November Work: Cutting Down the Meadows

Last week, I performed what has become for me a ‘rite of November’: cutting down the meadows at our cottage on Lake Muskoka, a few hours north of Toronto. I have to admit, it isn’t my favourite chore of the year, though I acknowledge I don’t actually have a lot of “chores” up there, given the naturalistic way I garden. But it’s definitely the most labour-intensive – amidst the least pleasant weather conditions of autumn, as it usually turns out. This year it was blowing a gale as I assembled my wardrobe and tools:  hedge shears, rake, cart, bundling cloth and ropes, rubber boots, extra layers under my waterproof jacket and fleece band to keep my ears warm. I started out with the big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), the tallest of my prairie grasses, at 7 feet with its turkey-foot flowers. Considering it’s growing in shallow soil atop the ancient rock of the Canadian Precambrian shield, rather than the deep loam of the tallgrass prairie where its roots can extend far down, I think it’s rather happy at the cottage, and I took a selfie of us together before I chopped off its head!

Janet Davis-Lake Muskoka-Big bluestem in the meadow

Since my meadows and beds likely measure only about 1600 square feet or so, it’s not a lot to hand-cut with the hedge shears. People wonder why I don’t use a string trimmer, but I find that holding the weight of a trimmer just above ground is harder on my back than bending over and chopping the stems manually. I understand you can buy a harness for the trimmer, so that might be an improvement – but there’s something hypnotically satisfying about working with the shears.

Shears-cutting big bluestem-Lake Muskoka

As I work, I rake and pile the stems into windrows near the cart where I’ll eventually pack them up into bundles to carry by hand up the hill behind the cottage to a place out of sight where they can break down.

Cottage meadow-Lake Muskoka-November 15

If I don’t cut the meadows, the heavy snows of winter will soon bend down the grasses and forb stems, but the thatch that accumulates makes it less attractive for self-seeding wildflowers and daffodils emerging in spring. So if I want the scene below in mid-summer, it pays to prepare for it by cutting old growth.

Cottage meadow-Lake Muskoka-July 31st

And if I leave the switch grass (Panicum virgatum) standing after it turns colour in fall….

Switch grass-October-Lake Muskoka-fall colour

…. it will look like this in May.

Switch grass-May 15-Lake Muskoka-uncut

So I remove all the above ground growth in November.

Switch grass-November 15-Lake Muskoka-after cutting

And if I’m travelling during this late autumn window (as we have on a few occasions), the daffodils will still come up in the meadow the following spring, but it’s a bit of a struggle.

May 15-Big bluestem-Lake Muskoka-uncut-daffodils

In short, if I want this…..

Cottage bed & Orienpet Lily-July 31-Lake Muskoka

…I have to do this.

Cottage bed-November 15-Lake Muskoka

And if I want this…..

View of path-Lake Muskoka-July 31

….I have to do this.

View of path-Lake Muskoka-November15

I could hold off on the cutting until late winter or very early spring, when the ground is still frozen (as I do in my city meadow), but timing doesn’t always work that well up here and a fast thaw means I’m cutting on mucky soil. And since most of the seed-eating birds have flown south and those that remain seem adept at picking up seed from the ground, I’m happy to clear out this…..

Path through meadow-Lake Muskoka-November15

…. in order to enjoy this next summer.

Path through meadow-Lake Muskoka-July15

Beyond the chores of this month, I love the varied browns of November. I’ve even blogged about Beguiling Brown in the Garden. And I enjoy inspecting all the seedheads as the plants complete their life cycles. Plants like showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa), its white panicled seedheads shown below alongside the charcoal autumn foliage of false indigo (Baptisia australis). (Incidentally, though these plants flower at the opposite ends of summer, they’re among the best for bumble bee foraging.)

Seedheads-Solidago speciosa & Baptisia australis-November

Here is the candelabra-like seedhead of culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum) with the ubiquitous button-like seedheads of wild beebalm (Monarda fistulosa).

Seedheads-Veronicastrum virginicum & Monarda fistulosa-November

Those seedheads above, of course, are proof that the attractive summer flowers, shown below, attracted the pollination services of the appropriate wild bees.

Flowers-Veronicastrum virginicum & Monarda fistulosa-summer

And the late summer-autumn season has also allowed the various grasses to shine, below, including – apart from the big bluestem – Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and switch grass (Panicum virgatum).

Big Bluestem & Indian grass-Lake Muskoka

November is the perfect time for dormant seeding native wildflowers, so as I’m chopping the stems, I also do some fast sowing into the meadows, using my boot toe to kick little bare spots into the soil, then grinding some of the seeds just below the surface, while leaving others exposed. I do this with New York ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis), below.

Fall seeding-New York Ironweed-Vernonia-Lake Muskoka

Chopping, raking, piling, carrying. Chopping, raking, piling, carrying. After a good day-and-a-half in blustery wind and intermittent cold rain, I manage to take 8 tied bundles of stems up the back hill to a spot on top of the pile of blast rock that was cleared when we built our home here on this waterbound peninsula 16 years ago. In time, the vegetation will decompose amidst the staghorn sumac pioneers and create a more complex meadow planting here.Compost pile-Lake Muskoka

Finally, as I finish washing out the cart, coiling the garden hoses, cleaning my tools, bringing everything indoors and preparing to drive back to the city in the waning light of the third day, I gather up a handful of the stems I’ve put aside in my cutting. Because apart from enjoying vases filled with summer flowers in July…..

