Most gardeners count plants and tools as their favourite garden presents but Dawn Westhaver’s father and husband have given her rarer gifts.
“My father taught me to garden, especially to grow from seed, to transplant and propagate so that I am gardening most of the year. I learned a lot working beside him in his greenhouse. Like him, I’m fascinated by the different ways of making more of a particular plant,” said Westhaver.
Her husband, Pat, provides muscle when needed, cleans up as required and tends the garden in her absence.
“There is so much I couldn’t do without him. He’s there for whatever I need and he gave me a garden shed which is my pride and joy.”
Last year she was contacted by Gardens East Magazine asking to photograph her garden at its peak flowering. She agreed but was called away to help with grandchildren in western Canada well before peak season so left Pat in charge.
“He said he’d just keep watering. He did that and more because the photos are beautiful.”
Westhaver has health issues that make gardening a challenge but she does not see it that way.
“A garden makes me happy. I decided a long time ago I could be happy and in pain or miserable and in pain. Happy is a lot better.”
Westhaver was only just married when she gravely injured her back in a car crash.
“Technology and treatment were not what they are today. It took many years to get a diagnosis and by that time there were other problems. At times I wasn’t too bad and at times I could barely walk. My parents and sister, Deb, helped a lot when my two children were young. For years I couldn’t hold a job for any amount of time before my back became a major problem.”
There was a time in rehab when she was almost resigned to living her life from a wheelchair.
“I wasn’t giving up, I was being practical. I had only so much energy and walking was taking it all. I wanted to be able to do things with my family, not to be putting all my energy into just moving.”
For many years she wore a Harris back brace and she still has plenty of days when she has to put her plans on hold.
“Gardening taught me to be patient and inventive. Sometimes I just have to wait to do what I want and sometimes I have to find new ways of doing what I want done.”
Westhaver likes a layered look in her garden with a ground cover in the forefront, then a low plant, then something bushier, something taller and a very tall plant in the back.
“That’s always what I think I’m going for but I’m the kind of gardener who likes to give any plant a chance and see what it can do. I tell all my plants not to get too comfortable because I’m very likely moving them.”
Four years ago she and Pat left a large property for a bungalow on a property one-sixth the size.
“It was time to downsize and from a garden point of view, it has been a real education. I moved from one side of town to the other and took lots of plants but I am amazed at how differently they grow here. I’ve got plants that were nice tidy clumps year after year now growing like mad here.”
There’s a bit of the plant scientist in Westhaver and nothing pleases her more than growing the same plant in different locations.
“I’ll put one in shade, one in partial shade and one in full sun just to compare the differences. It usually means I get to enjoy the same plant for a longer period of time because it will be a later bloom in the shade.”
She would be the first to tell you she makes her share of mistakes, too.
“I like the chartreuse of Creeping Jenny and let it spread too much. It took me a while to figure out it made a perfect home for slugs.”
She also has no problem interspersing vegetables among the flowers.
“Not having a lot of space, I give the prime spots to tomatoes, strawberries and other things we can eat. That comes from the way I was raised, always tending a vegetable patch and always having fresh-frozen produce to eat year-round. In those days, though, my siblings and I were more aggravated by the weeding than we were appreciative of all the healthy food my parents fed us.”
Variety is the other thing she values in her garden.
“I love foxgloves because they are such an old-fashioned flower, daylilies because they are so carefree, milkweed because it feeds the Monarch butterfly.”
As if on cue, one and then two Monarchs appear in the back of the garden, hover briefly and then settle to feast on a tall, airy milkweed plant.
“Just look at that. To be able to watch that in my own backyard is worth any toil and trouble.”
Rosalie MacEachern is a Stellarton resident and freelance writer who seeks out people who work behind the scenes on hobbies or jobs that they love the most. If you have someone you think should she should profile in an upcoming article, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org