Size: 2 hectares
Orientation: most perennial borders north of house
Conditions: sandy soil, very dry conditions in past two years; sun
Growing season: late May to early September
Garden focus: hardy, drought-tolerant trees and shrubs; xeriscape; perennials; creation of forest; bird habitat
When I moved from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, to a rural area south of the city in 1980, I did so in blissful ignorance. Having gardened in Africa, Peru and other places much warmer than Zone 2 on the Prairies, I had to gradually learn what was hardy here. Even so, the microclimate of my old city neighbourhood was a far cry from the barren and exposed two-hectare pasture I now had to work with. Worse, I went from heavy soil and limitless tap water to beach sand and well water that runs out after a few hours.
While still living in the city, and guided by a small Agriculture Canada publication, Herbaceous Perennials for the Prairies, I had begun hunting down plant and seed sources, and learning, over time, about the history, culture and propagation of perennials. I brought this passion to the acreage. Before the house was livable, semi-circular perennial beds were laid out behind it and prepared. The sandy soil was generously amended with peat moss (one bale to every two square metres of bed, dug into the top 20 centimetres of soil) and about one-third that volume of well-rotted manure. I've never regretted the initial time and effort put into those borders. There was desperate need for shade and shelter as well, so tree planting and perennial-bed development proceeded side by side. The first trees were planted near the house and around the property's perimeter.
Now, after more than two decades of trial and error, there are a wide variety of borders: two shaded, one multicoloured, one of blue and yellow plants (flower and foliage) and one of pink and white flowers. A border of hot colours—reds, yellows and oranges—surrounds the fire pit (a horticultural pun of sorts) and separate beds contain collections of peonies, lilies and daylilies. None of this came from a conscious vision. As the Irish garden designer Helen Dillon so succinctly put it, "If you come to colour late in your gardening life, you'll do a lot of transplanting." I did and I have. And although I began as a purist (thinking perennial beds were for perennials), the borders now include dwarf shrubs, hardy bulbs and vines, biennials, ornamental grasses, climbing roses and a few small trees.
My mixed, layered borders provide density and seasonal interest of height, texture, form and colour. Prior to planting new beds, perennial weeds are controlled with Roundup. Immediately after planting and watering, I mulch to conserve water and suppress annual weeds. Initially it's a big effort, but in the long run makes for better plant growth and reduced labour. Unlike the outlying trees and shrubs that depend on more than 200 metres of garden hose, the perennial borders benefit from an underground irrigation system installed seven years ago. I still grin when I push down a lever to release the water flow—it's so easy!