Un-gardening: Let nature create beauty at the cottage

The sun is already well up in the sky, the bright light rippling off the water. An angler’s boat chugs quietly across the inlet. It’s still early for the constant drone of summer traffic. A soft breeze gently stirs the air.

I’m visiting an island on Stoney Lake (or is it Stony Lake?), relaxing in the dappled shade of mature white pine, red oak and red maple, tall trees many decades old, quite close together and because of that, with no branches for 20 feet or more - the view is perfectly framed.

The cottage is nestled among outcrops of ancient rock, the great grey and pink forms crowned with moss and splashed with lichens. I examine a small plant community, a foot across, nestled in a slight depression at the base of an oak – Wintergreen Gaultheria procumbens, Canada Mayflower Maianthemum canadense, Lowbush Blueberry Vaccinium augustifolium and tiny seedlings of Eastern Hemlock Tsuga canadensis and Red Maple Acer rubrum.

Wintergreen, with its shiny leaves and pretty bell-shaped white flowers that will turn into bright red berries, is widespread on this forest floor. It’s a plant that is used to flavour many products, from chewing gum to root beer.

Further along, young White Pines Pinus strobus, a couple of feet tall, rooted in impossibly tight cracks in the rock surface, stretch upwards. Decades from now, some will achieve their goal, taking their place in the sunlight above the canopy and replacing the current guardians of the site.

A medley of native vegetation cloaks the shoreline – Red-berried Elderberry Sambucus racemosa, Sweetgale Myrica gale, Black Huckleberry Gaylussacia baccata, Common Juniper Juniperis communis, Smooth Rose Rosa blanda, Bush Honeysuckle Diervilla lonicera, Tall Meadowrue Thalictrum pubescens and Jewelweed Impatiens capensis.

A couple of ferns – Rock polypody Polypodium virginianum and Marginal Wood Fern Dryopteris marginalis, grow between the boulders along with cascading Bristleleaf Sedge Carex eburnia, while Virginia Creeper Parthenocissus quinquefolia and Wild Grape Vitus riparia twine their way along the ground and onto the dock.

A Muskoka chair offers a chance to look back at the classic pine-dominated shoreline, magical with the light bouncing off the water against the foliage. There’s flitting back and forth, but my binoculars are of no assistance in penetrating the leaves to find out who’s there. Merlin to the rescue. This is the first time I’ve used this app for bird identification based on sound (which is something I have never been able to do myself). It’s wonderful!

A chirp here, a trill there and a list starts to build on my cell phone: Red-eyed Vireo, Black-capped Chickadee, Eastern Phoebe, Pine Warbler, Red-breasted Nuthatch, White-breasted Nuthatch and Eastern Wood Peewee. A bird perches briefly on a branch and disappears – dark head and back, white breast, white tip to the tail. An Eastern Kingbird.

The site isn’t a perfect expression of a Kawarthas lake in its natural state. Three white Smooth Hydrangeas Hydrangea arborescens cast a jarring note to the purist eye, and there are more of the same in beds beside the cottage. Also Common Daylilies Hemerocallis fulva. All fairly recently planted along with Garden Mint Mentha spicata, not by the current owners, perhaps by the previous ones ahead of the recent purchase in an attempt to “dress up” the property.

But except for some digging by Lucy the dog, the site stands out for a very productive absence of gardening, allowing the austere beauty of this landscape to take centre stage. The ‘grass’ on the rocky uneven ground that surrounds most of the cottage consists mainly of a couple of native sedges, Longstalk and Pennsyslvania - Carex pedunculata and Carex pensylvanica. They don’t need mowing. Soft patches of Pincushion Moss Leucobrium glaucum and Northern Selaginella Selaginella ripestrisa are a welcome groundcover underfoot.

Time for an inventory. Another app makes quicker work of what would have once been a laborious task. Copious references to Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide and other works of reference have been replaced by a matter of a photograph leading to a listing. iNaturalist is a free app I am planning to learn, but for the past couple of years I have used the $30 a year ‘Picture This’ app. There are others.

