in the 2003 Gardens of the Year contest, the Edmonton resident had devised a long-term plan, but one that was also subject to revisions.

"This garden has been a labour of love and life, as I've created it over the years," says Roberta, a software specialist who shares the house with her  shepherd-collie cross, Lady. "When I read about this category, [my garden] was far enough along that completing it was achievable."

Moving into the bungalow (which is more than 50 years old) in 1999 presented some landscaping challenges for the then novice gardener. "My mother, Edith, is a gardener, but I didn't care for it growing up. I lived in an apartment for 14 years before moving into my present home." Starting from scratch wasn't without a few pleasant surprises, though, such as the soil. In a city known for its rock-hard clay, the rich black loam on the property was welcomed. And Roberta also discovered that the previous owners had grown vegetables. "I did add peat moss and manure to the flower beds," she says, adding that she also kept the strawberries and a few plants along the sidewalk. "With a few additions," she concedes.

The plants
Those additions included several ‘Brandon' cedars (Thuja occidentalis 'Brandon'), a French pussy willow (Salix caprea), Arctic willows and a Virginia creeper-not necessarily the plantings that come to mind when you think of a Japanese garden, a style she chose "for the clean lines and structure." However, a Prairie gardener such as Roberta has to be creative when it comes to choosing what grows well in her harsh climate-although she admits there are a few plants she would love to grow if she could: "A wisteria, to drape over a future deck, and a Japanese maple."

Even so, it's the hardy plants she can grow, such as grasses, including reed canary grass (Phalaris arundinacea) and little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), that give Roberta's small garden a Japanese aesthetic. Spring, summer and fall all have their star performers, from early-flowering allium to delphiniums and daylilies, to late-blooming sunflowers. But it's the "bones" of this garden—achieved on a budget—that make it a year-round winner.

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