Bouquet-July meadow flowers-Lake Muskoka

….. it feels virtuous, somehow, to accord these plants the same respect in November.

Bouquet-November meadow seedheads-Lake Muskoka

To capture a little of the atmosphere of what it’s like to perform this task in November, I’ve made a short video to enjoy here. (Please excuse the wind – it was impossible to find quiet moments.) The good news? My back and I are still on speaking terms!


Wanuskewin – Finding Peace of Mind

For thousands of years, the Plains Cree peoples called the place I was born Kaminasaskwatominaskwak, “the place where many saskatoon berry bushes grow”. It was named for the native shrub Amelanchier alnifolia, below, found throughout the Canadian prairies and called “misaskwatomin” by the Cree, for whom saskatoon berries were essential to their diet and often incorporated into the protein-rich meat-fat mixture (traditionally made with bison) called “pemmican”. My birth certificate says I was born in Saskatoon – a less tongue-twisting word for non-natives, beginning with English fur trader Henry Kelsey, the first European to arrive in the area in 1690.

Amelanchier alnifolia-Saskatoon berry

My parents left Saskatchewan for Victoria, British Columbia when I was just 6 weeks old, so I never really gave much thought to the etymology of my home town’s name. When I was a little girl, my dad called our summer vacations to my Irish-born grandpa’s house in Saskatoon trips to “Saskabush” – and it would be decades before I knew there really was a ‘bush’ there, a special bush with a cloud of white flowers in spring and succulent reddish-blue summer fruit.

Saskatoonberry-Amelanchier alnifolia

If, as some philosophers believe, your birthplace imprints itself in your subconscious, I suppose it’s no surprise that I have always been drawn to prairie, whether the tallgrass of the American Central Plains or our own mixed-grass Northern Plains. So when I was in Saskatoon earlier in September for a family funeral, I paid two visits to Wanuskewin Heritage Park. The last time I saw it was the last time I was in Saskatoon in 1996, 4 years after its opening. It has evidently weathered some institutional gales in its 25 years, but has found smoother seas now and is the recent recipient of generous funding that will see its facilities improved and its mandate increased. It has also applied for UNESCO designation.

This is farming country and Wanuskewin is in the midst of it.

Google earth-Wanuskewin

Across the road from the park is a wheat field and, in the distance, the big grain elevators of Richardson Pioneer Ltd.

Wheatfield near Wanuskewin

Though Wanuskewin boasts myriad pre-contact archaeological sites representing 6000 years of Plains First Nations occupation, the land is not virgin prairie. In the early 1900s, it was homesteaded by the Penner family, whose name is still on the road sign nearby. They sold it in 1934 to the Vitkowski family, who farmed parts of it for almost a half-century before selling it in 1982 to the City of Saskatoon, which three years earlier had commissioned a 100-year master plan for the Meewasin Valley Authority (MVA) from Toronto architect Raymond Moriyama.  Saskatoon transferred it to the MVA the following year and it was named a Provincial Heritage Property.   In 1987, Queen Elizabeth visited Wanuskewin, designating it a National Historic Site; the interpretive centre and trails were opened in 1992.  It is working now to fulfil the necessary criteria to receive the UNESCO World Heritage designation.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Wanuskewin is Cree for “seeking peace of mind” and it was with this gentle objective on my first visit that I drove my rental car down the driveway to the entrance.


I walked around the handsome Visitors’ Centre, a “Northern Plains Indians cultural interpretive centre” covering the seven First Nations in this part of Saskatchewan. I saw displays of clothing on the wall,…..

Plains Indians-clothing-Wanuskewin

…a display case explaining the relationship of spring-flowering prairie crocus (Anemone patens) or “mostos otci” to the bison in First Nations natural history.

Mostos otci-Prairie crocus-Anemone patens-Wanuskewin

A tipi had been set up in the presentation lounge, just one of many interpretive programs, lessons and tours offered at Wanuskewin.

Tipi-Wanuskewin Visitors Centre

There was an impressive gathering of iconic bison nearby.  A little boy visiting felt a tail and declared it “so soft!”

Bison-Wanuskewin Visitors Centre

I read that a small bison herd is going to be returning to Wanuskewin soon – and are invoked in the park’s recent $40 million fundraising initiative #thunderingahead. Having been to the Nature Conservancy’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in the Osage Nation of northeast Oklahoma a decade ago, I know the powerful symbolism of these magnificent beasts, especially to the indigenous peoples whose ancestors co-existed with them, venerating them as they harvested them for food, shelter and clothing. The bison below, part of an introduced herd of 2500, was standing in big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), one of the keystone species of tallgrass prairie.

Bison-Oklahoma Tallgrass Prairie-Nature Conservancy

Wanuskewin’s reintroduced bison, on the other hand, will ultimately find a diet of mixed native prairie grasses (many newly introduced to meet the animals’ needs) and a few invasive interlopers, like smooth brome grass (Bromus inermis). They will find 240 hectares (600 acres) of plains and valley hugging the west bank of the winding South Saskatchewan River, about 5 kilometres north of Saskatoon. And they will share the prairie with hundreds of thousands of visitors each year who, like me, set out on a trek of discovery.

Wanueskewin Trail Map

Out I went into the late summer prairie heat, taking a trail that led past the recreation of an ancient buffalo pound once located at this spot….

