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Cottage property is - almost - perfect

I had the privilege of visiting a very special cottage property last fall, on Deer Island off Honey Harbour. The owner, John, had recently purchased the nine-acre site. He told me he wants to enhance the front of the cottage with native plants and do some landscaping to the rear where there is a wetland as well as an area that appears to have served as a dump. He has no background as a cottager, but his family is ready for the experience – and while he doesn’t consider himself a gardener, he does enjoy the work.

I waited for John at the Nautilus Marina on the last Sunday in October, a lovely late fall day – chilly to start with, but warming up quickly as the sun came out. We jumped into his little aluminum motorboat and chugged out to the main channel between Beausoleil Island and Deer Island. There’s a pleasant old-time feel to the cottages – no McMansions here. John’s is a bungalow nestled in the trees, high above the water. Two nearby “bunkies” will accommodate grandchildren and other anklebiters. The previous owner built stone terracing all the way down to the water. It fits in perfectly with the rocks and the trees and the water. A job well done.

We jump off onto a rickety dock. John has planted hostas and bee balm (“rightly or wrongly,” he says deprecatingly). “They’ll have to go,” I said, nodding at the hostas, “they totally don’t belong.” John - surprised to learn that hostas are from northeast Asia, mainly Japan - is agreeably unfazed. His bee balm is native, although it’s a dwarf cultivar, and cultivars don’t always fulfill the original species plant’s ecological functions such as feeding birds and other creatures, or hosting insects and other organisms.

I take issue with something else he’s done – scrub the lichens and algae off some of the huge rocks near the water. It took a couple of hundred years for those to grow, I point out. Again, he takes no offence. I figure we’re going to get along.

To be clear, I’m not dogmatic about everything having to be native and unchanged. There’s room for all sorts, and there has to be space that’s comfortable for people. But I am passionate about the austere beauty of the Canadian Shield. Don’t do anything that could be remotely characterized as “cute,” I advise.

As we climb the steep path to the cottage, I stoop to pick a leaf. When crushed it has an agreeable minty scent. Wintergreen. I’m always delighted to find this low-growing shrub, no more than a few centimetres tall. Oil of Wintergreen is a traditional medicine that became the foundation of an industry, used to flavor a host of products, including chewing gum, toothpaste, and a variety of beverages. Nowadays it’s most often used in synthetic form, not as a natural extract. Partridgeberry and a variety of native grasses and sedges make up the rest of the groundcover.

Looking up, trees stretch to the sky: Eastern White Pine, Red Oak, Sugar Maple, Eastern White Cedar and White Birch... The canopy is dominated by one of our area’s magical trees - Eastern Hemlock. This is a slow-growing delicately branched conifer. Its needles are arranged flat on either side of the stem like those of the Balsam Fir, but smaller. We move towards the back of the property, to the clearing that has been used as a dump. There are plastic bottles and cans littered around. They’re an annoyance, but the tall, arching Hemlocks that surround us still make this feel like sacred ground. The likelihood is that this is relatively undisturbed old-growth, pre-settlement forest; these trees could be 200 to 400 years old. The garbage will have to be cleaned up, and hopefully there are no toxins, but I advise minimal planting - keep the opening clear and add some edge species like White Baneberry and Wild Ginger.

We walk further back and come out at the wetland. There’s too much water for us to go in very far, so I use my binoculars to scan the vegetation. “Oh shit.” There it is, waving its picturesque feathery seedheads, the scourge of wetlands and beaches across southern and central Ontario – Common Reed, or Phragmites australis subsp. australis. I’m puzzled, because this seems like a remote spot, the tree cover offering protection from invasive seeds riding in on the wind. But there’s a likely explanation when John tells me that snowmobilers crisscross the island during the winter when the cottagers are away. There’s a lot of “phrag” at Honey Harbour to provide a seed source and I reckon the recreational riders spread it around.

If not dealt with, the Phragmites will invade the whole wetland, crowding out native plants and creatures like turtles. Chemical controls aren’t allowed near water because of their effect on amphibians. So physical removal is a priority. Fortunately, John can call on a number of able-bodied young people and my feeling is that the infestation is not too large. About three workdays a year for a couple of years, with a host of people armed with shovels, should stop the spread. Then a few more years of a couple of workdays a year, followed by continued vigilance down the road – that’s the price of one of the more serious environmental mistakes we now have to live with.

I discover another invasive species: some sprigs of variegated Bishop’s Goutweed in a small bed by the cottage. Again, something to address as soon as possible because it can become a serious pest, but it’s at an early stage where it can easily be eradicated.

The fun part of the job was advising what may come up – spring ephemerals like Hepatica, Bellwort, Solomon’s Seal – and what to plant. I identified some existing signature species that define the character of the site, and suggested adding a few others. Ideas for along the water's edge included Marsh Spikerush (habitat for fish, amphibians and dragonflies), Northern Blue Flag Iris, Cardinal Flower and Virginia Rose. To the rear of the cottage, in the shade, I thought Canada Anemone and Foamflower would work. They both flower beautifully in spring and will quietly spread.
In front, where there’s more sun, possibilities include Purple-flowered Raspberry, Meadowsweet, Sweetspire, Canada Fly Honeysuckle, Helen’s Flower, New England Aster, Joe Pye Weed and White Turtlehead.

Final recommendation, to John and all cottagers – buy local. Don’t get plants in Southern Ontario and drive them up; just as with firewood, that’s how alien pests and diseases get transported. Make sure that the garden centre you do buy from actually has plants that are propagated here in Ontario. Sadly, a lot of what’s on offer is cloned on the west coast and trucked across the continent. But if you take the time to do the research, there are many sources of local plant material.

Seed list

Ten days ago, it was warm enough (12 C) to rake a bed and sow various native seeds - a lucky break for me, as I was behind on this task. Now, the seed is nestled under a blanket of snow that protects it from minus 20 night-time temperatures. Given that the time for fall sowing oudoors is past, if you have seed that needs a simulated winter, as many natives do, the way to go is in pots that you can place outside under the snow, or in plastic bags with some sort of moist soil mix or soil-like medium, started in the fridge any time in the next couple of months. See the seed list for this year's selection, and further information on germination.

That's it from me for 2017. The winter solstice is almost upon us - have a great celebration and start dreaming about next year!
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