In a constant state of re-education: autumn planting and Prairie ecosystems

Gardening is a constant state of re-education — usually from scratch. Last year I wandered out one day and found an entire hosta eaten to the ground overnight. I know that even in a persistent drought the slugs continue to eat. Surely I must have seen damage in previous days? What happened to vigilance?

Well the same thing started to happen with a recently acquired Hosta ‘Frosted Jade’. This year I took it out of the ground immediately. It recovered like magic and is now growing at such a rate I’m tempted just to leave it where it is — in a container. Hostas don’t mind being in pots for months, even years. So it might never be moved. But I can see what’s going to happen — a mass of containers filled with hostas of various sizes, colours and stripes will be competing for space on the deck with the batch of coleus living there now. Yikes, is this what I truly want?

This garden gives new meaning to the concept of intensive planting and it seems criminal to leave any soil exposed in such dry weather. Plants, however, have flourished with some getting right out of hand. The bigger hostas for instance. They have a will to dominate the whole place like some sort of man-eating herbaceous shrub. I can see that they will have to be divided in spring.

Hostas aren’t the easiest things in the world to hack up. It takes a sharp spade, a shovel and a good friend to do the job. But they always look so much better afterwards. H. ‘Francis Williams’, which I swore I would get rid of because it gets so huge and rough-looking. It’s now in its second year after having been reduced to a snippet and looks quite wonderful.

Again and again I learn about some great but unjustly neglected plants. Why haven’t I tried them before?

  • Salvia gregeii is an annual or tender perennial depending on where you live. It comes decked in glorious pinks, yellows, violets, red and purple all autumn long. Alas, some plants are doomed simply because they do bloom late in the season and it’s not possible to figure out what they’ll look like when we buy plants in spring. Give this one a try next year.
  • Veronicastrum, a magnificent native plant, is now a large clump in my own garden. Bees adore it and with patient (and very careful) deadheading it’s still blooming in its second month. It should be popular and so should vernonia. They are both brilliant, drought-tolerant native plants that like sun and will put up with awful soil.
  • And phlomis. This has to be the weirdest plant in the sage family. It has felted grey-green leaves, grows to about 100 cm high with evenly spaced flower heads that look like enlarged clusters of salvia puffing out along the square stems.
  • P. russeliana is yellow; but I have a purpley form. It’s absolutely stunning and if it comes through the winter I will be a happy person. It’s listed variously as Z5, 6, 7 and 8 in different reference books and catalogues. I’d say take a chance on a such a sensational plant. It’s the same old lesson: if you love it, plant it and hope for survival; or think of it as an annual.

One thing I have learned, and it’s stuck, is that autumn is a fantastic planting time. The past few weeks have been filled with major moves. Nothing was safe. I keep track of what’s moved, the date and plant response. For instance, last year I shifted a Japanese maple quite safely at this time of year. Did the same this year and so far there seems to be no damage to the plant.

In August my education took a great leap when I went for a walk with botanist Allan Woodliffe through the tall grass prairie of Walpole Island, between Sarnia and Windsor, Ont. The First Nations Cultural Centre there has maintained it perfectly. We walked through shoulder-high grasses such as big bluestem, Indian grass and switchgrass, gazing on brilliant masses of blazing star and ironweed.

It was a transcendent experience just being there, just breathing in the scent of the meadow and listening to the bugs. There was a sense of being connected with an ancient past, a feeling of gratitude that, against all odds (no money, little support), this tract of prairie has been kept intact, that traditional burning goes on each year to keep it pristine. At one time there were 9 million hectares of prairie. With only 3 per cent left, this is one of our most endangered ecosystems. This prairie will open your eyes to the amazing things that nature can provide when treated properly.