Monday, June 17, 2024
Beautiful GardensOntario Gardener

A living laboratory

This English-cottage-on-steroids garden requires little water and supports a variety of life, providing inspiration for the landscape designers who work here and passers-by alike.

Evolving over the last 12 years, this garden has been a series of experiments in eco-friendly beauty – a living laboratory and library of plants and animals. The crew and designers at Fern Ridge Landscaping & Eco-consulting have been using the garden to trial plants for everything from salt tolerance to pollinator support. Sean James, the progenitor of the garden, is passionate about ensuring that beauty is a key part of ‘green’ designs. It’s been described as an “English cottage on steroids”. It’s not everyone’s garden, which is fine. Gardening is an art form as legitimate as painting and sculpture. Good art should polarize viewers.

Since the garden is the home and office of a landscape company, it’s also used for design inspiration. Garden designers get something akin to writer’s block. A walk in the garden relaxes the mind and reveals many combinations of plants. During a stroll, ideas can spring up like seedlings. And, since the plants do well in the local soils, customers can be assured that plant choices will thrive in their garden. It’s not just beautiful – it’s practical. 

The garden is also used as stock for upcoming landscape projects, focusing on hard-to-find native species and other rare perennials, helping pay for its own upkeep. Customers can come and stroll through to see what sorts of plants they gravitate towards and even check out the low-voltage lighting – also an art form worth investing in. 

In a country where winter lasts half the year, adding low-voltage lighting can double the hours of garden enjoyment.

Edible delights

Grazing through the garden is a favourite past time for employees. The property came with several fruit trees, grape vines, asparagus and more. Now, with their new additions, even more edibles are dotted throughout the garden, but they are not relegated to a remote corner like a punished child. This ensures a better predator/prey balance with local wildlife and insects. While many folks have colourful pots of annuals by their front door, in this garden, tomatoes, beans and squash are given pride of place. People forget that many edibles are beautiful! Kale adds colourful texture. Fruit trees have lovely spring flowers which also offer the all-important early nectar for butterflies and bees. Tomatoes and squash have attractive fruit, flowers and foliage, as does eggplant. The lesson for gardens is not to underestimate the ornamental value of veggies.

Native plants

Everyone has their own favourite aspect about the garden. According to Mike Prong, the lead designer at Fern Ridge, “When touring the Fern Ridge office gardens, one thing, although not immediately noticeable (which is by design), is the abundant use of native (and cultivars of native) plants. The reason I find this particular aspect so intriguing is that there seems to be a general disposition that a native planting will look wild or weedy. This couldn’t be further from the truth, and, as evidenced in the Fern Ridge office gardens, native plantings can blend seamlessly with “traditional” styles of landscaping.”


One of the foci of the garden is to support biodiversity. It’s not just for ethical reasons. Attracting birds to the garden with shelter and food means that birds will eat the bugs. The garden has never had pest issues get out of control and it’s all taken care of by nature. Monarchs and bees need all the help they can get right now and the big patch of milkweed helps tremendously. Adding pollinator habitat helps too, since many of the pollinators such as wasps and hoverflies are excellent predators. Leaving the garden standing through the winter ensures a good population of predator insects and spiders. When the previous year’s growth is cut down in the spring, it’s set on the grass on the boulevard, mulched with a battery-powered mower (the company is Bullfrog Powered so even the electricity is green!) and put directly back on the garden as mulch.

Rainscaping is a huge part of the landscape with all the paths being permeable and covering infiltration trenches (glorified French wells), along with rain barrels, and drought-tolerant plantings. The parking pad has been expanded to include an infiltration zone and water that runs off the old asphalt drive is channeled, via a grate across the end of the drive, into a rain garden. The front yard features an evaporation pond, designed, first, to be beautiful and second, to clean and hold rainwater channeled off the roof. It evaporates away an impressive inch per day. It’s a rare raindrop that escapes this garden.

The garden is designed to be light-hearted and fun – to provoke joy and relaxation, and to push the boundaries of artistic comfort; all the while helping our beautiful planet Earth.

Sean James is a graduate of the Niagara Parks School of Horticulture and owner of Fern Ridge Landscaping & Eco-consulting. He’s been speaking publicly and writing about eco-gardening issues since the early 90’s. He’s also the Chair of Landscape Ontario’s Environmental Stewardship Committee and several other eco-committees.