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Riding the buses » Canada, Gardens of the world, Travel itinerary » Larkwhistle, the Canadian “Garden of Eden”

Larkwhistle, the Canadian “Garden of Eden”

I suspect most every Canadian who has a passion for gardening has heard of Patrick Lima and his garden on the Bruce Peninsula north of Toronto.  Although he and his partner, garden photographer John Scanlan, only started their garden in 1975, their garden has been an inspiration in a country where the history of gardening is rather thin.

Patrick has written many articles and books about this garden called Larkwhistle. For many years the garden has also been open to the public during the growing season. I recently heard that the garden will close after the 2013 season so if you have an opportunity to make a visit you should do it soon.

The tale about how they made this garden has become a bit of a legend for it was almost by happenstance. It goes like this. A friend told them that a couple of university professors had land up north that they would consider letting others use. So they caught a bus for the five-hour ride with a rake and shovel in hand. The land was little more than a hayfield lying between Georgian Bay and Lake Huron. The temperatures there can go as low as minus 30°c in the winter. They were without a vehicle so a decision to settle in such a remote place was not an easy one but that’s what they did.

They were only going to grow crops they could eat, building on what they had learned from having a city vegetable plot for two seasons. But eventually they experimented with bulbs and herbaceous perennials and Patrick wrote about it. His book The Harrowsmith Perennial Garden: Flowers for three seasons (Camden House Publishing, 1987) became my gardening bible and in fact made me the gardener I am today. I read and reread his advice and tried every single plant recommended in this book.

Over time my gardening style has evolved and today it’s most influenced by Christopher Lloyd. But my early learning came from Larkwhistle. Patrick was big on having an organic garden where no pesticides or fertilizers were used, boosting the humus content by getting manure from odd places and by making compost. That was an important lesson for the uninitiated. In one of his articles, Patrick tells about climbing the fence of an abandoned zoo to get water buffalo manure that he carted home on a streetcar (he was still living in Toronto at the time). Now that’s dedication.

This book, organized by the seasons, really helped me understand the changing tapestry of perennial gardening. It starts with the first snowdrops and crocuses in April, on to delphiniums and irises in early summer, and the daisies and day lilies of late summer.  The miracle, of course, is that each and every year the sequence remains constant.

Patrick gave extra space, in both his book and garden, to his favourite plants, edgings of pinks (dianthus), creeping phlox, bearded and Siberian irises, peonies, and lilies (down-facing lilies, out-facing lilies, up-facing lilies, trumpet lilies), to name the most obvious ones. When he and John did a bike tour of the gardens of England, they fell in love with delphiniums and so started growing them too. Louise B. Wilder’s book My Garden, published in 1916, was also an influencer, and they started to grow hollyhocks following her advice that it was “among the most pictorial of plant”.

The greatest influence their book had on me was in planting spring bulbs. There are the snowdrops and winter aconites that make an appearance when snow is still around, drifts of wild and Dutch crocuses, early irises, many blue scilla, some grape hyacinth, both species and hybrid daffodils, and of course tulips. Like them I have come to appreciate the species tulips more than the hybrid.

Patrick’s lesson was to plant bulbs in a bed with perennials so that their dying foliage would be hidden as the perennials grow. It is a simple and brilliant solution.

I have promoted Patrick’s book in bookstores across the country and given a copy to friends and family who have shown even the slightest interest in gardening. While I was a very early convert of their philosophy of gardening, it was years before I actually made it up to their garden. It was a pilgrimage of sorts. There were no surprises. Everything was perfect, just like in the book. I bought a couple of packages of Larkwhistle seeds to plant in my garden. I don’t think they ever germinated. Growing from seed was one of Patrick’s lessons I never seemed to have learned.

By Sylvia Fanjoy

Photo credits Barbara Reinhardus

© Riding the buses 2012

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