Buffalo pound-Wanuskewin

……down into the valley to the Tipi Village in a grove of trembling aspens..


I carried on up the hill behind the tipis, passing a few vivid painted reminders of the Plains people who might have camped here at one time…..


…… or planted crops and gathered grain.

Gathering food-Wanuskewin

From the top of the hill, I looked back at the Visitors’ Centre. Designed by the architecture farm aodbt, Its roof peaks are intended to suggest tipis.

Wanuskewin-Visitors' Centre-Roof peaks

And up here, I had my first glimpse of one of the distinctive plants of the Central Plains: wolf willow (Eleaegnus commutata).  Some people call this suckering shrub ‘silverberry’ for the fruit that follows the small, fragrant, yellow flowers.  It feeds grouse and songbirds, but it has also fed the imagination of artists and writers.

Elaeagnus commutata-Wolf willow

I am currently reading Wallace Stegner’s classic Wolf Willow (1955), centred on the Tom Sawyer-like years of his childhood spent in the town of Whitemud (Eastend) in Saskatchewan’s western Cypress Hills where his parents had a small home in the village and homesteaded a 320-acre wheat farm near the Montana border. I love Stegner’s thoughtful prose (he became head of the Creative Writing department at Stanford and a respected author of books about the American west) and while the multi-faceted literary approach he uses in Wolf Willow in exploring his own evolution as a person is brilliant and has generated a trove of critical analysis, what he failed to find in digging into his past — though he traces the history of the Métis masterfully — is what Wanuskewin is all about. It is here to tell a great story about the people Stegner barely noticed, other than the little Métis boys he played with, the people who can trace their lineage on the prairie for thousands of years before Europeans arrived to raise cattle and grow wheat.

From the high vantage point, I gazed down onto Opimihaw Creek through a leafy bouquet of Saskatoon berry already taking on its tired autumn hues of rose and gold. Flowing through the valley from the mighty South Saskatchewan river nearby, Opimihaw has given sustenance to this place and its people and wildlife for millennia.

Opimihaw Creek -Wanuskewin

As I walked along the rise, I saw lichen-spangled rocks nestled in the tawny prairie grasses like sculpture.

Rocks with lichen-Wanuskewin

Rock, of course, was an essential part of life for Plains Indians, who used basalt, granite and schist to fashion the implements that have been found in archaeological digs at Wanuskewin and nearby, as shown in these donated artifacts in the Visitors’ Centre.

Rock tools-Wanuskewin

I climbed back down into the valley, surprising a great blue heron that had been fishing in the creek.

Great Blue Heron-Wanuskewin

I looked up and saw robins conferring noisily in the branches of a dead tree.


In the damp valley near the creek were sandbar willow (Salix interior)…..

Sandbar Willow-Salix interior-Wanuskewin

….. and snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus) which is one of the dominant shrubs at Wanuskewin in both damp and dry places.

Symphoricarpos albus-Snowberry-Wanuskewin

There were lots of rose hips; these are likely from Rosa acicularis, but low prairie rose (R. arkansana) and Woods’ rose (R. woodsii) also grow here.

Rose hips-Wanuskewin

I gazed back at the Visitors’ Centre through the changing fall leaves of Manitoba maple or box elder (Acer negundo), one of the principal tree species in the valley….

Acer negundo-Manitoba maple-Wanuskewin

…. and past the crimson fruit of firebelly hawthorn (Crataegus chrysocarpa)…

Crataegus chrysocarpa-Firebelly Hawthorn-Wanuskewin

…. and silver buffaloberry (Shepherdia argentea).  Like wolf willow, this shrub is a member of the Oleaster family, Elaeagnaceae.

Shepherdia argentea-Buffalo-berry-Wanuskewin

The Saskatchewan prairie, like the rest of North America, has not escaped the invasion of buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica), which was introduced from Europe in the early 19th century.

Rhamnus cathartica-invasive buckthorn-Wanuskewin

I climbed back up the rise onto the dry prairie and looked out through a scrim of fall-coloured shrubs and trees at the South Saskatchewan River flowing away from me.  It flows 1392 kilometres (865 miles), originating at the confluence of the Bow and Oldman Rivers in Alberta with their Rocky Mountain glacial water. It flows under multiple bridges in Saskatoon, beneath Wanuskewin’s tall bluffs and eventually joins with the North Saskatchewan River about 40 miles east of Prince Albert to form the Saskatchewan River.

South Saskatchewan-River view-Wanuskewin

I was now on the ancient Trail of the Bison, and though ‘civilization’ lay just across the river, I marveled at the ‘bigness’ and ’emptiness’ of the prairie behind me.  I turned and looked the other way down the river towards Saskatoon, at the undulating bluffs and the grassy floodplain flats on the shore. South Saskatchewan-River-Bluffs-Wanuskewin

It had been a hot summer and the vegetation was parched, but here and there I saw the odd wildflower, like spotted blazing star (Liatris punctata)….

Liatris punctata-spotted blazing star-Wanuskewin

….and prairie coneflower (Ratibida columnifera)…

Ratibida columnifera-Prairie coneflower-Wanuskewin

….and tiny rush-pink (Stephanomeria runcinata) with its wiry stems.

Rush-pink-Stephanomeria runcinata-Wanuskewin

I saw the cottony seedheads of long-fruited thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica).

