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Back to Nature – the Transformation of our Grounds

Chapter One - Call to Action

We were flabbergasted last spring when we heard from the Ministry of Natural Resources, which runs Algonquin Park, that they wanted all the Park leaseholders to adhere to having only natural plants at our sites.

Arowhon Pines had spent thousands of dollars through the years in product and labor, growing perennials in our gardens, which provided flowers for our dining room tables, and tending to barrels full of cheery flowers that adorned our front foyer and cabins. Yes, we knew there were spots on the grounds full of invasive periwinkle and other creeping ground cover.

We started talking about it amongst ourselves then quickly realized that what was being asked was pretty darn reasonable. We looked again at the periwinkle spreading out into the forests. Perhaps we could turn this into a fun, education project for us and for our guests.

Around the same time, we became aware that one of our long time guests, Judith Adam, was a well-known, experienced horticulturalist. After a few emails back and forth with Judith, whose enthusiasm was immediately infectious, we were on our way to putting together our gardening project: to gradually get the Arowhon Pine’s grounds back to its natural state.

Chapter Two – Introducing Judith Adam

In her words…

At its best, landscape design recognizes the assets of a site and develops them to fuller expression. That’s a high-toned way of saying something simple – recognize what’s good about your garden and do something to build on that. At Arowhon, the naturalism and pristine beauty of the site are strong indicators of what direction development should follow. Indigenous perennial plants and conifers, stone and wood construction, and natural water features are the elements that are strong, true, and enduring in this northern garden.

I grew up in New York City, an inner city urban environment, with no access to green spaces. However summers were spent on Absecon Island, a barrier island off the coast of New Jersey; and that went a long way to emphasize the value and power of natural landscapes. (Briefly leaving the island by row boat during Hurricane Hazel was one sure way to understand my lowly place in the natural order of things.) My first garden was made in Toronto’s east-end Beach community, as well as on an allotment garden at the lake’s edge of the Leslie Street spit. That’s where I began hands-on training in making vegetables and flowers grow, and that continues to be my best method of learning.

Eventually I studied horticulture at University of Guelph, with my infant son, Arden, in a basket under the table. My area of specialization was woody plants, consequently I’m a great tree planter. I tried to grow every plant covered in my course material, resulting in several jungles that were culled to make room for subsequent course phases. This was excellent learning, but certainly the hard way to do things. My current garden is one third of an acre planted for pollinators. Don’t ask about my affection for docile bees, because I’ll provide way too much information. (But I will say one of my favorites is the leaf cutter bee, and I could go on about that!)

Sharing experience is the natural inclination of gardeners, so I taught some courses and wrote some books, and answered a horticulture hotline operated by the Toronto Master Gardeners. Now I’m helping my friends at Arowhon, finding ways to bring a fuller expression to the natural values of their site. I’ve been coming to Arowhon since 1975. Little has changed in those decades, and each year Arowhon seems more profound, more itself. That is the remarkable power of a timeless landscape. Our efforts at gardening here are hopefully embellishments to an already established beauty. We hope you’ll notice our work and learn along with us.

Chapter Three - The Plant List

Our first job was to find a copy of “Checklist of Vascular Plants of Algonquin Provincial Park” which lists all the plants natural to our region. It’s a tricky format and you have to read the lists and the legends as it lists everything that has been seen in the Park, not just native plants. The book is out of print but we found a few copies at the Algonquin Bound Outfitters outside the west gate.

Finding a supplier of indigenous plants is a key to the success of this project. Judith suggested Karen at

We will also be talking to Linda at DWIGHT GARDEN CENTRE who has always been a source of great information and support.

Please note that the Latin names of the plants is also key, as there are many variations of everything!

This will be our order for spring 2019:

  • Achillea millefolium, common yarrow

  • Asclepias incarnate, common milkweed

  • Aquilegia canadensis, red columbine

  • Chelone glabra, turtlehead

  • Cornus canadensis, bunchberry

  • Helianthus divaricatus, woodland sunflower

  • Eupatorium maculatum, Joe Pye weed

  • Eupatorium perfoliatum

  • Eurybia macrophylla (Large Leaved Aster)

  • Lobelia cardinalis, cardinal flower

  • Maianthemum racemosum, false Solomon’s seal

  • Oenothera biennis (Evening Primrose)

  • Maidenhair fern

  • Berry Bladder fern

  • Wood fern

  • Lady fern

  • Christmas Fern

  • Rudbeckia hirta, Black - eyed Susan

  • Solidago caesia (Blue Stemmed Goldenrod )

