The Butchart Chronicles : September 18, 2017

Garden Notebook - Autumn 2017

Garden Notebook – Autumn 2017

By Rick Los, Director of Horticulture

Sunken Garden, early autumn 2016

As I started putting my thoughts together about what I was going to write for you, I came across something that I wrote a couple of years ago at this very same time. It was amazing how my feelings were exactly the same as I feel now and I have to admit that even after 20 years as the Director of Horticulture, I’m always relieved that we (the gardeners and the garden) survived another summer!

If the garden had the ability, I’m sure that it would follow the lead of our gardeners and let out a sigh of relief as we are able to take a break from the overwhelming demands of summer. The demands that I’m talking about come in many different forms and I feel obligated to mention some of them before we proceed to the autumn season.

As many of you know, we welcome the vast majority of our visitors during the months of June through September. Expectations from our visitors during the summer months are typically very high and although we cherish that challenge, the pressure to keep the garden looking its absolute best can be very demanding.

I’ll start with the lawns as they are probably the most overlooked feature in our garden. To begin with, there are over 60 concerts that take place in the gardens during July and August, which means that the lawns have to endure that many consecutive nights of heavy traffic. Adding to that pressure on the lawns are the 10 fireworks shows that draw thousands of visitors each Saturday night, and due to the sheer volume of these crowds, they are at times squeezed off of the lawns and pathways and into some of our display borders.

One of the over 60 concerts that takes place on the Concert Lawn over the summer

To be sure, visitors are not the only ones responsible for damaging the plants as the onslaught of pests and diseases that are part of the joys of the summer garden also need to be carefully managed. One final challenge that I should mention are the added demands on our irrigation systems and water supply as the frequency of summer drought conditions has been increasing.

Thankfully our gardeners are very resilient and are experts on the daily preservation, restoration and revitalization of the garden. Each morning they take the tired garden and somehow breathe new life into it to revive it and make it look breathtaking. All in all, summer is an endurance test for us and there is a certain sense of elation when the crowds thin out, the weather gets cooler and the refreshing rains return.

Speaking of being elated – one of the highlights that we are delighted to see in the garden at this time of year are the magnificent Dahlias. Since I’ve focused so much on challenges, I will admit that this had to be the most challenging year in our history to try and get our Dahlias to perform (or even to grow at all!) From the beginning rooting stages in the greenhouses to the viral attacks outdoors, it seemed that the poor Dahlias were destined for disaster! However, as always seems to be the case, our determined staff persevered and were able to cleverly manage the situation to the point where right now our visitors would never even know that we had any issues with these plants at all. Looking at the current health of the plants myself, I find it hard to believe that we endured any of the struggles that we did.

The Dahlia border is home to over 600 plants

Dahlias are exceptional in that they provide the widest and wildest assortment of flower colours, shapes and sizes of any plant that we grow. The plants themselves can also be massive as some grow to heights of over 10 feet tall! This is truly a plant that must be seen to be appreciated and with our main Dahlia border containing over 600 plants, this border is a key component of our early fall display.

At this time of year not all of the colour in the garden is provided by flowers and it could be argued that perhaps the most brilliant colour comes from some of our trees. One tree in particular that adds stunning visual interest to the fall landscape is the Japanese maple. In my mind, there is no plant that can match the versatility and year-round beauty of the Japanese maple (Acer palmatum).  These undemanding and durable trees come in many different shapes and sizes, but it’s the sensational fall colour that really sets these trees apart. Japanese maples are loved by gardeners and by plant breeders alike, and at last count there were over 700 named cultivars of these unique trees. We also dearly love these trees and are quite proud of the fact that our garden is home to some of the oldest and largest Japanese maple trees in Canada.

Japanese maples showing off thir vibrant fall colours along one of the pathways

Autumn is an extremely busy time in the garden and the biggest project for us is the replanting of the multitude of display borders with biennials and bulbs. Although the overall planning is finely tuned, the actual scheduling of this planting process is generally determined by when the summer plantings collapse. In essence, even though we like to give ourselves the credit, it’s really Mother Nature who guides our daily decisions. Our fall planting consists of close to 300,000 bulbs which are planted among tens of thousands of colourful biennials such as English daisy (Bellis), Forget-me-Not (Myosotis), Wallflower (Cheiranthus) and Pansy (Viola). We do get some colour from these plantings from November through February, but the real excitement takes place from March through May in what many consider to be the most magnificent spring floral display in the world.

It’s a bit of an irony to think that as we are planting the garden we are also harvesting our compost piles. Many people would be totally unaware that we harvest any kind of crop at all (besides flowers), but a few years ago we came up with a brilliant idea to plant a cover crop of pumpkins and gourds on our massive piles of compost. This was obviously a match made in heaven as the pumpkins thrived on the warmth and abundance of nutrients from the compost. However, what is especially beneficial to us is that pumpkins and gourds are allelopathic, which is to say that they inhibit other plants (read weeds) from growing amongst them. The final result for us is a (almost) weed free compost pile with the bonus of a bumper crop of a ridiculous variety of unconventional, conventional and novelty pumpkins and gourds that we use in various displays around the property.

Gourds and pumpkins grown in the compost, being used in an autumn display

So even though this may appear to be a quieter season, there is still plenty of activity in and around the garden. As always, we invite you to come out and experience all that we have to offer during this very special season – the season where the garden transitions from the spectacular colour and warmth of summer to softer tones and coolness of the autumn season.