A Late Spring on the West Coast

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The Scarboro Garden Scene
A Late Spring on the West Coast

Snow and freezing temperatures greeted us on a recent trip to Salt Spring and Vancouver Islands, but we did find spring bulbs and of course many gardening features not seen in Calgary, perhaps the most noticeable being the great variety of healthy evergreens. Often under the tall evergreens is Oregon-Grape: we can grow some varieties here but in the West Coast plant hardiness zone (zone nine compared to our cold, zone four) they are ubiquitous – almost too common to be attractive. In Scarboro there is at least one Creeping Oregon-Grape (Mahonia repens), and some larger variety. I am keeping a watchful eye in the Reader Rock Garden where there are several of the more common, brighter-leaved M. aquifolium species which can be wrapped in burlap over winter to protect them from the jack rabbits – and the “dangerous” chinook days of a false spring. The leaves resemble holly leaves and they are evergreen, and it can be used as a ground cover here, but note that the berries are not real grapes and can only be eaten with caution.

After an absence of some weeks, I was dismayed to find so much winter kill on other shrubs – roses, for instance, cranberry and sour cherry trees. Winter kill may be recognized at the tips of twigs as the buds emerge in warm weather, but are not receiving sap from the roots as the latter are still in frozen soil and cannot transmit nutrient fluids. What can be done? One answer is to accept that perfection is impossible to deliver – often some of our hardiest shrubs and trees prefer to be frozen solidly, and not exposed, for instance, to chinook winds that can stimulate precocious growth. Give the plants some time to recover, and prune off only the twigs that are dead for certain.
A walk on Salt Spring brought sights of a fine Monkey Puzzle Tree (aka the Chilean Pine), and deciduous shrubs and trees just emerging from their dormant winter stage, as well as some large-petalled snowdrops, all near the property of the late author and broadcaster Arthur Black who died in February: fortunately both his plantings and his wit stay with us. In that neighbourhood old apple trees abound, along with some early daffodils, pussy willows, and winter aconite. One fine contrast is provided by yellow blooms like the winter aconite (Eranthus hyemalis), which we can grow here, and if you can find them locally we could use spring adonis, Adonis vernalis, to provide that colour contrast. A pleasant sight and sound nearby came from dozens of red-winged blackbirds, chestnut chickadees, and purple finches, full of enthusiasm for spring, no doubt!
With the towering conifers and rain and snowfall, the garden designs have to be different from ours, but some designs are worth replicating in Scarboro as long as they are developed with a knowledge of the vicissitudes of our climate. One fine tree looked like a robust but old tall larch, but it turned out to be a Deodar Cedar, a different genus from what we call cedars. Its fine needles look and feel just like our native and commercial larches here, but it is evergreen. An attractive tree, but not for our climate: look for it if you are visiting those islands, but plan to use more larches here.

Glynn Wright

March 15th