Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 6, 2021
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A rocky start

A Hamilton MD lays the foundation for a new hobby

I knew that my husband was turning into a gardener the spring he came back from a business trip to England with a plant list that he'd made while on a quick visit to Kew Gardens.

My husband, John Cunnington -- a specialist in internal medical and associate professor at the faculty of health sciences at McMaster University -- didn't know much about gardening when I first started planting perennial beds at our home in west Hamilton in the early 1990s. He did help build a stone path and an arbor, but I was the resident garden designer and plant nut.

My work on our small backyard had in fact got me so obsessed with gardening that I began to study landscape design and to change my focus from feature writing for magazines to writing for garden publications, which eventually led to writing a gardening book.

Sure enough, the gardening bug soon got to John too. I've never known anyone who learned the botanical names of plants as quickly as he did. Meanwhile, our small garden had become so packed with perennials, roses, flowering shrubs and clematis that I couldn't shoehorn another bit of vegetation. Before long, we began to think about moving to a larger property where we would have enough space for two gardeners.

To tell the truth, I was merely hoping for a house with a bigger yard. But John wanted acreage, and if I know anything about John, it's that he thrives on challenge.

It took a year of searching to find a suitable property, just outside nearby Ancaster. Spring 1998 found us settling for a weedy four hectares, with a very basic, but livable bungalow. The property had been a rental for years, and what wasn't a rough hayfield was a tangle of burdock, buckthorn, poison ivy, thistles and rusted farm detritus.

Most of our friends thought we were crazy, but we knew that the good points far outweighed the bad. We liked the fact that the house was set far from the road with a terrific view of a golf course and sprawling horse ranch right opposite. And because the grounds were neglected, the property was a bargain.

We moved in at the end of May and spent that first summer in cleanup and bulldozer mode. There was no question of planting anything until we'd primed the canvas. John and I removed endless weeds and brambles, collapsed fences and tons of concrete from the site of the original barn, long since torn down. Stones which had once been part of a barn foundation were saved for future garden projects. We didn't know it then, but those rocks would be the key to John's evolution as a gardener.

Over the next five years we added about 300 trees and shrubs, turned the old hayfield into a one-and-a-half-hectare prairie meadow and laid out huge beds of perennials and ornamental grasses. Most of the garden is done in the style I favour -- big beds with a naturalistic blend of tough perennials (many of them native plants) and masses of ornamental grasses -- a prairie look tailor-made for a country garden.

Sticks and Stones
Imagine my shock when after a couple of years John told me that he wanted to take up rock gardening: --It would be something I could do with that pile of rock we saved from the bulldozer," he said.

To my mind, rock gardening was the purview of finicky gardeners trying to coax itsy-bitsy alpine horticultural treasures into bloom in piles of soil and rock -- fussy and definitely not my style. But what could I do? John had supported me in doing my thing. And we had four hectares. Surely there was a spot he where he could do his own thing.

The fact that I wasn't interested in rock gardening was actually an advantage for him. --The reason rock gardening attracted me in the first place," he says, --is that it's a bit off the beaten track. I could have my own area of expertise and a place in the garden where I would make my own decisions."


When John showed me his design for the rock garden, I was relieved. It was a dry stone wall, a half-metre high, creating a raised bed in a formal square. A section of the square would be left open to allow visitors to walk inside a courtyard area to view the plants. This wasn't going to be a jumble of rock at all -- this was actually going to look good.

Once we agreed on a site for his garden to the east of our barn, John began to use every spare moment to work on its construction. A landscaping crew we had hired to build an entry courtyard at the front of our house included a pair of expert stonemasons. John asked them to teach him how to cut and face stone, and they were flattered to share their knowledge. This was a first for them: a physician taking up stonework. They showed him how to use carbide-tipped chisels to create attractive hand-faced sides to each stone and how to set the courses of the wall so that they would both look good and stay in place.

The Long Haul
The construction of the rock garden took John two years, off and on. He worked on his project on weekends and days off and devoted some of his holidays to finishing it. Turning a pile of stone into well-faced and solidly built dry-stacked walls was laborious and time-consuming. --Cutting and facing each individual stone took at least an hour," John explains. --It would be an entire day's work to get five stones into shape and set into the wall. It was a matter of just putting in the hours. The challenge was to keep on keeping on -- a bit like getting through medical school," he laughs.

In the meantime, to learn more about alpine plants, John had joined the Ontario Rock Garden Society, which meets once a month in Toronto. Serious rock gardeners grow many of their plants from seeds which come from seed exchanges and obscure rock gardening suppliers, as there are few alpines available at commercial nurseries.

He pored over rock gardening books through the winter and ordered seeds for the plants he wanted to grow. Over the two years it took him to build his garden, he propagated scores of species for his alpine bed and even built a poly greenhouse to shelter his young plants through the two winters that they would be homeless.

I'd grown plants from seed myself, though mostly garden annuals and easy-to-grow perennials. At the beginning I had to show John each step, how to moisten the potting mix, how to transplant the tiny seedlings and how much fertilizer to give them. But he took to propagation like a natural, and now even transplants and takes care of my seedlings.

--I get a lot of pleasure growing from seed," he says. --It's a very peaceful thing to do. I like the earthy smell of the potting mixes and nurturing the little plants along -- and, best of all, there's the satisfaction of seeing plants I started three years ago finally coming into flower for the first time."

John's seedlings were so successful that by the time his garden was ready to plant last spring, he had more than 1000 to choose from. As for the planting, he did ask me to help him decide how the plants should be arranged. We spent a day setting about 700 pots into place and then another couple of days getting all the plants out of the pots and into the ground. As a finishing touch, John mulched the bed with pea gravel, and by the end of May his garden was in bloom.

Although, I'd been a bit doubtful about alpine plants, I must admit that they are fascinating and many of them are very beautiful. So you might say that the tables have been turned. These days I'm learning the botanical name of John's plants. And both our gardens are flourishing together.

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