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Gay nurseries make gardening easier ? and creative

Local gay gardeners at the beck and call

TAKE A RAMBLE. The goal of the gay owners of Rideau Woodland Ramble "is to capture the imagination of gardeners and collectors in a woodland setting."

Come the warm days of May, gardeners’ thoughts turn to getting down and dirty. Luckily for gays and lesbians, gay-owned and operated businesses can cater to the diversity of our horticultural needs.

The Temperate Garden started in 2000 when Don Fenwick and Baxter Topham-Pitt took over an existing business in the village of Eganville, 90 minutes northwest of Ottawa. This general garden center features high-quality annuals and unusual perennials. The two men, initially attracted to the Upper Ottawa Valley by the low cost of property, stayed because they fell in love with the Valley and its friendly, laid-back lifestyle. They are a fixture, and a sometimes cultural centre, for the Valley’s gay and lesbian community and its fledgling organization, Pride Renfrew.

“We’re a Pop and Pop business — as opposed to a Mom and Pop one,” laughs Baxter. “Our customer base is diverse, from grannies looking for petunias and geraniums to sophisticated gardeners searching for specific varieties and cultivars. The weekend cottage crowd comes looking for easy-to-care-for plants for their country properties. They often come back Sunday evening to load up on plants for the city. We have a bit of a cult following.”

He has noted a difference between gardeners in the city and those in the country, and what they can do. Urban gardeners, he says, do amazing things with small spaces. Their container gardens are Zen-like. In the country, people can display a hundred feet of cascading petunias down a retaining wall. When it comes to gardening, size definitely matters, he adds laughing.

Annuals are the wisest choice for cottagers. A perennial garden needs care in the spring and late fall. A few easy-to-care-for annuals planted around perennials provide colour throughout the season. Big open beds are the easiest to plant up and keep clean. Large containers with cascading plants can be watered on Sunday night and moved into the shade so they dry out slowly.

Don recommends beginning gardeners start small and slowly. As they become comfortable, they can adjust up or down based on their time, energy and enthusiasm. Once experienced, they can try different, more adventurous things.

Gardening outside of the urban area is a challenge. This is particularly true north of the city where the cold hardiness zone for plants is zone 4b (compared to Ottawa’s zone 5a).

“We constantly push the zone boundaries. We plant something hardy to zone 5 that survives so we try something else and it doesn’t. It’s part of the fun of gardening. Novices should gain experience with plants hardy to zone 3 and build confidence. Too many failures at the beginning are discouraging.”

Recently, the two men built show gardens so customers can see what can be achieved. These gardens, following the natural curves of the landscape, include a shade garden and a seating area. Walkways connect the planting areas.

rideau Woodland Ramble is a living work of art created by David Dunn and Robert Caron. Its creation was sparked by their long-term dream to share their gardening experiences with other gardeners and collectors — and by the spectacular 1998 ice storm.

“It was like the hand of God coming down and clearing a swath through the mature stand of red pines on our property,” says David. “As we cleaned up the destruction the following year, the idea of the Ramble rose like a Phoenix from the ashes.”

Today, it contains seven acres of dramatic, mature display gardens and trails and the Garden Centre. It capitalizes on 25 years of collecting by the two men and shows to good effect the use of plants, some rare in the Ottawa area.

“We have found, through 25 years of evolution in our gardens, through experimentation and by discovery, a garden can fall into several hardiness zones. In the Ramble, it’s due to the mix of shade and woodland.”

One garden, a stand of red pine, is home to Japanese maples, rhododendrons, azaleas and a range of trees, shrubs and perennials. Another section, complete with a babbling pond, has a collection of dwarf conifers, specimen hostas and grasses, as well as trees, shrubs and perennials. Lake Ramble is a large pond teeming with wildlife along which there is a demonstration garden of conifers. The Ramble constantly evolves and expands with the enterprise of the men.

“Our goal is to capture the imagination of gardeners and collectors in a woodland setting,” says David. “Interconnected with trails and walkways, the gardens exhibit both their plantings and the ‘bones’ that hold them together. Succession plantings assure interest from first melt to first snow and beyond. We are not a traditional garden centre, our interest is rare and unusual plants that work in this area.”

David and Robert stress it is important to know your site — its soil and light conditions, and whether it is wet, dry or windy. The key is to select plants suited to the conditions in which they will be planted. Gardeners should decide whether their gardens are to be lived in, looked at or serve as a backdrop. This determines how the space should be planted. They recommend visitors to the Ramble come with a list of what plants they like, which saves time when buying.

“The key to a successful garden,” says Robert, “is healthy plants. Zone hardiness is only one element of a plant’s make-up. A healthy plant in the right place and cared for goes into winter prepared for the cold. It’s important to remember that a garden can have multiple micro-conditions, which is why you need to pay attention to your site. Our gardens will help show them what can be achieved.”

It must be working: their operation attracts passionate gardeners, collectors and landscape contractors. Their website had 1.5 million hits between February, 2005 and February, 2006 and the Ramble was voted one of the top destination nurseries in Canada by Canadian Life Magazine.