A Canadian dream is to have a summer home at the lake—and there are many thousands of lakes in this country. These lakeside dwellings are often quite modest but even the most luxurious are usually called cottages. Barbara Reinhardus and her husband Gerrit have worked on the land at their Ontario cottage for 31 years. Through hard work and vision they have created a property resembling an English cottage garden in the woods with roses, climbers, self-sowing annuals, spreading perennials, and hedges for privacy.
Three sisters and two of our husbands bought the cottage on impulse in 1981. We saw it and wanted it although none of us had much money and interest rates were 18.5%. My mother questioned the sanity of buying “a big field with a couple of trees” and she did have a point. The whole back of the property was rock, the front was fill, and what soil existed was very sandy. My sisters eventually sold us their shares but we continue to come together at ‘the cottage’ for family gatherings.
In 1981, none of us knew anything about gardening. Since privacy was the first priority, we started with what we could get for free – lilacs, spruce, cedars, birch, pines and hemlocks. Hemlocks are gorgeous trees and native to our area but do not like the winds roaring in from the lake. Over the years, Gerrit has moved baby plants into protected corners of the property creating hemlock glens for privacy and beauty.
When we started building the garden beds, it was too costly to truck in soil. A nearby bog provided the solution and we began bringing muck, one bucket load at a time, to mix with the sandy fill. We learned to create good compost and began the annual ritual of raking and mulching the millions of leaves that fall every autumn. Over time we have built up enough humus in the soil to sustain the gardens. More recently it has been possible to import good triple mix which has extended the possibilities.
For many summers we watered everything by hand, hauling buckets of water from the lake. Everyone who visited the cottage was enlisted as part of the bucket brigade! Now we have a pump system that brings water from the lake through garden hoses. We have planted native species along the waterfront and into the property and extended the wooded area. We do not fertilize the grass nor use pesticides on the property.
The front of our lot faces water and the often cruel northwest winds. We are a little south of Ottawa but have a slightly harsher exposure – probably Zone 4b. The microclimate behind the cottage is gentler so I experiment with less hardy plants there. The lawn area by the lake is so low that ducks swim across it in spring. Consequently, we have raised the garden beds to a sufficient level to ensure that the roots are not sitting in water unless they can tolerate that condition.
In the early days, I thought that gardening under shade trees would require minimal attention. Little did I know how quickly the roots from those large trees would deplete the moisture and nutrients in the garden soil. In order for hostas, astilbes and ligularia to flourish we replant them every few years. This task requires serious muscle power because digging into the ground is like digging into cement. With great effort Gerrit removes a plant, enlarges the planting hole, lines it with layers of newspaper, adds triple mix and replants. Everything looks wonderful for two or three years and then he does it all over again.
We now have many of the classic cottage perennials. Monarda, phlox and echinacea do well; peonies love it here as do hardy geraniums. A few years ago, I started growing delphiniums in our sunny garden and they seem very happy. I struggle with clematis but keep trying different varieties and each year I add more grasses. I’ve started to become a bit of a collector, particularly of daylilies. While the old fashion ones still are best, I appreciate many of the newer ones, particularly for their colour.
I do like some formality therefore have placed boxwoods in pots on the deck and planted a number of tall, narrow evergreens in the perennial gardens. Throughout the gardens you will find the wild, the very colourful, the mostly green, and the green and white. As I develop the gardens in the back I plan to experiment with gravel beds. This year I introduced lavender and bears breeches.
Here the gardening year is from June 1 to the end of October. There is really no spring garden because the black flies are unbearable in May and often it’s simply too wet to garden. The first colour starts with ornamental onions and hardy geraniums. Hostas are huge and fabulous by mid June. Then the peonies bloom and so on.
October is our most important working month. This is the time to rake and stockpile leaves, cut down most of the perennials, add manure to gardens and cover everything with leaf mulch and compost. Some plants need extra protection and are covered with soil. The cedars are enclosed inside wooden supports wrapped in burlap to prevent the deer from destroying them.
I can’t extend the gardens anymore because my sons and grandsons want room for crochet, soccer and badminton. They have drawn the lines indicating how far I can go. They notice if I steal even a few extra inches.
These restrictions do not perturb me because I have a new focus. After 30 years of experimenting with more plants than I choose to recall, I have a very good idea about what grows here and how to keep those plants happy. Now I am intrigued by discovering more ways to work with those dependable plants in artistically appealing designs.
Some visitors to our cottage delight in the land, the lake and the gardens. They may not know much about plants but they appreciate the beauty their colour and texture add to this northern place. Other visitors express a kind of pity for me and dismay at what they see as endless, hard work. It is hard work but for me, gardening combines physical effort with intellectual challenge and creative pursuit in an almost perfect package. Where ever I have lived, I have tried to create a garden but no location has compared with gardening by a lake. It is on a summer evening when I am most aware of the perfection of my setting as I work in the gentle breeze, listen to the call of the loons, and watch the setting sun turn the lake into molten gold.
What, I ask, could be more glorious?
By Barbara Reinhardus
Photo credits Barbara Reinhardus
© Riding the buses 2012