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The gardening passion of Debbie Huitema

Globe flower (Trollius) love partial shade.
Globe flower (Trollius) love partial shade.

When Debbie and George Huitema moved into their home in south west Calgary 25 years ago, they waited eight years before getting rid of the lawn in the back yard garden. They were so pleased that two years later, they did the same to the grass in the front.

The gardener

Debbie is a self-confessed “fanatical gardener”. George is a professional engineer. He had a penchant for building, so together the two have dared to express their garden dreams in tangible terms. The result is a quarter-acre gardener’s paradise.

Nasturtiums and lilies fill the containers on the deck.
Nasturtiums and lilies fill the containers on the deck.

“I have been the designer of the whole garden,” says Debbie. She also does all the planting, pruning, composting, watering, weeding, spring cleanup, and so on. “George built the deck, the gazebo, the front steps, arbours, pergola, potting bench, cold frame and shed.” Among his many talents, George is a calligrapher. He is the artist, Debbie adds. George did the calligraphy alphabet on the deck and made the sand-blasted calligraphy on the framed slate titles. He also did the front and back doors, and chip-carved their name on his homemade wooden mail box.

The structured contrast between the Dracaena plant and the ground cover is a clever design trick.
The structured contrast between the Dracaena plant and the ground cover is a clever design trick.

The calligraphy on the deck came about as a “trip spot” deterrent after a garden visitor fell there. Now it’s impossible not to stop and look before stepping down into the garden near the gazebo.

When it all started

Although they had always had some sort of garden when they lived in Valleyview, and later, in Rocky Mountain House where they grew vegetables, the garden bug didn’t bite deeply until this last home. In Rocky Mountain House, they owned a craft consignment store and Debbie did many crafts herself. Suddenly, once back in Calgary, the garden was displacing those former activities as she found scope for her creative genius in a fascinating and ever-changing new pastime. The garden grew, and grew and grew until both front and back yards are completely occupied by plants, trees and shrubs, a small pond – over 10,000 square feet.

Lysimachia punctata ‘Alexander’.
Lysimachia punctata ‘Alexander’.

Now 55, Debbie is asking herself whether or not she has created a monster. “In spring I just can’t seem to catch up,” she exclaims, although she confesses that eight to 10 hours a day in the garden is a great way to get rid of excess winter weight.” Mostly, though, she says, she gets “such a sense of joy and accomplishment” that it’s worth every minute.

It’s not as though she has a lot of extra time. They have a garden at their cabin that keeps her busy and she has also helped daughter Andrea and son Nolan with their flower beds, although she admits that she is feeling a little overwhelmed and it’s probably time the kids started doing their own gardens. That way she might have more time for her four grandchildren, two from each of the kids. “I’m just glad they all live nearby,” she says.

Garden design
Debbie loves to add unexpected vases full of flowers.
Debbie loves to add unexpected vases full of flowers.

The garden is not one of those manicured tidy gardens. It’s free-form, where plants are allowed to express themselves exuberantly, to self-seed if they so like and to spread their wings a bit. There are literally thousands of plants in the garden. “”I love to garden shop,” Debbie says. Currently she is branching out more and more into edibles, not just vegetables, many of which, including tomatoes, she grows in containers, but also into fruits. She is growing the sweet little blue haskaps or honeyberries, has seven apples trees and both red and golden raspberries as well as the bountiful Evans cherries. “My favourite apple is the Norkent,” she says, lamenting the fact that it didn’t produce a heavy crop this year. (She shouldn’t worry; that’s the way of apples.)

At the very back of the garden, behind a mature cotoneaster hedge, there is a garden shed and a composter area, complete with a cold frame. Although she had six composters, she says she’s a lazy composter. “I never turn the compost,” she confesses. “The first year, we fill the composter. The second year I add lots of soil and grow plants in them. The next year, I use the compost,” putting it into her containers or scattering it in the garden wherever the plants look like they could use a boost. Her compost bins are not an eyesore but rather a sight for sore eyes. They could be taken for cutting gardens!

Debbie’s prized tomatoes
Feathery Thalictrum, purple Acontium and white valerian help attract birds to the feeders.
Feathery Thalictrum, purple Acontium and white valerian help attract birds to the feeders.

Debbie does baby her tomatoes though, growing them in large containers filled with compost, two cups of Epsom salts (one tablespoon per plant sprinkled near the roots is the recommended dosage) and two cups of alfalfa pellets. The results are spectacular and she doesn’t need to fertilize for the rest of the season.

She doesn’t like to use chemicals in the garden, preferring to let the “good bugs overcome the bad”, she says. “Leaves are left to fall naturally and the worms do the fertilizing for me in the spring.” She has two rain barrels, each hooked up to overflow rain barrels and she uses only rain water on her 40 small and large ports throughout the garden. She also uses soaker hoses to conserve water, mulches with bark to retain ground moisture and uses many drought-tolerant plants. It’s little wonder that she won two xeriscape awards! She has also won several other first place awards from the Calgary Horticultural Society in previous years. Debbie says that after being “on the water meter for 20 years” she is very conscious of the cost to water such a huge yard.

The wooden walkways are a unique feature of the garden.
The wooden walkways are a unique feature of the garden.
Sharing the garden

George and Debbie love sharing their garden; they eat every single meal outside, weather permitting. We are always trying to get people to visit and enjoy time in the gazebo with us, she says. “The garden is a source of constant joy for us.”

It’s not just watching the plants grow and the seasons change. The garden is also a haven for all sorts of backyard birds: nuthatches, blue jays, northern flickers, downy woodpeckers, to name just a few. They also feed them year round.

The garden is Debbie’s private Shangri-La, the place where she feels free to wander in her housecoat, safe from neighbouring eyes. “I am outside every morning to see what is newly blooming,” she says, laughing. “George is worried that I will start wandering in the front yard, too.”

Well, who could blame her if she did? Her huge “monster” wraps her so securely in its warm embrace that she could do almost anything when it comes to the garden.

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