My Natural History

My Natural History: The Evolution of a Gardener is a memoir of my life as a gardener, the hobby that started when I was a teenager and grew into a career when I became editor of Canadian Gardening magazine and host of its HGTV weekly television show. This excerpt, from Chapter Seven, recounts my admiration for wild, natural gardens–one in particular–which became the basis for my own failed attempt at a suburban meadow garden.

My Natural History book coverSearching for Natural Style

While traveling home on the commuter train from my job in downtown Toronto, I always made myself stay awake long enough to soak up the view of wild flowers and garden escapees growing with abandon on the railway embankment.  It was like an Impressionist painting, a near-blur of colour rushing past the train windows. I realize I was probably romanticizing it—no doubt its beauty had something to do with the speed of the train, which allowed me to ignore the crop of fast food containers, plastic bags and bicycle wheels that had been tossed over the fence and took their place among the flowers.

How had the plants got there, I wondered.  Had they fled from unhappy gardens? Or had they been discarded, tossed over the fence by ungrateful gardeners who’d tired of them? In their new communal home they flourished, along with the wild flowers that seeded there naturally, courtesy of the wind and the birds. None of this pretty show was of any value to most of my fellow travelers, who viewed it as a rampant growth of weeds. I’d overhear their comments: “Time they cleaned that garbage up, don’t you think?” one would say.

“I bet all those weeds are bothering someone’s allergies,” his companion would reply.

“They should mow it all down and put in some good grass,” another would offer.

I had to agree with them about the garbage, and I wondered why the railway company didn’t send a crew to pick up the debris. But to my tired eyes the view was a welcome rest and a reminder that I was going home for a spot of relaxing puttering in my own garden. The railway garden changed from season to season: in spring it was a beautiful range of bright greens mixed with yellows and blues—random clumps of escaped daffodils, stands of dandelions and what looked like bluebells or wild phlox; in summer it could be blue flax and white Queen-Anne’s lace, rosy milkweed, yellow daylilies and blue/mauve spiderwort; it metamorphosed into glorious goldenrod and back-eyed Susans, mauve asters and white boltonia in fall. And these were only the plants I thought I recognized from the train window—I’m sure there were many more hidden among the wild grasses but contributing subtly to the overall display, like the timpani and triangles in a symphony orchestra. I was always keen to see how the display shifted and altered its colours from week to week.

The embankment faced south and had a steep slope that caught the sun nearly all day. I can’t imagine what the soil was like, but if any of the household scraps in the garbage dumped over the fence over the years were able to escape their plastic confines and break down into compost, it was rich indeed. All on its own the garden achieved harmony, balance and repetition, three favourite words of garden designers and writers, with the wind and birds and Mother Nature as its only assistants. It was obviously biodiverse, with many varieties of plants to attract many different caterpillars and ladybugs, birds, butterflies and bees, who all competed for survival and maintained the balance of nature. This was the kind of garden I wanted—natural, relaxed, full of birds and insects, like a farm meadow.

Alas, that embankment garden disappeared long ago, replaced by stiff plots of boxwood edging and white marble chips replicating the logos of financial institutions and real estate firms. The enterprising person who leases the land from the railway and plants and maintains these “gardens” for the advertisers has tried to give it a natural look with curved plantings of daffodils and shrubs linking the plots along the embankment, but to me these efforts at naturalizing look more like a scalloped pie crust. They’re too deliberate. I miss the old wild garden—it inspired me, crystallizing my budding interest in meadow gardens and a desire for something nature-friendly in my own backyard.

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