Anemone cylindrica-long-fruited thimbleweed

But it had been a long day, beginning with my 4:30 am wakeup in Toronto, the flight to Saskatoon, and three hours tramping the prairie. I was tiring and ready to head to the hotel. As l made my way down the trail to the Opimihaw Valley and back towards the Visitors’ Centre, I was careful not to step off the path, because those red leaves with the telltale “three leaves let it be” were the prairie variety of poison ivy (Rhus radicans var. rydbergii).

Poison ivy-Rhus radicans var. rydbergii-Wanuskewin

I was sad not to have seen the famous Medicine Wheel, but vowed to try to return after the weekend.  As I was leaving, a staff member came up and told me there was about to be a hoop dance performance. I met young Lawrence Roy Jr., below, in the Visitors’ Centre lobby and decided to head out to the amphitheatre to watch him.

Lawrence Roy Jr-hoop dancer-Wanuskewin

This is my video of Lawrence’s performance (with a little wind interference – it’s hard to capture sound at Wanuskewin without the relentless wind):

And then it was back to the hotel and family.

Monday September 11, 2017:

When I returned to Wanuskewin, the wind was whipping the prairie so fiercely, I put my sun hat back in the car for fear it would fly away.  Fortunately, it wasn’t sunny as I set out on the Circle of Harmony trail towards the Medicine Wheel. What you cannot appreciate from the photo below is how that expanse of grass was rippling like a storm-tossed ocean, and the sound of it was violent and thrilling at the same time. (If you read my blog to the end, you can view a video I made to try to capture the rhythmic movement of the grasses.)

Circle of Harmony Trail-Wanuskewin

As I walked along a steep embankment with a spectacular view of the Opimihaw Valley (sometimes spelled Opamihaw) and the high point opposite where I’d stood a few days earlier overlooking the river, I realized I was standing on the site of the ancient buffalo jump.

Buffalo Jump-Opimihaw Valley-Wanuskewin

Can you imagine, some 2300 years ago, being somewhere nearby as young ‘buffalo runners’, who had channelled herds of these massive animals along ‘drive lines’ of rocks and brush (the driveway into Wanuskewin is situated on the drive line), often for a mile or more, aiming the terrified animals at this cliff where they stampeded them over its edge into the valley?  Other members of the band waited in a clearing below to kill those bison that had not died in the crush of the fall, before skinning them to utilize the hide, meat and bones. Life at Wanuskewin revolved around the bison.

Buffalo Jump-interpretive sign-Wanuskewin

Before long, I came upon the ancient Sunburn Tipi Rings site, with its magnificent 360-degree views.

Sunburn Tipi Rings-Wanuskewin

As the interpretive sign says, it was an excellent place for a summer encampment, its position on the plateau offering cooling winds in summer and a commanding view of the river.

Sunburn Tipi Rings-Interpretive Sign-Wanuskewin

Not far away was the Medicine Wheel, arguably the most important archaeological find at Wanuskewin. This arrangement of boulders has been dated to more than 1500 B.P. and is one of just 70 documented medicine wheels in the northern U.S. and southern Canada (and considered to be the most northerly wheel in existence).

Medicine Wheel-Wanuskewin

Each  is different, some with a single hoop arrangement of boulders; others with a double hoop or spokes emanating from the centre. Some refer to astronomy (like Wyoming’s Medicine Mountain wheel which measures the 28 days of the lunar cycle); others attach different symbolic meaning to the four directional quadrants. Wanuskewin’s Medicine Wheel, whose boulders (below) were mapped c. 1964 , is still used for sacred ceremonial gatherings.

Medicine Wheel-Detail-Wanuskewin

Wanuskewin has benefited from the work of Saskatoon archaeologist Dr. Ernie Walker, who has supervised digs here since the early 1980s.

I decided to walk down the trail to the valley, through the aspen forest and along the river. Damning of the South Saskatchewan over the decades has lowered the water level, so that some of the sandbars are now permanent.

Sandbar-South Saskatchewan River-Wanuskewin

With my telephoto lens I could see the wind-whipped whitecaps as the river curved under the bluffs.


The view of the Visitors’ Centre from the valley was spectacular. I realized I was hungry, and decided it was time to head back there again.

Wanuskewin-Visitors Centre

I was windswept, sunburnt and happy – time for a photo to remember the mood! And I was very ready for some lunch!

Janet Davis-Wanuskewin

As I approached the centre, I decided to pay a visit to the adjacent 7 Sisters Garden.

Wanuskewin-7 Sisters Garden

An interpretive display in the centre explains the identity of the seven sisters….

7 Sisters-Wanuskewin

….which I’ve arranged in a montage below. Clockwise from upper left, 1) sunroot (Jerusalem artichoke); 2) corn; 3) beans; 4) tobacco; 5) sunflower; 6) squash; and 7) as the young woman in the centre said to me: “Us!”  (I’ve taken the liberty of using the painted figure near the Tipi Village to illustrate ‘Us!’.)

Seven Sisters-Wanuskewin

Out in the garden itself, I was interested in the traditional 3 Sisters method of planting: using a combination of dent corn, beans and squash.  Given its modern iteration, the heat and drought meant that a sprinkler was watering the tall corn. Goldfinches darted from sunflower to sunflower, eating the seeds that had started to ripen.

Three Sisters-Corn-Beans-Squash-Wanuskewin

Cornstalk as a bean trellis! Isn’t this a wonderful idea?

