Story by Dorothy Dobbie, Photos by Dorothy and Shauna Dobbie
It is Donna and Dave Bloski’s 54th wedding anniversary this year and they are celebrating by taking a 500-kilometre drive from their home in Spruce Grove, Alberta to Waterton Provincial Park, which is perched on the border of Alberta and Montana.
This is no self-indulgent, leisurely jaunt. Donna is hot on the trail of birds and wildlife to satisfy her new photography hobby. Dave is her spotter, keeping a sharp eye out for likely candidates.
But photography is just a sideline for Donna whose overriding passion is gardening. Donna and Dave moved into their forever home 51 years ago, raised two girls and watched five grandchildren almost grow up in the house on this corner lot. Twenty years ago, Donna finally got time to take up the ornamental side of her lifelong pursuit of plants. Back in the day, they planted potatoes and lots of harvestable vegetables with just a few flowers. Then the giant spruce trees were finally banished making room for sunshine and an ever-burgeoning collection of flowers.
Not that the vegetable garden has disappeared. There is still a large kitchen plot filled with peas and beans, carrots and beets and cucumbers, which Donna prefers to grow in pots. Corn shows up every year or two and the strawberries and rhubarb are fixtures. The rhubarb is well-used; Donna makes a delicious cake with this tasty bit of family history.
It is that kind of garden. One of Donna’s favourite memories is of the time the whole extended family got together to make steppingstones and rhubarb leaf birdbaths. “Even my aunt who was in her 80s pitched in,” said Donna. In all they produced about 40 steppingstones, each family taking home their share of the merchandise and memories of that wonderful day.
But the garden is now much about flowers. Donna has a huge collection of tea roses that she overwinters in the garage. Dave keeps it heated to just above freezing to protect not just the roses but a host of other tender woody plants, trimmed back for the winter and stored here and there, under shelves and above them, wherever there is room.
When it comes to perennials, you name it, Donna has it – or at least it seems this way – many of the plants bought from a long-gone garden center that used to sell six-packs of seedlings at a price new gardeners could afford.
A venerable single pink peony was one of her first acquisitions, purchased from a plant sale at what used to be the Devonian Garden just outside Edmonton. There was this tiny, 2-inch pot with the peony root planted in it and Donna had to have it, never mind that it would take maybe five years to bloom. She was already in it for the long haul. That peony is now her most loved, the brilliant yellow stamens set in a cup of pink are a magnet for bees each spring.
That doesn’t mean she places her brilliant, jewel-coloured Itohs in any subordinate place, and she has a lot of respect for the good old bombs, Paeonia lactiflora, that fall apart so fast in the rain or in too much heat, and for the hardy tree peonies, not to mention the early rising fern peonies. “That first one cost me $65,” Donna exclaimed, but they spread, and she now has at least eleven.
She has not ignored the trees and shrubs. Lilacs, plum and a beautiful double-flowering mock orange set the stage for many of the perennials.
“I am not a planner,” asserts Donna, who nevertheless managed to produce a tidy plantation of perennials chosen to bloom in succession, with the shorter ones in the front and the taller ones in the back. This shows a discipline that many gardeners lack, but she credits Mother Nature with most of her success. However, Donna and Dave assist Mother Nature with layers of organics covered by a mulch of black chips. “We used to hand pull the weeds,” she says. “We did that for 40 years.” Then she discovered the magic of mulch. She said she’d hate to think of what her father would say if he saw the hundreds of bags of steer manure they have laid down – and paid for, not to mention the gallons and gallons of water!
I don’t use chemical fertilizers in the garden,” Donna says. Nor does she water perennials once they are established, although the potted annuals soak up their fair share of both.
Annuals fill multitudes of ornamental pots. Salvia ‘Victoria Blue’ is seemingly being fed steroids because it is growing so vigorously while surrounded by petunias in an ornamental pot. An unusual butterfly plant, Clerodendrum ‘Blue Butterfly’, a shrub that grows 4 to 8 feet tall in its Zone 8 to 11 natural habitat, overflows a pot with delicate blue surprises.
Speaking of ornamental, Donna is also a collector of lovely and interesting garden decorations, the pride of which may be her lady and gentlemen foxes by the back door. Lady Fox feeds the birds from a basin fashioned from a swirl in her pretty skirt. The pair show off well here. The backyard is not nearly as expansive as the front so there is less competition for the eyes.
Even so, the back yard has room for a dining area and a greenhouse, as well as a potting table turned into a buffet table for the nearby barbecue — all appropriately served by an antique sink at the end of the narrow corridor that accommodates all these practical functions. This space is defined by the three-season greenhouse on one side and the fence on the other. It is shady most of the day here, a perfect place for Donna to escape the blazing prairie sun.
As for the greenhouse, it is mainly there to give the indoor plants a break; the greenhouse is home to all sorts of interesting, heat loving exotics, succulents, hard to grow ferns, interesting ivies, flowering vines and who knows what all. Donna and Dave are clearly getting a summer holiday outdoors without being exposed to the elements. A thermometer on a shaded spot declares that the temperature is over 30 Celsius. The plants seem very grateful.
Donna has a playful side. She has constructed several fairy gardens, one cleverly made from a broken claypit, whose shards are being used to create different elevations in a miniature garden.
In one spot, Donna has done something that delighted our editor, Shauna. Donna planted the silky foxtail grass, deemed a weed by farmers, but beautiful and fascinating to Shauna who vows to use this plant as an ornamental if she ever returns to the prairies. It’s worth it, says Donna. If it gets a little over-exuberant, just pull it out.
That’s Donna: practical, energetic, and full of plans for her next garden adventure.