A thriving support system for birds, bugs and butterflies

For Bev Wagar, it’s a cross between a cottage garden, a collector’s garden, and a native plant garden, writes Cathy Renwald.
(This article appeared in the July 2 edition of the Hamilton Spectator. Copyright: Hamilton Spectator)

We are on a lazy meander in Bev Wagar’s garden. A place where an angelica plant is tall enough to block the sun, and clover “on steroids” leans into the pathway.

Her garden in the Crown Point neighbourhood is crammed with natives, near natives and botanical oddities, but not so crammed that it prevents hospitality to ground nesting bees.

“I leave bare spots for them,” she says as we gently step among the treasures.

Here you will find goldfish in the rain barrels. They control mosquitoes and survive the winter. And exotic lilies planted to trap lily beetles and keep them off her species lilies.

Wagar, through experience and observation, is shaping an organic ecosystem that nurtures birds, bugs, and butterflies.

Here, the garden is ever changing. While a yellow baptisia (Baptisia tinctoria) finishes blooming in the front yard, a lovely yellow verbascum (Verbascum blattaria) sends up its sunny spires in the backyard. It is paired in a classic way with a purple milky bellflower (Campanula lactiflora).

While her focus continues to narrow in on native plants, Wagar welcomes the pure pleasure of exotic plants like the Eremurus “Cleopatra” showboating against a vine covered fence.

This garden started in 2012, when Wagar moved in and the grass moved out. She brought plants from her previous country garden, and added many more grown from seed sourced from the Native Plant Society and Rock Garden Society.

Her approach to the garden seems both leisurely and mindful. There are spreadsheets, and name tags, and trays of seedlings waiting for transplant. She doesn’t prune a lot, but rather arranges plants in supportive ways. Mulch is used sparingly.

“I use shade cast from other plants as mulch, and I use plants themselves as mulch, using the chop and drop method,” she says.

Chopping up plants as you thin, or cutback foliage allows you to drop them, or tuck them in the beds as a sort of living mulch.

While some might think a mostly native garden might lack colour and dynamic design, that’s not the case in the Wagar garden. There are many spiky plants like phlomis and penstemons that add drama when paired with big blousy leaved specimens like the angelica.

Wagar credits volunteering in the native plant garden at the Royal Botanical Gardens with educating her deeply on the behaviour of natives. She is also the founder of the Hamilton Monarch Awards, and co-founder of the Crown Point Garden Club. A diploma in organic land care and landscape design added another layer in understanding the ecology of the garden.

While using organic methods in her garden, she doesn’t subscribe to the tough love theory.

“I irrigate, if we have drought, I don’t like the plants to suffer, and I don’t want my soil to suffer because there is so much life in the soil. They all need water.”

Weeds move in. Some are allowed to stay, others are shooed out. The delicate fleabane graces the garden, but as Wagar says it’s useful as a bee magnet. She also watches carefully that plants don’t become prolific spreaders, that means deadheading some after flowering. In the case of the non-native Tiger Eye sumac, it was dug out after spreading too much and put it a pot.

“But I missed it, and put it back in the garden,” she says.

Living in the middle of the city means making peace with a small garden. She has become very picky with what gets real estate, choosing plants with multiple season interest, and the ability to survive without coddling.

“My garden is kind of a cross between a cottage garden, a collector’s garden and a native plant garden,” Wagar says.

And it is a place where showboats and shy natives coexist in peace.

One thought on “A thriving support system for birds, bugs and butterflies

  1. Bev, your garden is beautiful! What a great article. Definitely makes me appreciate the eaten leaves on my sunflowers…..instead of considering them flawed……someone enjoy a feast! Keep up the great work in your little city oasis!


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