Beans climbing cornstalk-3 Sisters gardening-Wanuskewin

Inside, I ate a delicious lunch of chicken & rice soup with bannock and a steaming cup of Saskatoon berry tea.


As I finished, I heard jingling bells and walked to the presentation lounge to watch T.J. Warren, originally from Arizona’s Diné nation, now working as an ambassador for First Nations culture in Saskatoon, perform a traditional Prairie Chicken Dance.

T.J. Warren-Wanuskewin

This is the video I made of T.J. dancing and talking about the components of his regalia.

And, finally, this is my video incorporating elements of both days at Wanuskewin. I hope that if you visit Saskatoon, you will find the time to walk its plains and valley. I promise it will bring you ‘peace of mind’.

Muskoka Wild – Gardening in Cottage Country

Gardening in cottage country.  Ah, the whispering white pines, the towering red oaks and sugar maples, the lacy hemlocks, the shimmering trilliums… and the pee-gee hydrangeas?

It is a strange paradox that when people head to their summer retreats in Muskoka, Georgian Bay or the Kawartha Lakes (or any other wilderness area), they often feel the need to recreate the type of manicured city landscape they left behind – one that fails to capture the unique sense of place inherent in the spectacular, rugged terrain of cottage country.   After all, don’t we seek escape to a granite island or forested shoreline in order to appreciate nature in the wild, not to subdue it with our own sense of urban decorum?

Natural shoreline-Lake Muskoka-kayak

But when that decorum includes a Kentucky bluegrass lawn sweeping down to the lake’s edge, one that needs fertilizing to stay green and mowing and edging to stay neat, it seems to me that we have not only turned our backs on the notion of wildness, but threatened it as well.  We should all be aware by now that fertilizer runoff has a harmful effect on water quality, increasing the phosphorus levels, encouraging the growth of algae and adversely affecting the shoreline habitat for fish.  But apart from the environmental effect of a lakeside lawn, the idea of having to replicate the humdrum chores of an urban back yard at a place where you should be snoozing in a hammock,  reading the latest bestseller, and kicking off your summer sandals just seems wrong.

Book and hammock at Lake Muskoka

Of course, the ideal cottage landscape is the one that’s been altered the least, the one that retains the native low-bush blueberries, blackberry, black chokeberry, wild raspberry, bearberry and myrtleberry, below .

Myrtleberry-Gaylussacia baccata-Lake Muskoka

It’s the landscape that respects the bush honeysuckle, the creeping dogbane, white meadowsweet and common juniper, while rejoicing in the mayflower, wild strawberry, violet, Solomon’s seal, trout lily, trilliums and red columbine.

Aquilegia canadensis-eastern columbine

It appreciates the bracken and marginal shield ferns in the dry places, the cinnamon and royal ferns in the damp spots and the sensitive fern and lady fern in the shady forest.  It’s the one where children and grandchildren run down paths carpeted with pine needles; where the shore is edged with white turtlehead, blue flag iris and swamp milkweed, below.

Swamp Milkweed-Asclepias incarnata-Lake Muskoka

The place where wild goldenrod and an assortment of asters offer up an easy bouquet for the Thanksgiving table.  And it does all this under trees that grow in familiar communities – red maple, white pine, beech, red oak, paper birch, hemlock, moose maple, staghorn sumac and trembling aspen – while giving shelter to songbirds, chattering jays, chickadees, barred owls and woodpeckers.Woodpecker-staghorn sumac-Lake Muskoka

Gardening Between a Rock and a Hard Place

But what if leaving the cottage landscape au naturel is not an option?  Construction doesn’t always leave the land in pristine condition, and sometimes a cottage property has been “tamed” by the people who owned it before you came on the scene. What then? For me, it was necessary to come up with a fast landscape plan after we built our Lake Muskoka home in 2001-02, a construction project that left the sloping bedrock exposed and barren of vegetation. But perhaps I should back up a little here.

Davis Cottage-Lake Muskoka-Slope-2001

Our south-facing property was the driest, hottest patch of land on a little peninsula jutting out into a small bay on the southeast part of Lake Muskoka.  Except for a row of towering, white pines at the shore – survivors of a fire that razed parts of the peninsula ridge decades earlier – and some red oaks here and there, the vegetation was scrubby, its growth constrained by shallow, acidic, sandy soil formed from the granite and grey gneiss rock underlying much of the region.  Sloping on a moderate angle to the lake, it was a challenging site for construction of a four-season house big enough to accommodate children, friends and far-flung relatives for family reunions.  With no road access, all supplies arrived by barge, including the concrete truck that poured the foundation, massive steel beams, roof trusses, lumber, appliances and furniture.

Equipment on barge-Lake Muskoka

When all was finished, we were delighted with the cottage (that’s the rustic euphemism we assign to homes of any size on Lake Muskoka); the views were spectacular from all sides and a screened porch extended the hours we could be outdoors dining and reading.  But our ecological footprint had not been light.  Much of the bedrock on either side of the site had been scraped bare of vegetation by tractors and line-trenchers.  Worse, the front of the cottage dropped away sharply onto sloping granite, making exiting the doors on the lower level to reach the lake a treacherous exercise.

Lake Muskoka Cottage-before terracing-2002

My objective in landscaping was not simply to re-green the site, but to re-shape the contour of the land, adding a front plateau to let us safely access the hillside.  It would feature a new woodchip path to replace the path that meandered across the property long before we built there.  We would also need stairs leading to the lake and dock, and I played with various concepts, below, as we worked on the house.

