One of the first principles of organic gardening is: feed the soil, not the plants. Taking that advice to heart, we set about socking the cow manure, compost, rotted leaves, swamp muck and spoiled hay to this sandy ground. Not too much all at once – the aim was to feed the soil, not stuff it so full of organic matter that the soil organisms could not assimilate it all – a kind of earthy indigestion. But every season, spring and fall, generous and consistent applications of organic matter have turned the pale, dry ground visibly darker and loamier, certainly more fertile and moisture retentive. Summer mulches left to rot back into the ground add to its organic stores. Of all the variables in a garden, the soil is the most amenable to change – for better or worse.
With space and (eventually) time to spare, we began to explore and discover new horticultural horizons: a few hardy fruit trees were planted; raspberries, currants, gooseberries, asparagus all found a place. Before long we were discovering the pleasures of fresh herbs for seasoning: tarragon for salad dressings and lovage to toss with stir-fried vegetables; savory and homegrown garlic to mince into steamed green beans; handfuls of fresh dill, chives and parsley for coleslaw and potato salad; and basil and lemon thyme in anything. Not to forget fresh green peppermint, lemon balm, sweet cicely and bergamot for the teapot.
"If you have two coins," says a Chinese proverb, "buy bread with one and daffodils with the other, for bread feeds the body, but daffodils feed the soul." Inevitably our garden path turned flowery. Given the rigors of central Ontario winters – occasional spells of, 20F (-30C) temperatures and a crushing depth of snow – many familiar shrubs and vines either struggle along or fail outright. Even forsythia, so ubiquitous farther south, blooms rather oddly here – yellow only below a distinct horizontal line that marks the winter's snow level. No wonder, then, that we turned for colour and blossoms to herbaceous perennials, hardy bulbs and alpines – plants adapted by nature to live through a full-blown northern winter. Here we found such a wide field of discovery, so much beauty and creative challenge, that we have been cultivating perennials with a passion ever since.
Our flower gardens were not planned as a whole from the start. Rather, they evolved gradually along with our interest in perennials and an expanding plant collection. Beds that once grew potatoes or strawberries gave way to peonies, irises and lilies – a reasonable progression since the soil had already benefited from several seasons of digging and delving to clear out perennial weeds and turn in organic fertilizers for the tubers and berries. A curving border dug along the east side of the lilacs provided the garden's only shady comer for primroses, lungworts, dogtooth violets, bloodroots and others.