Making new connections: it's what this nursery is about:

Gardens often speak to our earliest memories and we use them to reconnect with people and places we love. Just as we adorn our homes with photographs and mementoes of relatives and friends, so we give pride of place in our plantings to a flower that was mother’s favourite, or a shrub that was a familiar sight in some far off land. Which is why, often, the plants used are foreign to our Ontario landscape. Nevertheless, these alien plants spell home, both for immigrants and in many cases for those whose families have been here for generations, because culturally their roots are elsewhere, on continents where the sight or scent of lilac or tulips or peonies tugs at the heartstrings and brings comfort.

The problem is that, unlike our indoor space, our outdoors is home to others – to plants, birds, amphibians, insects, mammals that have evolved here together for millennia. It’s their only true home, and they need each other to create a food web that starts with micro-organisms in the soil and culminates in the raptor circling overhead.

But many of us have little emotional connection to the plants that are part of this ecosystem. Many of the plants have been dismissively named ‘weeds’ – as with Butterfly Weed, Milkweed, Ironweed, Joe Pye Weed, Sneezeweed (aka Helen’s Flower, mistakenly thought to cause hay fever), all of them magnificent with lovely flowering, but somehow demeaned when compared with the flowers of the English cottage garden or exotic offerings from Asia and South America. Never mind that the wealthy and fashionable in England and Europe went crazy for imported North American plants in the 18th and 19th centuries! Fortunately, fashion has cycled back to home soil and our native plants are now favoured here, where they belong.

For myself, my favourite flower as a child was the pansy and when I became a gardener, I became enamored of the black pansy, growing it from seed every spring. I also loved the bulbs, most of them originating in Europe or the Middle East and waited eagerly for the snowdrops, crocuses, and miniature irises to push up through the snow. (Those ‘exotic’ bulbs are on a different, earlier timetable to ours. In Ontario, spring starts later.) I combed the David Austin catalogue for roses. I adored the drama of the peony. I admired the infinite variety of the dahlia.

And then I learned how a garden is not to be considered as just an outside room for us. It’s a potential building block in the ever more urgent task of making plant communities that can act as bridges between fragmented islands of wild habitat. My tastes changed as my knowledge and understanding grew. Now, I don’t give the flats of frost-hardy pansies at the garden centre a second look. I have made new connections. I look forward to the first spears of Bloodroot to emerge, crowned in late April by the brilliant white flowers that signal the new season, followed by lovely grey-green leaves that are held aloft like little umbrellas. My next favourite moment is when the Virginia Bluebells open across the woodland garden. By then, the game is on and summer is a breath away.

I didn’t get rid of my peonies (plants that hail from China and Japan and live for 100 years), nor many other non-natives, though I did vanquish the Bishops Goutweed and must this year do battle with periwinkle. So when you come, don’t be surprised, I have a number of non-native plants as this nursery is part of what was once a differently conceived garden. There is Lilac, and Norway Maple, and Gas Plant (the latter desirable and uninvasive, unlike the first two). But, for the last dozen years, all the new plantings have been native.

Unlike most garden centres that sell plants that have been forced into growth early, we run on nature’s timetable here at Return of the Native, which is why I don’t open till mid-May. And even that’s a stretch as a number of plants (especially the milkweeds), won’t be properly awake until early June. It’s been eight years since I re-launched this business with a new name, a mission and a website. Before that it was called ‘Trees from Seed’ and my focus was on disposing of a surplus of trees that I found myself with after growing them from seed, as part of an effort to naturalize my two-acre property. I had two or three sales a year and offered a variety of species, native and non-native alike.

By 2010 however, I had been convinced of the importance of growing native plants to support creatures, especially the birds that give me so much joy. That was my mission. I had also planted most of the trees I needed, but realized I needed to provide more habitat at the understory level and on the ‘forest’ floor. My interest shifted to shrubs, herbaceous perennials, grasses and groundcovers. This year, I have decided I will move to more of a specialization in native perennials, especially the ones that you are less likely to find in garden centres because they are hard to propagate. Which means that introducing a ‘new’ plant can be a more laborious process and take two or three years.

This is a retail operation, aimed at the home gardener rather than the trade, so in some categories I have only 10 to 50 plants. Others, I have 100-plus. And I can grow more if asked. I order about one quarter of my stock from other native plant nurseries. If you’re looking for something that’s not on my list, check to see if I can source it for you.

With regard to trees, if it’s a mature specimen you are looking for, I don’t have it. I have decided that it’s best to get the tree into the ground young. It’s a function of keeping the root whole, and having a good root-to-top ratio. As I wrote in an earlier blog: A young tree with a proportionately larger underground support system will work on establishing its roots in the first year and then be able to start putting on height in year two. It might overtake a taller tree of the same species that has left most of its roots in the field where it was grown, and may need three years to repair the damage before it can turn its mind to top growth. I like the philosophy espoused by Sherwood Botsford, an Alberta tree grower: A good age for a tree to be planted is when it’s big enough to miss with the mower, small enough to plant with a shovel.

I advertise my plants as being grown without pesticides. Last year I began to worry whether I could make that claim as my property is in the middle of fields that are sprayed. I do have a good buffer of trees and shrubs, but nevertheless, could the pesticide be drifting on to my property and reaching my plants? Making them potentially toxic to pollinating insects and their larvae, as well as the creatures that consume them? I sent a sample of a Swamp Milkweed plant to the University of Guelph last fall and had it tested for a variety of pesticides. Fortunately none were found. I plan to repeat the testing on different plants at different times; it’s expensive so the testing program won’t be extensive, but it’s a start.
Dorothy Couper
- 30 April 2018 at 12:19pm

We are continuing our attempts to rehabilitate a small wetland that runs through our property. Although the lands around, which the water runs through, are not kept natural, we do our best to create a sign of good will to nature. We enjoy the 100 trees that we planted on our 2.3 acres, 10 years ago - before we started building our home.
This year we have scheduled a site visit with the naturalist at NVCA, to identify species which can be removed and in/over planting with native shrubs and flora which makes us happy and makes the wildlife we cherish, happy too.
I look forward to visiting "Return to the Native" within the first few weeks.
Best of wishes on your opening and educating the not-so-much members of the choir. ;)
Dorothy & Don
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