As climate change brings more extreme weather to Vancouver Island’s temperate seasonal cycle, whole-system planning can help gardeners withstand the change.
BY SUSAN HOLLIS
Resilience is a popular term these days, denoting success and longevity however it’s applied, and it’s no different when it comes to gardening. Knowing how to plant for drought, heat domes and heavier-than-usual rains can ensure a beautiful landscape throughout the year — something in which many Islanders take great pride.
While some plant species can handle intense heat, many suffer because they haven’t been properly integrated into their landscapes. As with all healthy ecosystems, our gardens — ornamental, edible or both — need diversity to really thrive. Whether or not permaculture is a familiar term, it’s one that will serve any Island green thumb well as they navigate uncertain future climates.
“The first change we would like to see all gardeners embrace is not a technique or method but a change in paradigm about their landscapes,” says Tayler Krawczyk, co-founder of Hatchet & Seed in Victoria. “That is, to view their gardens as dynamic ecosystems where diversity of species — be it plant or bug —is actually required for it to be a healthy landscape.”
Krawczyk recommends looking at a problem from a long-term solution mindset, focusing on the why behind the issue, and how it can be solved within the ecosystem rather than a top-down approach.
“This of course doesn’t mean a do-nothing approach but rather asking questions like, Why is this pest or ‘weed’ dominating? ”says Krawczyk. “How might I attract its predators rather than killing the pest? How can I make the soil ecosystem healthier so my plants can fight off disease?”
According to the David Suzuki Foundation, the key to sustainable horticulture is sun mapping and layering plants into well-planned canopies and understories to help more delicate plants withstand heat — creating your own healthy “forest” of species and heights to allow nature to do what it does best.
For hearty, sun-loving ornamentals, Krawczyk recommends Pacific wax myrtle, manzanita, kinnikinnick, lupins and goldenrod.
As Hatchet & Seed focuses on edible gardens, he also encourages gardeners to be unafraid to “foodscape,” to mix in native edible species like salal, evergreen huckleberry, Oregon grape, kales and collards, garlic and leeks, goumi (a nitrogen-fixing fruit-bearing shrub that is very drought tolerant), persimmon and fig.
Getting good ground
It may sound like a no-brainer, but having good ground is critical to healthy plant life. Nutrient-rich soils can better withstand heat and retain moisture than counterparts full of clay and sand, both of which exist aplenty in and around Victoria.
Adding enriched organic matter annually — usually in the fall and spring — will help keep plants thriving no matter what summer and winter bring. And while topsoil is helpful, compost and soil amenders are also key to a happy garden, especially in areas prone to acidity, like beneath conifers.
If part of your landscape gets hours of full sun, try non-native Mediterranean plants like Arbutus unedo, lavender, rosemary and rock rose, which all thrive under hot conditions but can tolerate wet winters.
“The most important thing for people to remember is that if you don’t have good soil, nothing will grow,” says Linda Petite, head gardener at the Horticultural Centre of the Pacific (HCP). HCP uses enormous amounts of decomposing leaf matter collected from the District of Saanich across all aspects of their nine-acre botanical gardens.
“I always tell our students, we need good soil for good growth — do spend the money on it,” says Petite. “You can have the healthiest plants but if they aren’t going into good soil, nothing will thrive.”
The addition of mulch is an age-old practice to protect the top of the soil from drying out too quickly and it can be a simple way to ensure your green things stay happy despite the dry summer months. Mulch is also a handy tool in weed suppression and can protect soil from erosion in heavy downpours.
Sources of mulch include straw, leaf mold, compost and wood chips. Using leaves from nearby deciduous trees can save on trips to the transfer station while providing necessary compost material and weather protection, not to mention a host of beneficial wildlife habitats for birds, mammals and invertebrates.
In essence, gardens with perfectly raked lawns and “clean” garden beds are more high maintenance and prone to difficulties than those which are allowed to feed themselves through their various seasonal cycles. It just takes a fundamental change of lens to appreciate why it’s best to move away from cookie-cutter suburban landscapes.
“In addition to being a physical soil protector like a blanket, organic matter also feeds the billions of microorganisms found in even a handful of soil,” says Krawczyk. “These organisms cycle the nutrients and water, making them available to plants in drought.”
Fruit-bearing plants need nature’s pollinators like bees to do their jobs in the springtime; however, when long, cold springs (like the one we experienced in 2022) are the norm, there are fewer cross-fertilizers out doing their jobs. Backyard gardeners can help the process along by manually pollinating with a cotton swab or small paintbrush, mimicking the work done by bees as they fly from flower to flower.
Choosing a wider range of plants than typically used in a landscape meets not just esthetic outcomes, but also better mimics the diversity found in nature.
“It’s so important now, especially with what’s going on with our bees, to plant pollinators,” says Petite. “And it’s also important to plant flowers in with your vegetables — it looks nice and also attracts beneficial insects and all kinds of pollinators, so it’s a win-win, really. You can even do it if you live in a condo.”
And whether you have pots on a balcony or a backyard garden of dreams, creating a dynamic ecosystem where a diversity of plant and insect species can thrive will help your landscape grow healthier and more resilient. Something to think about when you are choosing shrubs and perennials to plant this fall.