One of my fondest memories as a young girl growing up in the prairies was visiting my grandma’s country garden. A lifelong gardener, Donna Mae (as she was affectionately known) seeded my love of horticulture with her own: setting foot in her garden was like entering another world, where discoveries of new colors, scents, textures, and often tastes were waiting at every turn throughout the seasons. I frequently marveled at the way her garden continually transformed itself: her trees and shrubs radiantly displayed their most beautiful blooms in spring, offered up bushel baskets of tasty fruit in summer, waved in the fall wind with splendid palettes of gold and auburn, and stood as white-bearded sentinels of a pristine landscape in winter, chickadees and other winter dwellers finding forage and shelter among their branches. To my young senses, such a place of never-ending beauty could only have sprung forth from Mother Nature herself.
What I didn’t realize back then was that my grandma’s secret to a splendid garden was much simpler than I thought. Cleverly selecting and planting a few specimens that offered attractive features all year long was key to her garnering interest in the landscape no matter what the season. This old-fashioned and common sense approach to gardening still holds merit today. Along with garden beauties that show their best in a few short weeks during spring and summer, the most remarkable and memorable prairie gardens hold the imagination of their visitors throughout the seasons. The following are some of my favorites I employ when designing in my yard or assisting others in creating their own garden oasis.
Amur Maple (Acer ginalla)
Available in either shrub or tree form, the amur maple is the hardiest of the maple genus for our area. Growing to a mature size of around 5m x 3m, it is one of the first woody ornamentals to leaf out in the spring, boasts delicately scented blooms in late spring / early summer, and offers beautiful fall color, turning shades of orange through fiery red; as a landscape plant in the winter, the compact growth habit of the amur maple provides a terrific catchment for drifting snow. It is interesting to note that the amur maple, unlike most nursery stock found in Alberta garden centres, is sold by species and not by cultivated variety, which means that individual genetics will vary somewhat more than usual from potted specimen to potted specimen on the tree lot. The result for the amur maple is the difference in fall color; you won’t know which hue your plant will feature until you actually see it; the best time to purchase this tree/shrub, therefore, is in August when its fall colors are at their best.
Silver Leaf Dogwood (Cornus alba ‘Argenteo-marginata’)
Few shrubs are as well adapted to prairie conditions as the dogwoods. Able to thrive in dry climates with marginal soil, these plants are showy and vigorous growers; they look stunning as hedgerows or as specimen plants, require little care, and provide terrific interest all year long. Look to the silver leaf dogwood for its ability to grow in sun or shade, its clustered white berries borne in spring, its wonderfully variegated foliage throughout the growing season, and its striking red bark in winter. Hardy to Zone 2, this shrub grows approx. 2m x 1.5m. and should be pruned in early spring, before bud break, to ensure a uniform growth habit.
Golden Willow (Salix alba var. vitellina)
Perfect for an unrestricted space with ample moisture and sunlight, the golden willow is a beautiful choice for a landscape tree. Grand in its habit, a mature golden willow can reach a height of almost 15m with a canopy 12m wide. It is a fast grower (often growing up to 1m per year), leafing out early in spring and providing both terrific shade and a great windbreak in summer. As the glossy green leaves fade to soft yellow and then drop in early fall, brilliant yellow bark is exposed, a colorful and welcome relief against the snow cover of winter.
Red Leaf Rose (Rosa rubrifolia)
With so many fabulous roses that are hardy to our area, choosing any one specimen for use in your garden can be a practice in deliberation! All hardy roses share some common features: early spring leaf-out, beautiful blooms that last for weeks throughout spring and/or summer, and lovely pink to carmine colored rosehips that persist in winter months. The red leaf rose is a lesser-known variety that can be valued for its single, deep pink blooms atop glossy, purple-tinged foliage and reddish bark. Extremely drought tolerant and resistant to most bugs and diseases, it grows in upright form to 2m x 1.5m.
Weeping Norway Spruce (Picea abies ‘Pendula’)
Evergreens in the prairie landscape are a must: these plants add permanence, majesty, and elegance to every planting. The weeping Norway spruce is an ideal choice for year-round greenery in a constrained area: slowly growing to only 2m x 3m, its pendulous branches are often seen cascading over rockery and retaining walls in alpine gardens. Smooth, orange-tinted cones give great contrast to its deep green foliage. As with all spruce, this variety thrives in full sun to light shade and enjoys rich, slightly acidic soil with ample drainage.
Dexter Jackson Apple (Malus ‘Dexter Jackson’)
In addition to the traditional eating apple varieties that are tough in our Chinook climate (Norland, Goodland, Parkland, and Heyer #12, to name a few), the Dexter Jackson apple is a welcome newcomer to the prairies. Hailing from Saskatchewan, this variety shares typical cultural requirements of apples: full sun, ample moisture with adequate drainage, and cross-pollination with another apple variety for fruit production. Where this apple excels, however, is in its early production and disease resistance. An early-fruiting variety, Dexter Jackson produces amply in our season which is limited by relatively few frost-free days; it further features superior resistance to scab and fireblight. Growing to a mature size of 5m x 4m, the cheerful white blooms of this tree are a sure sign of spring, the fruit an homage to long summer days, and its unique shape and textured bark are beautiful additions to the winter landscape.
Gardening is an inspiring and rewarding pastime that should be enjoyed throughout year, not only in the spring and summer months. Beautiful, four-season landscapes are easy to create by selecting and growing specimen plants that possess interesting features year-round. Look for varieties that, in addition to great growing season performance, boast other qualities such as interesting leaves and bark, fruit, color, shape, texture, or smell. As writer Marie Huston so aptly quipped, “The gardening season officially begins on January 1st and ends December 31!”