Saturday, March 30, 2019

Working alongside Nature in a Riverside Garden

If it weren't for the tall buildings peeking up over the treetops, you might imagine that this riverside garden is set in the countryside. In reality, it's is not far from the busy city centre of Guelph. 

The century home backs onto the Speed River which joins with the Eramosa in Guelph to form the Grand River. The grey fieldstone duplex with its sage-green trim is home to the Leanne Johns and Stan Kozak, who share a love of nature and gardening.

The garden at the front of the house is simple and understated.

"Our house is north/east facing and there is a Norway maple planted in the city boulevard. Over the years, I have removed all of the grass and experimented to see what I could grow with little maintenance on my part.  Ajuga seems to be surviving drought and neglect–as are my hostas and ferns. I am more interested in gardening by the river than out along the busy street, but want the front of our 1875 stone home to look good from the street," Leanne tells me.  

The moment you open the back gate, the urban landscapes fades as a view of the garden and the river beyond come into focus. To your right, there is a seating area, a pond and a covered porch that is as tall as the house itself. The garden is filled with perennials, vegetables and herbs. It didn't always look this way though.

"When we purchased the property in 2000, no gardening had been done for years," Leanne recounts. "There were some rickety steps (which the city had condemned) from each of the apartments leading down to the weedy backyard.  We concentrated on the inside renovations, including the porch across the back of the house. The porch allows us to live outside as soon as the weather is warm enough."

When it came to creating a garden, Stan and Leanne let the site itself lead the way even if that meant they had to make adjustments to their plans.

"Our first attempt to plant a vegetable garden unearthed limestone bedrock just under the surface.  Instead of planting vegetables, we scraped the topsoil off that part of the garden and used it to add depth to the existing vegetable garden.  The section of the yard scraped clear of the earth is now an Alvar," explains Leanne.

An Alvar, which is an area of exposed limestone or dolostone rock with little or no soil, is a globally rare phenomenon. In Ontario, Alvars can be found on the Bruce Peninsula and much of the Carden Plain.  Conditions on an Alvar can be harsh with flooding in spring and drought in the summer. While such open habitats may seem barren at first glance, they are home to a unique and rare group of plants that have adapted to the harsh conditions. Alvars also provide important seasonal habitat for grassland birds and many other living creatures.

In keeping with the flora that might be found on a natural Alvar, Stan and Leanne have incorporated native plants in their gardens. "We've planted Lakeside daisy, Prairie Smoke, Little and Big Blue Stem (Little Bluestem or Prairie Beardgrass, Schizachyrium scoparium and Big Bluestem, Andropogon gerardii)," Leanne tells me. 

Other practicalities also influenced the design of the garden.

"Our neighbour's have a large black walnut.  It creates shade and beds with walnut toxicity along one side of the yard. Hence the garden is full of hostas and other walnut-tolerate plants; Eastern Redbud, Pawpaw, Solomon's Seal and Amelanchier," says Leanne.

The hosta with the lime-green edge is 'Golden Tiara' 

Hosta 'Golden Tiara' is a smaller hosta with foliage that has creamy edges (chartreuse in a more shady spot). The flowers are lavender in color. Average garden soil and average to moist conditions. Height: 30-40 cm (12-16 inches), Spread: 75-90 cm (29-35 inches). USDA zones: 2-9.

The step leading to the pond and seating area off the porch.

Wandering Jew, Tradescantia zebrine in a container planting next to the pond. 

The plant along the front of the pond is Winter Savory. Leanne tells me, "It's a good example of growing what works. I could not get anything to grow there. I tried Sweet Woodruff, Ajuga, a small creeping strawberry and hens and chickens. Then the Winter Savory started to grow there on its own. I will caution people that it seeds like crazy and I have to work to keep it out of the patio cracks. I now give it a severe hair cut before it goes to seed."

Despite the garden's pleasant setting, the city is close by. "We live very close to downtown Guelph and it can be quite noisy," Leanne laments. "We hear traffic and sirens all the time. That is why the pond is located beside the deck and seating areas."

The backyard slopes gradually down to the river's edge so creating a large flat area for a pond required a bit of ingenuity. 

"Stan created the pond using concrete blocks," Leanne recounts. "As the walls on the sides of the pond increased in height, we used the excavated material to build up the area around the pond's perimeter. This created a pond that is five feet deep in the center–deep enough to support life over the winter under the ice."  

"Once the pond was up and functioning we built the second lower pond. We lined this new pond with a rubber material and then used the same rubber to connect it all up as a little cascade to the river.  A fair amount of limestone went into shaping this cascade. A small electric pump brings water up to the pond. It trickles over a waterfall to the lower pond and eventually back to the river.  The sound of trickling water helps with significant urban noise."

As is so often the case, the pond is a magnet for wildlife.

"We have had fish, particularly when our kids still lived here, but there are none at the moment," says Leanne. "Each year the frogs discover the pond and we have two or three take up residence. Some years toads have also used it for their eggs. Small turtles make their way up from the river and stay in the pond for a time."

The tree is actually a cluster of three young Pawpaw trees (Asimina triloba). Though its glossy leaves give it a tropical appearance, a Pawpaw is native to the Carolinian Forests of North America. It has fruit that is described as being a cross between a mango and a banana. A Pawpaw can grow to a height of 20ft with a spread of 10ft.

