Gerry Forestell, Huntsville Gardener On Growing in Cool Canadian Conditions
When he was growing up, Dr. Gerry Forestell’s first exposure to gardening was through his summer job at an Ontario, Canada garden centre called Walter’s. There, he discovered his passion for gardening and landscaping through helping customers during the busy spring season. It wasn’t until he purchased his own home in Huntsville that Gerry truly got into gardening on his own time.
In Huntsville, located in the hilly terrain of the Canadian Shield with many scenic hills and sweeping landscapes, what works in terms of plants and landscape here is quite a bit different from other growing areas in North America.
Over his years living in the area, Gerry Forestell has come to appreciate the gardening experience. He never stresses if something doesn’t work out; instead, he says gardening is about experimenting and finding the best plant for the correct location. We spoke with passionate gardener Gerry Forestell about how he came to develop a green thumb.
Your passion for gardening goes back to your teenage years working at a local garden centre in Ontario, Canada. Can you elaborate on that experience for us?
Gerry Forestell: Walter’s Garden Centre and Nursery was located in New Tecumseth on the 15th line. It was run by Walter and his wife Caroline. Walter was an inspiring guy who had immigrated from post war Europe alone in the 50’s and gradually through hard work, thrift and ingenuity was able to move out of Toronto with his wife Caroline to open his own garden centre.
My early years were spent around the garden centre planting numerous bare root plants in the spring, moving products around the yard and helping customers during the busy spring season. For those first couple of summers, myself and a couple of other 15-16 year olds worked in the fields to hoe and weed around the nursery stock through the sun and heat of July and August. To be recruited to help at a job site was a treat because you finally realized the value of taking an empty yard and turning it into beautiful gardens. As the summers progressed, we started to do more and more landscaping. Walter created the design for us, though in my final summer at age 21, he would let us have input into the choice of plantings. I truly developed a passion for landscaping working for Walter.
Medical school and your subsequent career took you away from gardening for a while. When did you rekindle your passion again?
Gerry Forestell: Aside from doing work around my parents yard, it wasn’t until my wife and I purchased a house in Muskoka in ‘95 that I got a chance to rekindle my love of landscaping and gardening. Initially, our property had shrubs in the upper garden which were rather underwhelming, so these were gradually replaced with perennials and annuals.
Why did you refer to perennials as “pretty weeds” and what eventually changed your mind to embrace these plants?
Gerry Forestell: When I worked at Walter’s, I developed an attitude towards perennials that they were “really pretty weeds” as we often spent many days and weeks cleaning and replanting overgrown gardens. Given that the shade really prevented most shrubs from growing well, I learned to appreciate perennials.
As I transformed the beds over time, I would enjoy going to Sandhill Garden Centre outside Huntsville to walk around and check out their stock every spring. As the years went by I would try many different shade and part shade perennials and annuals. I love the beauty of oriental lilies but the slugs consistently seem to beat my environmentally friendly efforts to combat them. I hope to try again as it has been many summers without that fragrant smell. I have also tried ornamental grasses without much success.
You and your wife live in Planting Zone 4b where the climate is cool a majority of the year. How has living in Huntsville and in this particular plant hardiness zone forced you to grow differently?
Gerry Forestell: Our house is north facing and surrounded by numerous trees, primarily sugar maples so the property does not get a lot of sun. We are situated in Zone 4b for plants, though it will be interesting to see what impact climate change will have on this in the coming decade. Winter will seem to linger longer on our property as it is often well into April before the snow is finally gone from all of the gardens. The ground slowly warms so that by the time we see tulips, most other people’s gardens are several weeks further along.
What has been your biggest gardening failure?
Gerry Forestell: One area of failure has been attempting to grow a lawn in our yard – we are close to the water and avoid use of fertilizers. We have tried various types of grass seed and clover; top dressing and even new soil and sod without lasting success. However, our moss is green so hopefully people will notice the flowers and not the lawn as much!
What fills your garden today?
Gerry Forestell: Presently, my gardens are filled with various perennials – hostas of various varieties, astilbes – various heights and colours; ferns – similarly various varieties ; Siberian Bugloss; Solomon’s seal; ligularia. I have been able to have some success with coneflowers (new varieties), bee balm, black eyed susans, turtle heads, daylilies and siberian iris in the one garden which does receive a good amount of sun.
The spaces around the perennials are usually filled with annuals which have various types of begonias and impatients. There were two summers when we were unable to get classic impatients so I filled the beds in with more perennials. In the upper garden (with more sun), I have been able to plant geraniums, coleus, fushia and whatever seems new and a possibility to fit in.
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