By Jill Macdonald
This article first appeared in print in the April issue of Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine.
Revelstoke gardens bear witness to trends in gardening styles and shifts in the popularity of certain shrubs and flowers, but they also reflect significant changes in our climate. During her years of living and gardening here, Christine Nielsen of Magpie & Larch has noticed the robustness of certain plants has diminished. Things that once flourished are not as prolific as they once were – rhododendrons and azaleas for instance. Known for their showy displays of colour and tropical appearance, these non-native species are no longer supported by our climate like they once were. Altered rainfall patterns and hot summers mean that we need to adapt our gardening choices and move toward more native species and plants with lower water requirements.
Working toward a balance of preservation, enjoyment and the future of our environment is a vision all gardeners can get started on this growing season.
For anyone establishing a new garden, Christine suggests starting with an in-depth site analysis before breaking ground and removing any established areas. Trees, rock features and neighbouring permanent structures are the bones of your yard. Preserving them sustains a natural shape to your landscaping and conserves roots and soil health. Take note of sun exposure, the shade that is currently present and any shady areas that will be created by your new home. These microclimates have different requirements when selecting plants. Also take note of low-lying areas, prevailing wind direction, drainage and soil type. The success of your efforts is largely determined by making appropriate choices.
Preserving established areas has other significant benefits. Heavy equipment on site causes soil compaction and disturbance. Disturbances open the door to weeds. Compaction makes it difficult for roots to penetrate and extract nutrients from the soil. Christine is an advocate for manual labour. Yes, it takes more effort but a good old-fashioned shovel and wheelbarrow gets the job done with less impact and damage. Better for the environment equals better results and increased rates of success. A compacted yard takes years to recover.
Despite the apparent lushness of our valley, we are experiencing longer periods of little to no rainfall. Unless you are willing to invest in pricey or time-consuming irrigation systems, Christine believes it is time to move toward native and drought-tolerant plants and practices.
Ways to conserve water can be incorporated into established gardens through the use of mulches and pathways. Mulches are attractive and retain water around plants. Readily available mulches in our area include pea gravel, leaves and bark from local sawmills. If using pea gravel for mulch, remember to install a durable, permeable layer such as heavy-duty landscape fabric to keep the gravel from contaminating the soil.
Stone edges and pathways direct traffic to certain areas, reducing soil compaction and time spent on manicuring. Pathways that replace lawns reduce water consumption and add visual interest.
If native plants are not an option due to availability, choose non-invasive, drought-tolerant, easy-care species. Tip from Christine: Read the labels carefully to ensure compatibility with the microclimate of your outdoor space. We are Zone 5a to 5b. Anything with a lower rating has a good chance of success.
For ideas, look to your neighbours. Observe what is flourishing close to you. If are wanting to establish an easy-care lawn, lean toward wild mixes that host pollinators and are low mowing.
Pines, junipers and evergreen ground covers are excellent choices for drought-tolerant gardens. Having ground covers conserves moisture in the soil and provides an appearance of lushness year-round. They remain constant while the plants around them change during the seasons. We are surrounded by conifer forests. Local native species of pine and juniper are readily available and are nicely set off by rock and wood-based mulches.
Messy is in the eye of the beholder. For many reasons, Christine suggests that we embrace imperfections. The use of gas-powered machinery, fertilizers and herbicides all contribute toward toxicity in the soil and ultimately in our ecosystem. The randomness of nature and the beauty of unexpected plants that take root in unexpected places is nature’s design. Spaces that offer shelter, shade and disorder invite creatures to rest and birds to nest.
Extending mindfulness to garden waste helps mitigate the spread of invasive and unwanted species. Many people do not realize that roots and clippings thrown in piles down banks or left in ditches have a higher propagation rate than seed dispersal. Contact with soil and the moisture in the piles increase rooting success. Free yard waste disposal is available to everyone. Take clippings, pruning and leaves to the Revelstoke Landfill location at 330 Westside Road.
Climate change impacts the behaviour of wild animals. Early winters, delayed spring growth and heat waves cause animals to change their habits accordingly. We know that fruit trees and berries attract bears. However, many species are productive when these wild animals have available food sources at higher elevations. Choosing plants that can be harvested during the heat of summer or late spring reduces the risk to wildlife. Blueberries, currants and saskatoons all do well in Revelstoke.
Evaluate your neighbourhood as a whole and resist adding bear attractants. Existing fruit trees that are left unharvested can be shared. If you notice that a wildlife corridor intersects your property, consider fencing that will direct animals away from people.
In an environment where change feels abrupt, we need these opportunities to remind ourselves that we are stewards of the earth. The climate is asking that we pay attention.