You could say Trevor Ashbee belongs to the skyscraper school of gardening. He loves tall things. Visit his Zone 4 property on a dirt road outside Fergus, Ontario, and the first thing you notice is how tall everything looks, starting with the enormous metal flower sculpture designed by an artist friend sited by his front door. The garden area (which encompasses about four acres) is bordered by a copse of towering trees, mostly maples and elms. But the most startling giants are his plants. He grows lots of perennials that soar more than 2.5 metres tall. They're massed together in big island beds randomly scattered throughout the garden. Walking between these beds feels rather mysterious and exciting because you can't see over the dense walls of greenery; there's a sense of anticipation about what's lurking around the next corner. Will you discover another glorious display of delphiniums? Or some sky-scraping mallow stalks, dotted with pale pink flowers? Or a whacking clump of ornamental grass, reaching for the sky?
If it's true that gardens reflect the personalities of their owners, then this one is unique and unconventional, like the man who created it. Trevor is a professional horticulturist who's worked in the gardening business all his life. (He's currently horticulturist for Centre Wellington, and is in charge of keeping public parks and roadside plants in Elora and Fergus, and surrounding hamlets, bright and beautiful. But he's unimpressed by the so-called rules of horticulture and prefers to focus on the pure joy of growing plants.
“Lots of garden designers would say my garden looks all wrong,” he says, “because I don't put small plants at the front of the flower beds and bigger ones at the back. But I think a garden should be a garden, not a stage set. I love the shapes and textures of tall plants, so I want them up close.”
He fingers the deep blue petals of a ‘Black Knight' delphinium. “Isn't this incredible?” he asks. “Why not grow it where you can reach out and touch it?”
Why not, indeed. Most of his dozen or so island beds are jam-packed with Mother Nature's taller creations. Squat, split-rail fences about half a metre high are installed around the edges of his woodland beds (and are barely visible), to stop the more fragile specimens, such as delphiniums, from flopping over and looking untidy. He coaxes his collections to reach their maximum height with regular dollops of composted horse manure (he has three horses) and is adamant that they never get boosted with any chemical fertilizers. He doesn't get out the garden hose either, because his water comes from a well, and summer droughts are often a problem in this part of Ontario. Trevor expresses the attitude of many a country gardener when he says, “If my plants survive without water, fine. If they don't, I'll grow something else.”