Canadian summers are pretty short. Charlotte, a keen gardener from Edmonton, described to me the snow cover from November to March and the frost free growing season of June to September.
The gardening trend across the west of Canada seems to be to really go for it during those four, short months. It was annuals, annuals and more annuals. It was heartening to see so much pride and effort put into people’s gardens.
Gardens were certainly bright, although at times, perhaps a little too so for me; but you could understand the desire for colour as the snow melts away.
The blessing, however, of short growing seasons, is that wildflowers go wild all at once. There are no beginnings in late winter, with more coming in and out until the start of summer; others deciding that autumn was more their thing.
No. Wham, blam, mid July it is. A very definite peak.
And so being in the Rockies from 12-17 July really wasn’t at all bad (if somewhat unresearched and fortuitous) timing.
We’d just be casually strolling along a path, only to see indigenous Gaillardia, Achillea and Aquilegia. I was squealing with delight! I was even amazed when I saw the groundcover dogwood, Cornus canadensis, which, given that I was Canada, just goes to show how little I engage my brain!
We saw wild roses and buttercups, Potentilla and wood asters, harebells and clover. And a couple of completely new ones on me; Chamerion, or fireweed, named due to its tendency to be the first to germinate after forest fires (info thanks to Paulette, a lovely horticulturist I bumped into in Revelstoke), and Castilleja, or Indian paintbrushes, in almost all the colours of the rainbow.
Sadly, photos don’t do the flowers justice. In person, the mountain sides were a wash of colour; in photos, they were green with the odd pinprick of flower. Their impact, standing amongst them, was jaw droppingly gorgeous; it was so hard to believe they were all growing naturally, having synchronised their arrival to perfection. And corner after corner, you’d turn and see another picture perfect, very different array of colour.
It wasn’t all about the wildflowers though. Just the rough green vegetation at the side of the highway somehow took my breath away. The architectural, symmetrical form of the conifers standing tall and confident, with lower shrubs in perfectly complementary greens, shimmering in the breeze.
I noticed that almost all the native vegetation had small leaves and wondered how the effect was so captivating, despite the lack of contrast or variation in leaf size. It was a great lesson for me to think outside the box more; there are infinite ways to create beauty and interest and the more broadly we think, the more innovative we can be. We shouldn’t stick to the tried and tested ‘tricks’, but always keep looking for new ideas and inspiration.
We drove about 2,500 kilometres across Canada and not once did I get bored of looking out at the natural vegetation. I know I like plants, but I also have a habit of getting bored pretty quickly; these layerings of plant combinations were something very special, they had such enormous depth.
Paul would have been a rich man if he had a dollar for every time I said ‘oh, it’s so nice here’. It reminded me how you really can’t beat nature and made me think extremely hard about how I can take some of that magic and inject it into the garden.
Clearly, using indigenous, or at least native, plants helps to recreate the feeling of nature in a garden. But we do need it to be a little tidier and a little more densely focussed compared to your average piece of wilderness.
The hardest trick is scaling it back for very small gardens, but I think with a green backdrop and clever layering, just as I saw at the side of the road, something similar can be developed. I keep thinking back to Dan Pearson’s 2015 Chelsea garden and the techniques he used to so accurately capture the essence of nature within the garden.
I’m still thinking and pondering…I love the challenge and stimulation that travel brings. It’s a forever journey, the journey of gardening and of design and I’m very glad of that. More will become clear to me with time; ideas will pop into my consciousness when I least expect them.
And in case you are wondering…did we see a bear in the wild? Well, yes, just outside Banff, there was a black bear happily munching the weeds on the railway line. With my zoom lens I got quite a nice shot of him, as he looked across in my direction, before continuing his weeding with complete disinterest in his spectators.
What a wonderful country Canada is. Just incredible scenery and areas of wilderness. I do hope to be back again before too long.