Gardening in the Yukon?
When I first came to the Yukon in 1991, I must admit that gardening was from my mind. I came for the mountains and rivers, and a sense of personal space and freedom that the land offered. I lived in a small log cabin with my wife, and though we loved the surroundings of our little cabin in the woods, we were just too busy seeking adventures biking, hiking and paddling to even think about gardening around our place. It wasn’t until we moved away and a young creative woman moved in that I realized what Yukon gardening could be. From her excursions, she brought back special rocks, stumps and even plants to transform the exterior appearance into a very interesting collection of various items-sometimes even artifacts, to transform the yard into a museum of her adventures. It made me realize that much could be done with very little to create a Yukon garden.
A few years later, wanting to spend more time outdoors, I got back into landscaping and quickly realized that Yukoners really treasure their gardens. It became clear to me that this wasn’t just a hobby to them. It was a mission! They would laugh in the face of May snowfalls, cover their bedding plants well into June and again in late August, just to prove that it was possible to have a garden in the Yukon. It is my theory, that the long dark winter brings out a feverish desire in gardeners to show Mother Nature that they cannot be beaten. The biggest evidence of this is the first sunny weekend in April, when people rush to the garden centers to purchase bedding plants that won’t see the outdoors until June!
Like most Canadians, the longer days of spring makes Yukon gardeners want to get active because it feels like everything is coming back to life, even if the leaves won’t be out until the end of May. All that sun however, compared to the dark winter days makes everyone feel so alive and eager for action. On the streets, everyone you meet is already making plans for the summer. Everybody knows…there are only ten weekends in a Yukon summer and every one of them counts! If you want a garden, you have to seed it May long weekend, or you won’t have any peas, and your carrots will be puny. It’s all about timing- Making the most of the long daylight hours in June and July. Come September, carrots can be harvested from under a layer of snow, and if they were seeded early, it is amazing to see the growth that can happen under the midnight sun. I must admit however that many vegetables such as tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, beans and corn will only grow in a greenhouse. For this reason, a very large number of homeowners have greenhouses in their backyards. It is definitely an added value to any Yukon property.
Most visitors to the Yukon are surprised by the quantities of flowers that adorn the numerous gardens in the Parks and in the Downtown area. The City Parks staff take great pride in offering the residents and tourists a splash of summer colours to contrast with the bleakness of winter. A surprising variety of ornamental trees and shrubs can be found throughout the City as micro-climate sites get used to try growing zone 4 and 5 varieties. However, most zone 2 and 3 ornamental shrubs like roses, potentillas, dogwoods, currants, ninebarks and lilacs can be grown in most areas as long as they are not too exposed to the frequent high winds and receive a bit of care. Some newly developed varieties of Cherries and Haskap have recently gained a lot of popularity as they have helped fill a void of available edible fruit shrubs.
Although climate change is a highly discussed topic worldwide, in the eyes of Yukoners, it is an accepted fact that we are seeing its effects already. For example, we have not had deep cold periods in the last 3 winters. Where -30C was a common thing in December, January and February, we now get a few days of -20C. Many have also started to notice that some insects that had never been seen before; are making their appearance now. Personally, in my 20 years of gardening and landscaping here, I have noted that climate change has had a significant impact. Not so much in increasing our summer temperatures, but in increasing our number of frost free days. The result has been an increased chance of survival for a greater number of zone 4 and 5 plants to survive. This has made many gardeners very happy indeed. So, in the short term at least, climate change has been positive for us.
If there is one thing I have learned from gardening in the north though, it is that everything that gets planted, is placed with careful consideration to a multitude of micro-environmental factors, that will maximise its growth. This is extreme gardening! There are no guarantees, and everything is an experiment. But the rewards! Ah, that is what keeps us all trying year after year to find the right plant for that one spot, or is it the right spot for that one plant? Yes, much can be learned from gardening on the edge, but the lesson that I receive over and over again, is the incredible desire to survive that inhabits all living things.
This is Yukon gardening!