  • Solidago rigida

  • Symphyotrichum novae-angliae

  • Thalictrum pubescens (Tall Meadow Rue)

  • Tiarella cordifolia, foamflower

  • Fragaria virginiana (Wild Strawberry)

We also found that the Muskoka Conservancy has an annual native plant sale on Saturday May 11, 2019. Please visit

Chapter Four - Planting at Arowhon

Our order of many dozens of plants native to the Algonquin region is soon to arrive, and we’re preparing for an intensive planting operation. Unlike the gallon-size containers of fancy hybrids in garden centres, our indigenous plants will be in smaller 4-inch pots, each with a perky seedling that’s going to be right at home in our climate and soil conditions.

Perennial plants are seedlings in their first year, when they develop a crown and root system to support the production of flowers and seeds. The second year is the beginning of their blooming life, when they produce a sampling of blooms. In their third growth season, perennials achieve mature size and begin full foliage and flower display. Purchasing blooming size plants in gallon containers is an effective way to get quick results in a cultivated home garden; but planting in the Algonquin forest conditions is quite a different scenario.

There are practical advantages to installing younger plants when working at the edge of a forest, or even deep in the interior. The Algonquin terrain is filled with tree roots that provide soil retention and rock debris that establishes efficient drainage, both helping to prevent erosion during the considerable snow melt off in spring. Any attempt at planting is likely to encounter roots, and it’s much easier to dig a smaller hole for a young plant than struggling to remove tree roots in holes for larger root balls.

Our first phase will be removing nursery bred ornamental plants that have established themselves in beds and borders. These are the relics of summers past that were planted here to provide a garden aesthetic similar to what we would expect in residential communities. These removals will open space for our new indigenous species, and we hope they will eventually spread into colonies. As in all planting ventures, we’ve made selections appropriate to the available light – at Arowhon we have some areas of full sunlight, lots of dappled light under trees, and areas of consistent shade.

Plants will be delivered to our site and held in shaded outdoor areas protected from wind as we work along. Each plant will receive a feeding of water soluble transplanting fertilizer directly into the pot. Providing this nourishment the day before planting will allow roots to absorb the nutrients and prevent fertilizer from leaching into the soil and nearby water. We can also provide some well composted animal manure (purchased in bags from a garden center) into the bottom of planting holes. It’s important to avoid any fertilizers manufactured from fish sources, such as liquid fish emulsion or fish meal; as well as blood and bone meals. These organic products are magnets for animal appetites, and foxes, raccoons and bears will efficiently rip out plants trying to find the treats.

Once our plants are installed, we’ll use pine needles and leaf litter as a mulch to help keep moisture in the soil. Regular irrigation will be our most important work through the growing season from spring to autumn freeze up. With sufficient water, we can expect our plants to make themselves comfortable at Arowhon and reward us with a timeless and permanent landscape.

Chapter Five - The Plants Have Arrived!

Garden Instructions from Judith to the Arowhon Planters:

Hello Arowhon Planters! Thanks for taking on this project to restore the grounds to their natural landscape.


First area is the bed on the right side of the office door, between the door and the steps up onto the deck (this area formerly had large hostas in it). And second, the long bed on the other side of the office door, leading under the kitchen (bakery room?) window and down the side of the building.

It may be possible to plant other areas, such as just across the foot path from the long bed, but that will depend on how many plants are available to fill the spaces where removals have been taken out. Use your judgement, and when you run out of plants, that’s where you have to stop.


Our purpose is to remove modern landscape plants, such as periwinkle. Don’t attempt to ‘weed’ out wild plants like dandelion, they have their purpose and place in the natural environment (providing nectar for bees, and breaking up compacted soil). You can remove any turf grass that has grown into beds, and fill the spaces with plants.

Sort out plants

There are some plants that have been selected for particular areas:

The smaller bed to the right side of the office door is meant to contain a collection of ferns. Theresa has the largest ferns, and in the plant delivery there are also many pots of smaller ferns. Find all these and separate them out. The tallest ferns (Theresa’s ferns) go at the back of the bed, and they will spread a bit each year, sending out new plants, so give them some space. the smaller ferns go in front of the larger ferns. If there are enough ferns, you can put some on the other side of the office door.


The pots are small, so you won’t need to be digging large or deep holes. Because of the number of mature trees, you’ll be encountering tree roots in the soil. Always let the tools do the work for you, never stress your hands. If there are roots in a space you want to make a hole, use pruners to cut them out. If roots are too substantial, don’t plant there, move to another location that’s easier to work.

