Lessons in Landscaping

The Lion of March

March 21, 2013

Last weekend I was driving along and listening to one of those gardening shows on a Calgary radio station.  Starting about this time in the year, I like listening to the ideas for gardening and landscaping that are bandied about on those shows.  However, the landscape/gardening consultant I was listening to started talking about an unrealistic world for many of us living on the prairies and in a city or town.  I wanted to phone in to express my thoughts, but I was driving and I don’t own a cell phone.  I know, I know, why does one who has the ‘technolust’ syndrome not have cell phone?  Just consider me a bit left (or right for that matter) of centre, I guess.

This consultant, who evidently is well respected, had a great idea for yard design.  He said you should go out into your yard and sit for a good long time while you relax, look, and listen.  He was suggesting a couple of hours.  He also noted that this should not be done by sitting on your patio or deck, but to go out into the yard with a chair and hang out.  His concept was that by doing this you will get a better sense of the spaces in your yard.  He then got into a more philosophical discussion about things like ‘peace and tranquility’ and ‘vision and self’, and about how one can use their yard to support these elements of your life by proper design.  Next he talked about how people are, more and more, dedicating part of their yard to growing food, and doing it quite successfully.  My mind drifted to visualise a lovely estate home on 10 acres with trees, shrubs and flower gardens tastefully laid out and a good sized vegetable patch beside the house.  It seemed all quite lovely.

Then I woke up.

I started thinking about the homes that I’ve lived in over the years and the yards around those homes and a different ambiance came to mind.  I will say that, back in the 70’s and early 80’s, we could realise some of what this consultant was talking about.  However, I think living situations and attitudes regarding neighbours has changed for many since then.  It did for us.

In most city and towns, unless you are living on a corner, you will have five direct neighbours and three across the street.  This means there are eight possibilities that you will have someone who can undo any beauty, peace, and tranquility you may design into your own space.  In our first house in Vancouver (Coquitlam actually) and our first house in Calgary, things were pretty good, but since then those eight possibilities I mentioned have played a part in our lives. 

Noise.  This is the one most aggravating things in many neighbourhoods.  I don’t mean what I call ‘normal’ noise, which might be that of children playing in the yard, or a once-in-a-while yard party that remains in control through the evening.  These have always been there and don’t bother me at all.  What I am talking about are such things as outdoor speakers playing music of any genre with the volume turned up so loud the neighbour can hear it anywhere in their yard.  Further, this may not only be when they have a party, but all weekend when they are working in the garden.  And how about those poor dogs that are left outside, on their own, while their owners are both off to work for the day or off running errands?  Guess what, those animals go a bit strange after a while and help their nervousness and unhappiness by barking at anything and everything that moves, including falling leaves.  You might have the misfortune of having a neighbour who just doesn’t care about their barking dog and thinks it’s their right to have a dog along with whatever behaviour the dog demonstrates.  I worked with a couple of people who each had to take their neighbours to court in order to get some peace and quiet.  Imagine what that did for neighbour relations.

Flora.  As yards mature and trees grow, anything that is close to the border of one yard tends to grow over into the neighbours.  Evergreens are the biggest challenge.  Those nice six foot high blue spruce that the neighbour planted about two feet inside his property will in time grow to forty feet high and cover an area on the ground marked by circle of about thirty-five feet under which nothing will grow, other than weeds.  Of course fifteen feet of that will be on your property.  Put a couple of those on each neighbour’s property and you lose thirty feet of your yard.  That yard where, according to the consultant on the radio, you want to design for peaceful and tranquil space in which you would like to sit and contemplate your world.  I won’t go on about how those monsters block out most of the sun during the day.   But they do.

As I was thinking about the landscape discussion, the consultant got into the subject of growing food in our gardens.  While growing food in a prairie garden is possible, there are some limitations on what plants will produce a useable crop in our short growing season.  Prairies gardens that border the foothills and mountains have another adversary, which is the cool air from the mountains that flows out into the nearby prairies at night and reduces night growth.

My Dad was a fantastic gardener and when we lived in Regina he used to produce crops of berries and tomatoes from his garden every year.  When we moved to Calgary in 1950 those crops became a challenge.  He and a neighbour, who was also a keen gardener, worked at figuring out what was happening.  They deduced that the cool temperatures in the evening during the summer slowed down night growth dramatically.  That neighbour went on to build the first commercially viable hydroponic greenhouses in the west.  He always told Dad that the little experiment that they did together help form his ideas for his commercial greenhouses.  It was probably a small part, but it was nice for him to make Dad feel part of the design process.

Back to the radio show, the consultant was bubbling over with enthusiasm for growing food.  He talked about many plants that could never produce any usable crop before that first prairie frost in early September.  I was starting to find his presentation a bit humorous, but then he gave away his identity and I decided he wasn’t so unreasonable after all.  You see he is ‘a-person-who-lives-on-the-west-coast’ and, more than that, on the west coast in the USA.  He just doesn’t know any better.  Their growing season starts about the first of March and finishes in late November; our effective prairie growing season starts in May (sometimes) and usually ends in the first week of September when we get our first frost.  Different worlds.

As if to demonstrate the struggle of gardeners who live nestled up against the mountains, the previous week of brilliant sunshine and spring-like temperatures gave way to one of our notorious March blizzards.  So, I took a picture of it.