Story by Heather Raithby Doyle, Photos by Karen James
Spring is in the air and Karen James can’t wait.
Her naturalized garden backs onto a Mississauga ravine with two large white pines shading the space. In spring the backyard transforms into a carpet of native flowers. “The bloodroot comes first with its beautiful white flowers, followed by trout lilies and mayapples,” says Karen. The trout lilies, a spring ephemeral with yellow blooms, take seven years to flower. If she is playing favourites, trout lily is the one. After that, Canada wild ginger takes over “with its lovely big leaf”. Karen often uses wild ginger as a replacement for hostas, even in her more structured gardens.
Left: Karen standing under her magnificent white pine.
It’s my happy place. When I can, I go every morning. In the summer I spend every spare minute I have in the garden.
“It’s my happy place. When I can, I go every morning. In the summer I spend every spare minute I have in the garden. If it’s not walking around and enjoying what I am looking at, I am working.” She finds the garden provides a soothing balance for her intense job as a forensic accountant.
“I feel very grateful for all the flowers,” she says.
Spring-blooming flowers in Karen's Mississauga woodland garden. All are locally native (indigenous) species:
Left to right, from top: bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), great white trillium (Trillium grandiflorum), Canada columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), Canada wild ginger (Asarum canadense), American trout lily (Erythronium americanum), Jack in the pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) and Canada wild ginger/sensitive fern (A. canadense/Onoclea sensibilis).
But gardening was not always a passion. Married to a fellow accountant, and with twin boys who are now in Grade 11, life was busy. “I started off as someone who wanted to keep things simple,” says Karen. “I wanted a low maintenance garden with not a lot of work and plants that didn’t need looking after.” This search led her to native plants.
“The more I learned about native plants and how helpful they are to wildlife and the environment, the more I started to care about what I was doing in the garden.” Now she finds it frustrating when people see gardens simply as design space. “There is so much more to it.”
Above: Sunny areas in Karen's garden are planted with native species such as black-eyed Susans, Joe Pye weed, purple coneflower and anise hyssop, together with a raised vegetable bed where tomatoes are featured. Karen is working on eliminating invasives and increasing the proportion of native shrubs and herbaceous species, a sustainable gardening practice that respects permaculture principles.
She doesn’t use pesticides or herbicides following an ‘aha’ moment. “I bought a mosquito spray, which the garden centres still sell, and it’s meant to kill the mosquitos around you. So I bought it and sprayed it once. To my horror, my absolute horror, after I sprayed it I noticed dead bees on my patio. I was shocked….Since then I have been looking for natural ways to deal with the garden.”
To my horror, my absolute horror, after I sprayed it I noticed dead bees on my patio. I was shocked….Since then I have been looking for natural ways to deal with the garden.
That was ten years ago. Since then the goal is a more balanced ecosystem, and a move towards permaculture, which Karen admits she is still learning about. Permaculture, according to Permaculture News is "The philosophy is….. of working with, rather than against, nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless action; of looking at systems in all their functions, rather than asking only one yield of them; and allowing systems to demonstrate their own evolutions.” For a suburban garden like Karen’s, this involves, in part, getting rid of much of the lawn, adding native plants to host and attract pollinators and wildlife, and, with a helpful neighbour, pulling invasive garlic mustard from the ravine area.
Vegetables are mostly grown in pots on the sunny patio, benefiting from the wide variety of pollinators that visit the native and other garden plants. “I have not used a chemical pesticide in many years and I’m pleased to say my vegetables have been great,” says Karen.
Above: This bumblebee is "buzz pollinating" the tomato blossoms. Although the tomato plant is self-fertile, flowers must be vibrated by wind or bees in order to release pollen for fertilization. The bumblebee wraps itself around the flower's reproductive structures, anchors itself with its jaws, and vibrates its wing muscles at a frequency that shakes pollen from the flower's anthers. Bumblebees and other native bees provide the most effective pollination for tomatoes, peppers, and cranberries, and the result is that yields and fruit sizes are greatly increased.
Karen joined several seed collecting trips with Blooming Boulevards, and signed up for its volunteer plant propagation project. “So now I am just waiting and hoping they don’t come up and die,” she laughs, but with a fleeting look of concern as well (don’t we all have that fear). Involvement in Blooming Boulevards “brings a lot of satisfaction. It makes me feel good to be part of a like-minded community and help give back.”
Involvement in Blooming Boulevards “brings a lot of satisfaction. It makes me feel good to be part of a like-minded community and help give back.
Her passion for native plants has influenced her son Will. Will joined a seed collecting trip, and now volunteers for Blooming Boulevards, helping build its Instagram account (@bloomingblvds1). Will’s hours will go towards completing the Duke of Edinburgh Award, says his mom, proud that he takes an interest in being an good environmental citizen.
Left: Karen with her native plant seedlings. First, she and Will helped collect wild seeds and now, she is using the seeds to help propagate native plants for Blooming Boulevards' new garden stewards this year.
The modern gardener has tools and ways to share information like never before. Karen makes the most of it, documenting her colourful garden on Instagram (@pruning_life). Her son teaches her about how to increase her following. She laughs: “It’s all about the hashtags.” She contributes plant and wildlife findings to iNaturalist, also using the app to identify birds like the white throated sparrow, and butterflies like the Eastern black swallowtail, the compton tortoiseshell, and mourning cloak that have visited her garden.
Thanks to YouTube she has found an easy way to change turf to garden: “Cover a grassy area with cardboard and a thick layer of mulch. Cut small holes in the cardboard for plants, make planting holes, put the plant in and keep the plants watered. By the following season the cardboard is degraded, the weeds are mostly gone, and the soil is improved”. She swears this method is successful and without the backbreaking labour that goes along with removing grass.
TIP: Karen’s secret for getting the best cardboard for the job? Hint, it’s not boxes. Karen advises going to Costco on a busy day to find big, flat sheets of cardboard they use to separate the boxes. The flat pieces form the perfect barrier.
Using native plants in the garden has been a rewarding journey, and it continues: “I am always open to learning new things and talking to other gardeners.” While spring warms the earth she says “let things lie…there will be an insect or animal that will appreciate everything you leave.”
More info on buzz pollination of tomatoes - https://xerces.org/sites/default/files/2018-05/12-044_01_XercesSoc_NativeBeePollination_Cherry-Tomatoes_web.pdf
Permaculture Design - http://www.theurbanfarmer.ca/permaculture-design
Woodland Plants for Landscaping - https://cvc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/com_uo-woodlandplants_f-WEB.pdf