Story and phots by Shauna Dobbie
Francis Bird has moved across the country a few times, but he’s always had a garden. The current iteration is in Charlottetown, fairly close to the centre, around a cozy, white clapboard house with brown shutters. He shares the with his almost-grown daughter, Lily, and their Pomeranian-Pekingese dog, Makiki. Other gardens have been in Winnipeg and Victoria, and the next will likely be Windsor, Ontario.
When he was a young boy, he saw a circular garden bathed in the gold of sunset and was so enchanted, his parents gave him part of their yard to make a garden. In the years since, he has always had something growing, whether on a balcony or in the ground.
The Charlottetown garden is pretty and old-fashioned, with contented blue hydrangeas and yellow goldenrod filling their spaces. The back yard is big and the gardens had been quite extensive until the previous owners, who blamed the flowers for their allergies and tore most of them out. They left behind some tulips and hostas, but the rest comes from Francis either planting or discovering under the sod.
“As I dug out gardens and planted year after year, I found it amazing how many plants grassed over for years returned, particularly tulips, peonies and daylilies,” he tells me. Peonies are a notably long-lived perennial, but I had no idea they could sleep underground for several years then come back to life when a caring hand clears away the soil. What a joy to find these precious things!
He sees the garden as an extension of the living area. There is a writers’ group that Francis is part of, and he hosts meetings outdoors in the warmer months. A deck with a table and chairs makes a rustic setting for outdoor meals, and I can imagine dinners filled with bonhomie that last until well after the July sun goes down.
The front of the house is very close to the street, which is not unusual for the time it was built. The swath of yard allows for a couple of shrubs and some flax to bloom. Around the side is a big rowan tree, covered with frothy white blooms and loud with bees. Just in front of the rowan, helianthus buzz with abandon and couple of shy ligularia send up yellow spires. Around the side, along a weathered picket fence, pink filipendula interrupt blue hydrangeas. The whole is a charming mix of cared-for colour and letting the flowers do what they will. Enchanting.
In the back there is a huge and aged linden tree dominating the yard. Francis has planted a little red wagon here, full of pots of red dahlias. Behind the tree is a curious series of singly cultivated flowers. Out of this hole in the sod comes a rose bush, out of another grows an Asiatic lily, and another sports a spray of dianthus. It forces you to consider the plant on its own, not surrounded by other textures, shapes or colours. Francis has lounged in the centre of these before and says it is magical.
Around the yard there are bits of personality. The day we were there, there were a couple of art deco China figurines on display. He says he’ll change these depending on the season or the occasion, and notes that he never has to worry about them going missing in this island community. The garage is festooned with a couple of colourful umbrellas and a swirling line of music cut from metal. These fit in easily amongst baskets of begonias hanging from the eaves.
Francis is (kind of) retired from teaching now, though he always finds a job here or there to keep him busy. This vocation has taken him from coast to coast so far. Lily’s mother is moving to her hometown of Windsor, Ontario, soon; Francis figures he’ll move there too, so the parents and daughter can all be in the same city. He is thinking of a smaller place, perhaps a garden-level apartment with a small yard for his garden.
Big or small, it is sure to be spectacular and shine with bits of his personality.