Backyard tasks are done in partnership.

"Stan and I both garden," Leanne shares with me. "Stan did most of the hard work in physically creating the gardens and pathways. He also takes care of the vegetable garden and the Alvar. I do the rest."

The grey mounds are Blue Fescue Grass, Festuca glauca. 

Both Leanne and Stan are avid birders.

"We are concerned about the environment. As birders, we are very aware of the decline in the number of birds. We use no chemicals or pesticides, nor do we use power tools, cutting the grass area with a push mower", says Leanne.

One of the garden's most striking features is a large swath of Echinacea purpurea and Rudbeckia.

"The Rudbeckia are from a couple of plants that a cousin gave me 40 years ago and have moved from place to place. Echinacea is my favourite flowering perennial.  In the beginning, I just purchased or accepted any echinacea that looked purple.  More recently, we are concentrating on native species and so any new plants are from native stock," Leanne reminisces. 

The dock area by the river is used to put a canoe and kayaks in and out of the water.  When Stan and Leanne bought the property there was an old ruin of a building by the river. Judging from old photos it was likely an ice house.  The old foundation became the inspiration for the existing "ruins".  The soil was dug out of the area and moved up (wheel barrel by wheel barrel load) to make the soil deeper on the sunny slope by the pond. Walls were then constructed and a brick floor put down.  

"We sit by the river for everyday meals and when we entertain. San and I love to watch the river going by and enjoy the breeze and passing ducks," Leanne tells me. 

Wild Bergamot, Monarda fistulosa is a North American native that can be found in fields and along roadsides. In late summer, it has lavender colored flowers that are popular with bees. This clump-forming perennial likes average, well-drained soil. Dry to average moisture suit Monarda fistulosa. Full sun to light shade. Height: 2-4 ft, Spread: 2-3 ft. USDA zones: 3-9.

In keeping with their interest in nature and the environment, Stan and Leanne have incorporated many native plants.

"Our goal was to have a garden that reflects a natural setting and that encourages wildlife.  We have many native species - dwarf Hackberry, Kentucky Coffee Tree, Service Berry, Amelanchier (many different ones I'd recommend to any garden), Solomon's Seal, Trillium, Mayapple, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, native ferns, Elderberry, Eastern Redbud, Alternate-Leaf Dogwood to name a few," says Leanne.

Virginia Creeper, Parthenocissus quinquefolia is a vigorous vine that is a member of the grape family. Berries that appear in late summer/fall are a food source for songbirds and chipmunks.

The view of the house from the dock.

"We regularly see beaver in the river. There are also garter snakes, toads, frogs, rabbits (I have to put wire over some of my hosta in the spring) and of course a wide variety of birds. I quit cutting down the dead stalks in the fall when I noticed how much the goldfinches enjoy the seeds", says Leanne.

"Robins and mourning doves regularly nest under the porch and this winter we are thrilled to have an eastern screech owl roosting there during the day. A peregrine falcon has taken up residence on the condo tower across the river."


Some of Stan's vegetables and herbs.

Stan finds growing vegetables and herbs can be a bit of a challenge.

"We like to attract and live with wildlife and this desire and vegetables often clash.  Before we put up a riverside fence barrier, one year a beaver came out of the river and took away a prized Montreal melon that Stan had been babying along.  He, of course, blamed our boys until the worn path to the river was noted," laughs Leanne.
"In selecting vegetables he tries for ones that squirrels and chipmunks don't like.  This past year that included Delicata squash (a great producer), eggplants, garlic and herbs.  We had a cherry tomato that produced vigorously but we never got a tomato as the chipmunks took them while still green."

Lady's Mantle, Alchemilla Mollis

Saint Francis the patron saint of animals.

Stan relaxing the shade.

Sedum sparkling with raindrops.

The porch has a high roof and a huge overhang making it a great multi-season space.

"Another aspect of our backyard is to provide space for entertaining groups. Hence the various seating spaces - the porch, patio below the porch, grassy area with chairs, patio by the river and a bench in the Alvar," says Leanne.

Overall, Stan and Leanne's garden is a great example of working with the challenges and assets that any outdoor space presents. Their use of native plants allows the backyard to blend in seamlessly with the surrounding landscape, and because the plants are well suited to the site, it makes the task of gardening that much easier.

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  1. Beautiful! I love how they have invited the climbers at the rear of the decking to climb-up and scale the roof line.

    1. I forgot to ask Leanne what the climbers were but they look like morning glories. Wouldn't they look amazing in the late summer?

  2. Thank you for sharing this beautiful place. Your post just made me smile on this rainy day!

  3. Wow....not only am I impressed with your outstanding garden - this blog is amazing. Thank you

    1. Glad you like the blog. This isn't my garden, but I will pass on your compliments to the homeowners/gardeners.

  4. Hi Jennifer,
    I've just discovered your blog and I love it. I went to the University of Guelph and lived there for a few years after my grad studies; the University's art gallery holds a Mother's Day garden tour every year and this garden brought back many fond memories I had from my time there. I think the climber that your reader spoke of is Humulus lupulus aka Hops.


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