One can’t always trust an app – for instance, I am dubious about a single clump of grass identified as German Bamboo Pogonatum criticum, native to Madagascar and the Far East. Still, I find an ad for its use as a house plant, so it’s possible. There’s also a little Spider Plant Chlorophytum comosum in the path, perhaps they came in together. Neither will survive a Canadian winter.

I wander through the rocks and moss, ignoring the mushrooms. These are the kind of natives that belong in this neck of the woods, the ones that support insects and birds and life generally:

Mapleleaf Viburnum Viburnum acerifolium, Shadblow Serviceberry Amelanchier arborea, Round-leaved Dogwood Cornus rugosa, Common Chokecherry Prunus virginiana, Ironwood Ostrya virginiana and one Staghorn Sumac Rhus typhina seedling;

Wild Sarsaparilla Aralia nudicaulis, Large-leaved Aster Eurybia macrophylla, Prairie Fleabane Erigeron strigosus, Hairy Hawkweed Pilosella longipila, Bluestem Goldenrod Solidago caesia, Arrowleaf Aster Symphyotrichum urophyllum, Grey Goldenrod Solidago nemoralis;

Little-leaf Buttercup Ranunculus abortivus, American Cow-wheat Melamyrum lineare, Common Self-heal Prunella vulgaris, Blue Wood Aster Symphotrichum cordifolium, White Panicle Aster Symphotrichum lanceolatum, White Avens Geum canadense;

Poverty Grass Danthonia spicata, Roughleaf Ricegrass Orysopsis asperifolia, Graceful Sedge Carex gracillima, Northern Long Sedge Carex folliculata, Eastern Rough Sedge Carex scabrata, Western Brackenfern Pteridium aquilinum and Hairy Solomon’s Seal Polygonatum pubescens.

Of course, the human footprint has left more than hydrangeas and as my search continues, my delight at the idea of having discovered a corner of cottage country left as nature intended is dampened.

The outsiders that came in “accidentally” are not as immediately noticeable as the towering trees and lush shrubbery that belong here - but there are many. On the path near the bed by the deck, there’s a single Common Plantain Plantago major. White man’s Foot, the indigenous peoples named it, for its appearance wherever the settlers passed.

By the steps, Common Speedwell Veronica officinalis and White Clover Trifolium repens are working on creating a mat. The invasive purple-flowered Cow Vetch Vicia cracca is infiltrating the daylilies. Nearby we see the bright yellow and prominent stamens of a couple of Common St. John’s Wort Hypericum perforatum, also considered invasive. 

More non-natives: Red Raspberry Rubus idaeus, Butter-and-Eggs Linaria vulgaris, Black Medic Medicago lupulina, Common Dandelion Taraxacum officinale, Orchard Grass Dactylis glomerata, Nutgrass Cyperus rotundus, and Sheep’s Fescue Festuca ovina lead the way to a flattish area around the corner. A jumble of plants of mixed provenance remains low-growing because of shade, sparse soil and being walked on. Non-natives like Herb Robert Geranium robertianum, Oregano Origanum vulgare and Wavy Hair-grass Avenella flexuosa mingle with the native Large-leaved Aster and Selfheal.

Back by the shore, two more invasives: Purple Loosestrife Lythrum salicaria and Coltsfoot Tussilago farfara. The cottager likes the loosestrife - it's showy - and I tell him it’s considered less problematic in North America since two European beetles were introduced to prey on it 30 years ago. There’s also a Common Milkweed Asclepias syriaca; in the afternoon, a Monarch butterfly drifts by to give it her seal of approval.

There are two orchids on this site – a single Broad-leaved Helleborine Epipactis helleborine from Europe that’s growing with the hydrangeas. It’s in flower – interesting as orchids always are, but drab. And invasive, with an underground root system that’s hard to control once established. It doesn’t belong here.

Several Pink Ladyslippers Cypripredium acaule that bloomed in late May and June – there’s still a wisp of a flower on the stems – stand out among the mosses. They are slow to germinate and mature, dependent on fungi in the forest soil for nutrients to feed their root system, but can eventually develop into substantial colonies if left undisturbed. This is their home.

I was excited when I first realized how little had been intentionally planted on this site. But unintentional introductions abound. Here, the gardener’s job would be not to enhance but to subtract. Judicious “un-gardening” is called for. And leave the rest to nature.
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