Cottage-Lake Muskoka-Concept Sketch for stairs

But beyond the structural changes, I wanted to return our land to a richer, more complex diversity than it possessed before we began to build.  I knew that the pines and oaks would eventually re-colonize the property, along with blueberries, junipers and sumacs.  In the meantime, there would be years of vibrant sunshine to nourish whatever I chose for my palette.  And even as I transplanted tiny pine saplings, I began to dream about those wild, flower-spangled meadows I had grown up with as a child in Victoria,

White Pine Seedling-Lake Muskoka

It wasn’t just a desire to naturalize an already natural site that appealed to me.  I was also pushing back against the way I’d been gardening in the city, rebelling against the need for constraint and order that comes with beds and borders and neatly-mown lawns.  It made no sense to think that way about a cottage landscape; not only would it be out-of-step with the natural environment, it would be out-of-synch with how I had changed, physically and philosophically, as a gardener.  More and more, I wanted a landscape that was not just for me and my kind, but one that would appeal to other species:  the bees, katydids, butterflies, birds and chipmunks that would soon call the meadows home.  I also wanted that sense of aesthetic pleasure that comes from observing a truly changing canvas with a roster of plants to provide a shifting tapestry from April to October.  Most of all, I wanted my meadows to be low-maintenance.  

Katydid on Rudbeckia hirta-blackeyed susan

After the last of the construction equipment was removed from the site, a barge arrived loaded with a tractor and different kinds of soil.  For the most conventional garden beds – the spaces between the four doors on the lower level – rich triple-mix consisting of equal parts of loam, peat and manure was chosen.  For the open meadows on either side of the cottage and the sunny hillsides in front of them, we settled for a local, low-grade, sandy soil, emulating the environment found in natural sand prairies.  On the steep bank dropping from the newly-shaped path under the old white pines in front of the cottage, we elected to spread a locally-sourced forest soil called “trimmings” that contained the roots and seeds of whatever might be found naturally growing in similar conditions nearby. 

Lake Muskoka-Cottage Landscaping-2002

My objective that first summer was to prevent the new soil from washing down the slope in rainstorms.  As a fast-germinating cover crop, I seeded the meadows and hillsides with a combination of creeping red fescue grass (Festuca rubra) and black-eyed susans (Rudbeckia hirta), mixing about 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of the wildflowers into 4.5 kilos (10 pounds) of grass seed.  A few weeks and many hours of hand-watering later…..

Lake Muskoka Cottage-watering seeds-Summer-2002

….the first blades of grass emerged, followed closely by the first tiny leaves of countless blackeyed susans.

Lake Muskoka Cottage-Blackeyed Susans-2003

A biennial, it makes a rosette of foliage in its first season and sends up flower stems the following summer, before setting seed and dying.  I still laugh at the photos taken of me in year two standing amidst thousands of cheerful black-eyed susans.


Into the rich soil of the doorway garden beds went big golden yarrow (Achillea filipendulina ‘Gold Plate’), Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) and switch grass (Panicum virgatum).  This is how the path and a doorway bed looked a few years later.

Lake Muskoka-Cottage Path & Bed-2007

At the base of the richest meadow, I planted an assortment of prairie grasses, including big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium),Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and switch grass (Panicum virgatum), below.  And over the next few years, I did an autumn sowing of seeds of a roster of tallgrass prairie perennials that would become the flowery backbone of the meadows: foxglove penstemon, heliopsis, monarda, gaillardia, sweet blackeyed susan, gray-headed coneflower, asters and showy goldenrod to add to goldenrods already on the property.  That plants were native was not as important to me as their drought-tolerance, a vital attribute for a landscape that would rely on rainwater — while acknowledging that dry summers would take their toll on plants growing in shallow soil.

Panicum virgatum-switch grass-Lake Muskoka

The Meadows Mature

Now, fifteen years later, my meadows and garden beds provide a bounty of flowers (and beautiful bouquets). There is something in bloom from the first daffodils of April…..

Daffodils-Cottage-Lake Muskoka

….  to the last goldenrod and asters of autumn. This is showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa), down by the lake in late September.

Solidago speciosa-showy goldenrod-Lake Muskoka

Monarch butterflies lay eggs on the butterfly milkweed….

Monarch ovipositing on Asclepias tuberosa-butterfly milkweed

….producing beautiful caterpillars and a new generation of the iconic butterfly…..

Monarch caterpillar on butterfly milkweed-Asclepias tuberosa

….which, when it prepares to fly south to Mexico in early September, sometimes stops on our dock to soak up a little salt from the feet of sunbathers.

Monarch butterfly eating salt on toe-Lake Muskoka

Myriad pollinating insects and hummingbirds visit the flowers, like this ruby-throated female on my crocosmia flowers (which, amazingly, have overwintered for years)….

Ruby-throated hummingbird on crocosmia-Lake Muskoka

…while goldfinches enjoy the monarda seeds….

Goldfinch eating monarda seed-Lake Muskoka

…..and ruffed grouse are regularly spotted in late summer wandering through my meadows.

Ruffed grouse-Lake Muskoka

Though there are a few deer on our peninsula, they seem to prefer the young sumac shoots to my perennials….

Deer-Lake Muskoka

….. but groundhogs enjoy purple coneflower and coreopsis from time to time.

