© GUARDIAN PHOTO BY MARY MACKAY
Joanie and Paul Brennan of Charlottetown love this backyard spot for early-morning coffee times.
The welcome mat is out for wildlife visitors at one secret garden oasis in the city of Charlottetown.
And all it takes is a series of whistles, and longtime gardener Joanie Brennan literally has blue jays eating out of her hand.
“The parents of this little one will land on my knee and take the peanuts off my knee, but their baby will take it out of my hand. I think she’s been watching them so she took it one step further,” laughs Joanie, who along with her husband, Paul Brennan, was recently presented with the Mayor’s Award for the 2013 Make Charlottetown Bloom program.
This local program, in association with the national Communities in Bloom program, is designed to reward those who maintain buildings and landscapes within city limits. Businesses and residents can enter themselves or nominate someone else. There were more than 130 participants this year with a record number of new entries.
“When I walked around first, it was going from room to room and it’s so enclosed. It’s just beautiful,” says Nora Jenkins, who along with Roger Younker is on the planning committee for Make Charlottetown Bloom.
The Brennans’ urban garden adventure began shortly after they switched from apartment living to their new Mediterranean-style home a dozen years ago in a developing Charlottetown suburb.
“We built, so we tried to save as many trees as possible,” Joanie says of their decision to leave some of native vegetation, such as native mountain ash, beech and red-berried elder, in place.
“It was nice to have that to start with — a little bit of a backdrop and some privacy. We just added from there. We try to leave it as natural as we can . . . . It’s good for the birds and the other little creatures we have in there,” she adds.
The couple started with the design of the walkways, planning them so that they flowed smoothly around their spacious home, which is situated on almost a half-acre rectangular lot that extends into the untouched forested area in the back.
Because Paul uses a wheelchair for mobility, easy manoeuvring in the outdoor spaces was a key factor in the design as well.
“I love seeing the enjoyment that Joanie gets from her gardening. She loves every minute of it. It’s her baby, she does it (all),” Paul says.
The garden evolved over time as Joanie tried certain things in various areas, including a ground cover of sweet woodruff in the back, which pretty much eliminates the need to mow in that area.
A vegetable garden was a priority, so it was one of the first things to be included, but it was also one of the first things to be relocated in search of a sunnier spot in this shady sanctuary.
“It’s trial and error, really. You’re just moving stuff around all the time to get it the way you want it. You’re always digging out grass all the time and adding things. I always said I’d rather grow vegetables than grass; it’s something you can eat,” she says with a smile.
The front garden has a slightly more formal feel, with hedges of loosely rounded boxwood and spilling hardy limelight hydrangea.
“I like things a little more natural looking, more cottagey,” Joanie says.
Twin stately sugar maples also straddle the driveway.
“We planned the driveway between these two trees . . . . The pavers wanted to cut them down but I fought for those trees,” she adds with a laugh.
Annuals, such as cheerful butterfly daisies, are tucked into various beds for a continuation of colour throughout seasons.
To the left is a space that is an orchestrated riot of Joe Pye weed, rudbeckia, phlox, daisies and more.
“I’m always moving it around. I’ll probably move it around again this fall,” Joanie says.
The vegetable, fruit and herb garden is encased in six four-by-10-foot raised beds that are blanketed with lush crops of organically grown produce.
“It’s just a lot easier. You can pack a lot (into) one box so you don’t get the weeds because it crowds them out. You don’t have to bend as far and it’s more orderly,” Joanie says.
“I used to put flowers (along the edge) but this year I put in (alpine) strawberries.”
Adjacent to the house between the walkway to the back garden is a bed of hostas and bridal wreath spirea, with some Annabelle hydrangea clustered in for big blooming measure.
A huge stone retaining wall that curves across the backyard has been bordered with hemlock that Joanie planted to define the garden space from the naturally upward-sloping forest.
The shade-loving hemlock and other native species that she incorporated into the garden came from the Macphail Ecological Forestry Project’s nursery in Orwell.
“I love it back here in the mornings. All the blue jays come back and get their peanuts,” Joanie says of this cozy furnished space that is a prime spot to relax with a cup of coffee.
In addition to the groundcover of sweet woodruff, there are varieties of clematis, a native Canadian lobelia and an archway of honeysuckle, which the hummingbirds love.
A climbing hydrangea scrambling up the back of the house softens the structure as well.
The paver stone path winds its way past more hydrangea, one of a number of magnolias in the garden and patches of astillbe to the other side garden, which features a multi-tiered bubbling fountain and a chaise, dining set and grill, all set up on a paver stone patio.
“This side is pretty natural, with some ferns. It just gives you privacy. It fills right in in the summer. You can’t even see the street,” Joanie says.
No matter where one is in this urban garden the city feels like a far distant place.
“You feel like you’re in the country here,” Joanie says, adding with a smile, “and you don’t have mosquitos, so it’s a win-win.”