The plants will look best when they are in small groups, like 3 or 5 in a cluster. For instance, 3 or 5 Cardinal flowers together. When planting the lower ground covering plants like Bunchberry and Wild Strawberry, these will form a carpet and can be planted in drifts of 7 to 10 together.

Plants should be spaced 6 to 8 inches apart. Use your judgement when placing plants. Do what is practical and looks best.

Chapter Six - What About Weeds?

Autumn is often a time for major cleaning operations in the garden, clearing up a summer’s worth of stems and spent blossoms. But with thoughts and plans shifting back to cold season activities, it’s expedient to make strategic choices – what gardening work is most rewarding in the remaining weeks before frost puts the garden to bed? Rest assured, summer’s stalks and leaves can be collected early next spring; but weeds relish the cool, moist soil of autumn and will continue to grow and spread for several more weeks. Weed removal is a good investment in next summer’s garden, and will put you ahead with the spring cleanup.

What will happen if you take a more casual, and less thorough approach to weeding? It helps to know that most plants defined as weeds are indigenous to a location: they’ve evolved, lived and flourished on the site for hundreds of years. (The soil ‘banks’ millions of weed seeds indefinitely, just waiting for exposure to moisture and light.) They are meant to cover the soil surface, preventing erosion and contributing organic fiber to the soil structure. Their fiber contribution, along with long roots that break up the clay fraction of soil, helps to establish good tilth – that is, a pore system in the soil distributing oxygen in the root zone, and allowing excessive water to drain efficiently. Consequently, weeds work on our behalf, aiding in soil conservation; and a well-maintained garden without weeds shifts all that work onto the gardener.

Casual weeding

One definition of a weed is, simply put, a plant in the wrong place.

A casual weeding philosophy allows us to select which weeds are worth the effort of removal. Effective permanent elimination of weeds is hard work -- the crown, tap root (if there is one) and underground rhizomes and runners must all be removed. (Beware broken sections of underground runners left in the soil, they are likely to regenerate.) Considering all that work, it might be allowable to select weeds that are most bothersome (like burdock and giant hogweed). If it’s big enough to trip over, then it’s worth the work of removal!

With our new planting beds at Arowhon, we have invested time and energy in acquiring decorative plants indigenous to the Algonquin region. In this early stage of establishment, our new plants are best served by preventing competition from weeds. Eliminating weeds as they appear will get our new gardens up and growing faster. But the work of weeding can also be casual and selective. There are many other spaces at Arowhon with weed colonies doing their best work on soil preservation, and we’ll let them carry on with it. In the newly planted beds, we’ll be more watchful to keep weed competition down to a minimum.

A useful casual weeding strategy is to prevent the spread of weeds. Removing the leaves will starve them of energy, and cause them to use stored carbohydrates to replace the missing foliage. That’s time (approximately 3 to 5 weeks) they might have been spreading into new territory, and can be easily and quickly repeated several times in a growing season. Familiar weeds that spread only by seed, like dandelion and plantain, can be prevented from spreading by picking off their blossoms before the seed stage. (They are fat and healthy in autumn, but won’t be spreading by underground shoots.). These are low risk weeds, and the largest mature specimens in view could be removed, leaving the smaller ones for another year.

With limited time in autumn, it’s smart to get control over the weeds that colonize new territory, sending out underground shoots until stopped by hard freeze up. Knowing your weeds will help to identify the ones that are beginning their underground expansion. Golden rod and dog-strangling vine (cynanchum rossicum) send shallow underground tillers to form new plants. You might choose to keep the pretty golden rod for bees to forage on next summer; but the insidious dog-strangling vine should be removed. (You can find their pictures through an Internet search.) Roots of both plants are about six inches deep and not difficult to dislodge with a garden spade.

Some weeds, like colt’s foot and the many kinds of thistles, have brittle roots with running tillers eight to ten inches below ground, and break very easily. Each broken piece left in the soil regenerates into a new plant. Attempting to dig them out is time consuming and ineffective. The easier way is to leave them until next spring and summer, when they can be starved of energy production by removing top growth.

But think before you completely eliminate weeds. Many, like dandelion, goldenrod and thistles, are important foods for foraging pollinators. Pollinating insects and birds are needed to fertilize up to 40% of our food, but can only do that if we leave them enough wild weed flowers to eat themselves. Casual weeding removes only the weeds that are really in the wrong place; and leave the rest for pollinators to forage on. That insures we all have something to eat.

More on pollinators in Spring 2020.


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