Groundhog-eating coreopsis-Lake Muskoka

In truth, the meadows are so profuse that I am happy to share a few plants.  Yes, there are exotics some might call “weeds”, e.g. oxeye daisies, buttercups. birdsfoot trefoil, musk mallow, cow vetch, hawkweed and quackgrass, but they are kept in check by the vigorous prairie plants.

Weedy wildflowers-Lake Muskoka

The only work required is to use a trimmer twice each season to keep the path across the property clear.

Path-cutting-meadow-Lake Muskoka

In November, I need to cut down the meadow grasses to reduce the thatch that builds up and to keep things neat for the daffodils that emerge each April.   And, of course, to prevent the meadow from transitioning naturally to bush, it’s necessary to keep out any blackberries and sumacs that might want to jump the path from the steep slope to the lake.

Autumn cleanup-Lake Muskoka-meadow grasses

My cottage neighbours know where to find a bouquet of fragrant daffodils in springtime.

Daffodils-Lake MuskokaThe bumble bees know where to find beebalm with sweet nectar.


And I know where to find photographic inspiration and beauty all season long, like this single day, July 7, 2013, when I collected all these flowers at the cottage.

July flowers at the cottage-Lake Muskoka

Let’s take a little tour of the property.

A Tour of My Muskoka Garden Today

Coming down the stairs from the cottage, we see the little patch of wildness I call the “east meadow”. The soil here is shallow and the plants — tall cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) at the bottom of the stairs and beebalm (Monarda fistulosa) and false oxeye (Heliopsis helianthoides) in the meadows — tend to suffer in a dry summer.  On this side of the stairs is a large stand of Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’ and other plants.

Janet Davis cottage-Lake Muskoka-East Meadow-2017

Here’s the view of the cottage through the beebalm and heliopsis in the east meadow.


Here’s the stairway to the lake, below, with a little viewing deck part-way down. The slope, composed of soil called ‘trimmings’, features plants native to Muskoka, including sumac (Rhus typhina), meadowsweet (Spiraea latifolia), common juniper (Juniperus communis) and wild blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis). Oaks and maples sprout on the slope as well; some are encouraged but it’s necessary to thin the forest a little here.

Slope to Lake Muskoka-Janet Davis cottage

In early summer, that little section below the bench is a lovely confection of foxglove penstemon (P. digitalis) and lanceleaf coreopsis (C. lanceolata). Both of these native perennials share a love of dry, gravelly soil.

Pentemon digitalis & Coreopsis lanceolata

Here’s a short video of foxglove penstemon at the lake shore.

On a grassy part of the slope to the lake, I combine butterfly milkweed with blackeyed susans.

Rudbeckia hirta & Asclepias tuberosa-Lake Muskoka

Looking west down the path past the scented ‘Conca d’Or’ lily (one of the strongest Orienpet or Oriental x Trumpet hybrids), it’s amazing to me that this flat terrace was created from a once steep and treacherous slope.

Llium 'Conca d'Or'-Path

Moving along the path, the bed (using the word ‘bed’ very loosely) at the eastern end of the cottage is filled with more fragrant Orienpet lilies.  Over the years, I’ve discovered that certain perennials exhibit good drought-tolerance, like Veronica spicata ‘Darwin’s Blue’, just finishing below. This bed also contains English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), ‘Walker’s Low’ catmint (Nepeta racemosa) and ‘May Night’ meadow sage (Salvia nemorosa).

East garden bed-Lake Muskoka

The most satisfying garden section at the cottage has been the small, sloping west meadow, aka the ‘monarda meadow’ for its predominant wild beebalm, Monarda fistulosa. This is how it looks today,as the large prairie grasses at right are just beginning to fountain.

East Meadow-path-Lake Muskoka

In early August the west meadow features some good perennial partners with the monarda, including ‘Gold Plate’ yarrow (Achillea filipendulina)….

Monarda fistulosa & 'Gold Plate' Yarrow-Lake Muskoka

…. gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata)….

Monarda fisulosa & Ratibida pinnata

…. and false oxyeye (Heliopsis helianthoides)…..

Monarda fistulosa & Heliopsis helianthoides

In June, the monarda meadow features the odd wild lupine (Lupinus perennis), now less populous than they were a few years ago, when their blue candles glowed in the grasses.

West Meadow-Lupinus perennis1

I made a little time capsule video to remember my meadows this week, in a summer when rain was plentiful (to say the least) and the flowers all reached for the sky.

Bouquets from the Meadows

The cottage beds and meadows have yielded lovely bouquets for the table, whether in June with the lupines, false indigo (Baptisia australis), oxyeye daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare) and large-flowered penstemon (P. grandiflorus)…

Bouquet-Lupines-June-Lake Muskoka

….or later in summer, with cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), blue Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia), purple blazing star (Liatris spicata) and the many goldenrods (Solidago sp.) that flower at the cottage.

Bouquet2-Midsummer (2)

Sometimes I add stems of Allegheny blackberry (Rubus allegeniensis) and nannyberry (Viburnum lentago) to the summer wildflowers, like the little nosegays below.

August meadow flowers

20 Great Cottage Perennials for Bees & Butterflies

Except for the fragrant lilies, which are just for me, my criterion for including plants to the cottage beds and meadows is that they must be useful to foraging insects and birds. Here are twenty of the best:

1. Blue false indigo (Baptisia australis) – Ironclad, low-maintenance native perennial attracts bumble bees at a critical time in late spring when bumble bees are provisioning their nests.


