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Horticultural challenges in the First Nations Garden

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Planting understory trees
Photo: Jardin botanique de Montréal (Michel Tremblay)

Gathering and transplanting thousands of plants whose growing requirements we knew little about, producing a vegetable garden from heritage seeds, minimizing the impact of the excavation work on the existing plants, establishing a peat bog, caring for transplanted species... creating the First Nations Garden at the Botanical Garden was a tremendous challenge!

Native people were ecologists before the term was ever coined. Over time they acquired an intimate knowledge of nature, knowing exactly where in its natural habitat to find a particular plant to meet a specific need. To pay tribute to this relationship between the First Nations and the plant world in a botanical garden, we had to represent the complex world of plants as it exists in nature. We weren't interested in creating the type of garden where plants are grouped together only according to use or appearance. For the First Nations Garden, we had to let ourselves be guided by Mother Nature and arrange the plants as they would have originally grown together. We weren't creating a garden of food or medicinal plants, but instead a Laurentian maple stand, a softwood forest, a tundra and a peat bog!

Planting trees

The planned site for the First Nations Garden already had a highly diversified stand of trees planted starting in the 1960s. This stand was ideally suited to serve as the backbone of the new garden. We did have to add a number of missing species, of course, add more trees to fill out the stand, replace some dead trees, plant some understory trees and so on.

Treading lightly

Although the main building was built on an existing path, heavy vehicles, including a cement truck and power shovel, had to be brought in and manoeuvred in this very tight space. Numerous branches had to be tied up to protect the trees. As well, a forest ecosystem is much more than a stand of trees: it includes its own unique type of soil and understory plants.

Many different herbaceous and shrub species that are important in Native tradition, such as bluebead-lily (Clintonia borealis), bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) and hairy gooseberry (Ribes hirtellum), colonize the forest soil. Only rarely are such plants available commercially. It would have taken a long time to produce them at the Botanical Garden. The solution? Gather most of the thousands of individual plants required in the wild, and transplant them into the First Nations Garden.

The team of horticulturists and botanists set very strict rules for gathering the various species. All plants were to be obtained from sites that would eventually be destroyed, for road or home construction, for instance. Even the most common plants were to be gathered only from sites slated to be cleared in the near future. For the most part, the herbaceous and shrubby plants in the First Nations Garden were saved from sites in Laval, St-Jérôme, St-Hilaire and elsewhere. And the seeds for crops such as corn, beans and squash came from various Native communities that have grown them for generations.

A peat bog in Montréal

Some of the plants that have long been used by Natives grow only in peat bogs: moist, acidic, low-nutrient environments, often formed of a floating bed of sphagnum moss. Recreating such a complex ecosystem at the Botanical Garden was a real challenge.

The First Nations Garden team turned to the new recovery technology developed by the peat industry. They dug an artificial pond and lined it with a waterproof geotextile membrane. Next they filled it three-quarters full with a substrate composed of five parts peat moss to one part coarse sand. They then topped it up with water with an acidity level comparable to that in a real peat bog. On the surface, they spread a layer of sphagnum moss harvested from a managed peat bog near Rivière-du-Loup. They also introduced various plants – kalmia (Kalmia polifolia and K. augustifolia), cranberries (Vaccinium macrocarpon and V. xycoccos), pitcher plants (Sarracenia purpurea), etc. – gathered from the same site. Within a few years we should have a continuous carpet of sphagnum moss dotted with typical bog plants.

Evolving ecosystems

There are currently more than 300 different plant species in the First Nations Garden. How can we guarantee that as many transplanted species as possible survive? Keep some plants from crowding out their neighbours? Care for certain plants that normally grow at much more northern latitudes? Maintaining and improving the ecosystems portrayed here will be a major challenge for our horticulturists in coming years. Creating the First Nations Garden was challenging and will continue to be so. The First Nations Garden is a laboratory for many future experiments that will demand changes and patience. Our horticulturists will have to learn from their mistakes and build on their successes. One thing is certain: this garden will become even lovelier with age!

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