The Cranky Gardener

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The Return of the Native1

One of my first memories is of my grandfather's garden. It was a magical place for a young girl, filled with colour and texture and scent. And, no matter how often I visited it, there was always something new to discover. My love of gardening was born in that special place.

My grandfather grew many plants and shrubs that aren't in fashion these days. Garden centres and seed catalogues are overflowing with hybrid this and exotic that. Who wants something as common as Corn Lilies (Hemerocallis fulva), Buckeye (Aescelus glabra) or Ox-eye Daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare) when rare and exotic species from all around the world are available for purchase?

Most of the plants in his garden were native to our area. A frugal man by choice, and often by necessity, he delighted in creating beautiful borders from seeds and cuttings gathered from pastures and ditches. In addition to the three varieties mentioned above, Grandad grew Brown-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia triloba), Bachelor's Buttons (Centaurea), Prairie Roses (Rosa setigera), towering Sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) and Mullein (Verbascum thapsus), Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) and a host of other native plants.

This summer's drought drives home the advantages of growing native plants. They are naturally adapted to local soil and weather conditions, making them more vigorous and drought tolerant. And if you can get past the 'weed' or 'common' connotation long enough to truly look at them, you'll discover that they are as lovely as they are practical.

Two years ago I began replacing some of my finicky, water guzzling hybrids with old-fashioned, dependable flowers and vegetables. Eureka! Those are the ones that are still alive after 4 weeks of triple digit temperatures and 7 weeks without rain. Grandad was smarter than Grandma gave him credit for.

I have a problem bed in front of my house that is going to go native this fall. It is near three mature American Elms that rob the plants of water. In spite of raising the bed, adding sphagnum peat moss to improve soil texture and mulching faithfully, the plants in this bed always do poorly in the best of times and begin to die out in August. Which makes me very cranky.

I will take the Hostas that are growing there now, and clinging to life by a thread, and put them in a woodland-type area in the back garden. 'What you need to put there are Hostas, little lady!' the man at the nursery said. 'They'll stand a little afternoon sun and once they get going, nothing will kill them.' What was a little afternoon sun in April is a lot of afternoon sun in August. Too much sun for Hostas. Which brings up another tip. Don't automatically assume that the folks at the nursery know any more about plants than you do. This is the same man who sold me Azaleas for that bed the year before. The Hostas have outlived the Azaleas.

It shouldn't cost a lot to convert the bed to native and drought-tolerant plants. In my back garden I have Bearded Iris, Daylilies, Coreopsis, Purple Coneflowers, Phlox and Sedum all large enough to divide. The bed already has Veronica, Geum, Verbena, Zebra Grass and Coral Bells that are alive, if not well, and will stay for at least one more season. And I'll sow seed for Gallardia, Rudbeckia, Yarrow, and Shasta Daisies. For a feature plant at the corner of the house, I'll plant a Yucca.

Besides creating a landscape that is lovely, hardy and low-maintenance, the use of native plants makes me feel connected to Grandad. Silly, perhaps, but I can sense him nodding in agreement and have no doubt that those barely-sensed pats on my back come from him.

The fancy name for designing your landscape to conserve water is 'xeriscaping'. Besides selecting drought-tolerant plants and shrubs, there are some other common-sense things you can do to have a lovely garden without emptying the aquifer. That's the subject of next week's column.


Since we've been talking about old-fashioned flowers, I thought I'd choose an old-fashioned dessert for the recipe this week.

Carrot-Pineapple Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting


  • 2 cups - 200g - flour
  • 2 cups - 225g - sugar
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 3 eggs
  • 1½ cups vegetable oil
  • 2 cups - 100g - carrots, grated
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 cup - 200g - crushed pineapple, drained
  • 1 cup - 75g - flaked coconut
  • 1 cup - 125g - walnuts, chopped, divided


  • 2x3oz packages cream cheese, softened
  • 3 cups - 375g - powdered sugar
  • 6 tablespoons butter, softened
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350ºF - 180ºC, Gas Mark 4. Grease and flour a 13x9x2 inch baking pan. In a large mixing bowl, combine the dry ingredients. Add the eggs, oil, carrots, and vanilla. Beat until mixed. Stir in the crushed pineapple, coconut and half of the walnuts. Pour into the baking pan and bake for 50 - 60 minutes or until the cake tests done. Cool. For the frosting, combine all the ingredients in a bowl and beat until smooth. Frost the cooled cake and sprinkle with the remaining nuts. Store in the refrigerator.

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1Plant names capitalised for clarity.

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