2, Wild lupine (Lupinus perennis) – Bumble bees are the pollinators for this native perennial, which flowers in June.

Bombus on Lupine perennis-Lake Muskoka

3. Blackeyed susanRudbeckia hirta – Lots of small native bees and butterflies enjoy foraging on biennial blackeyed susans.


4. Blanket flowerGaillardia x grandiflora – Provided it’s regularly deadheaded, blanket flower will bloom until autumn, attracting myriad bees.

Bombus griseocollis on Gaillardia x grandiflora

5. CatmintNepeta racemosa ‘Walker’s Low’ – Long-flowering and a bee magnet, catmint has aromatic foliage that discourages deer.

Bombus on Nepeta racemosa 'Walker's Low'

6. Lanceleaf coreopsis (C. lanceolata) – One of the easiest, most drought-tolerant perennials for early summer, this coreopsis attracts lots of bees and its seeds attract hungry goldfinches.

Bombus on Coreopsis lanceolata-Lake Muskoka

7. Foxglove penstemon (P. digitalis) – Another easy, adaptable native perennial, this penstemon flowers at the same time as coreopsis, above, and enjoys the same rugged conditions – dry, gravelly soil.  Bumble bees forage on it extensively.

Bombus on Penstemon digitalis

8. Hoary vervain (Verbena stricta) – This vervain epitomizes “hardy and drought-tolerant” and is the most foolproof perennial in my dry meadows. Guaranteed to bloom and attract bumble bees.

Bombus on Verbena stricta-Lake Muskoka

9. False oxeye (Heliopsis helianthoides) – In the ‘be careful what you wish for’ category, this one is easy from seed and likes to take over the meadow. A negative is its attraction to rosy-apple (red) aphids, but lots of native pollinators enjoy the flowers, including the wasp below.

Wasp on Heliopsis helianthoides-Lake Muskoka

10. Wild beebalm (Monarda fistulosa) – Easily the most valuable perennial in my meadows, attracting bumble bees, hummingbirds and the lovely clearwing hummingbird moth, below.

Hummingbird clearwing moth on Monarda fistulosa-Lake Muskoka

Bumble bees are plentiful in my meadows during the blooming period of the wild beebalm. This is my west meadow today, August 7, 2017.

11. Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) – I have blogged at length about this plant, named the Perennial Plant Association’s 2017 Plant of the Year. It attracts many types of pollinators, including the monarch butterfly, which lays its eggs on the plant to be foraged by the developing caterpillar.


Butterfly milkweed is also very popular with bumble bees of all kinds. Here’s a video I made of a bumble bee nectaring while a red squirrel scolds and a Swainson’s thrush sings in the background.

12. Gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) – With its willowy stems, this perennial is the most graceful in my meadows, and attracts small native bees.

Native bees on Ratibida pinnata

13. Cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) – The tallest of my meadow perennials, this one is a colonizer, but so popular with bumble bees that it can be forgiven for laying claim to as much territory as it can.

Bombus on Silphium perfoliatum-Lake Muskoka

I was surprised one year to see which animal was snacking on the 8-foot tall seedheads of my cup plant. Not a deer, but a…….

14. Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) – Hardy with aromatic leaves that repel deer, this sub-shrub is an excellent companion for big golden yarrow. Bumble bees and honey bees adore the tiny, lavender-purple flowers.

Bee on Perovskia atriplicifolia

15. Blazing Star or Gayfeather (Liatris – many species, esp. L. ligulistylis, below, and L. spicata) – I adore all the blazing stars, and so do the butterflies. Rocky Mountain blazing star, below, is particularly popular with monarch butterflies and with the great spangled fritillary shown.

Great Spangled Fritillary-on Liatris ligulistylis-Lake Muskoka

16. Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum) – Preferring more moisture than many of the prairie natives, this tall perennial (the one below is the cultivar ‘Fascination’) is a magnet for bees and butterflies.

Painted Lady on Veronicastrum virginicum 'Fascination'-Lake Muskoka

17. New York ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) – Wherever there’s an extra bit of moisture, this tall ironweed thrives in late summer. It attracts bees and many types of butterfly, including the painted lady, below.

Painted Lady on Vernonia noveboracensis-Lake Muskoka

18. Sweet blackeyed susan (Rudbeckia subtomentosa) – A tall, easy-going perennial – and my favourite of the rudbeckia clan, this late-summer beauty attracts its share of native bees and wasps.

Native wasp on Rudbeckia subtomentosa

19. Goldenrod (Solidago sp.) – There are at least a half-dozen species of goldenrod that thrive on our property. Some are invasive enough to be nuisances, like Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis). Others are rare enough to be prized, like Solidago nemoralis. But my favourite is one I seeded myself, showy goldenrod, Solidago speciosa, below.  One of the latest-blooming perennials, it is often in flower well into October, nourishing the last of the bumble bees before our long Muskoka winter.

Bombus on Solidago speciosa-showy goldenrod

20. New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) – At the very end of the season, around Thanksgiving time in Canada, the various asters provide a late, vital source of nectar for all the bees.

Agapostemon virescens on Symphyorichum novae-angliae-Lake Muskoka


Adapted from a story that appeared originally in Trellis, the magazine of the Toronto Botanical Garden