Sundaura Alford-Purvis - Landscape Designer
“We depend on the ecosystem in which we live and if it is unwell, we are also unwell. When we help to heal nature, we are also helping to heal ourselves.”
Photos: Sundaura Alford-Purvis
Q.1. How did you become interested in landscape design?
I’ve always been fascinated by plants and interested in both the artistic and the functional aspects of design. Following a short detour into architecture, landscape design became the logical career path given my interests.
Montmorency sour cherry tree.
Q.2 From your perspective, what are the top three things a homeowner can do to make the space around their home function as habitat to support wildlife?
Plant in three (or more) layers. In the Ottawa area the habitat that most wildlife depends on is woodland, meadow or wetland. Few people have the space to create a wetland, so I recommend looking to woodlands or meadows for inspiration. In urban areas this translates to a providing a healthy, diverse tree canopy, a mid layer of shrubs and/or perennials and grasses and a dense layer of groundcover plants to protect the soil and minimize the need for disturbance (tilling and mulching). Mimicking the layers of either a woodland or a meadow, with a diversity of regionally native plant species, will go a long way toward creating wildlife habitat.
Include human habitat. This can be paths, sitting areas, play areas, plants that produce a harvest or any other component that will encourage interaction and participation. Separating human from wildlife habitat in urban environments isn’t really feasible, or necessary. By ensuring that there is space for people, the landscape is far more likely to be enjoyed by the gardener who creates it and valued and retained by any future homeowners.
If wild spaces make you uncomfortable, remember that wildlife doesn’t care if trees or shrubs are planted in straight lines, they just need them to be included in the landscape. If order appeals to you, try selecting a blend of plant species, with similar heights and sequential bloom times, to fill a space that you might otherwise plant with a single species. The goal is a diversity of site-appropriate species and dense cover of the ground, more than an exact copy of a natural ecosystem. A wildlife friendly garden doesn’t necessarily need to look like a wild space.
Q.3. Wild pollinators such as native bees and butterflies are in decline in Canada and around the world. What are some of the plants you recommend that grow well in Ottawa and support pollinators?
More than specific plants, appropriate habitat is needed. The majority of native bees are ground dwelling, so ensuring that there is a space, or a few spaces, where the soil can be left undisturbed and un-mulched will help a lot. Also, try to limit tidying of gardens, stems and leaf litter are important for a lot of wintering insects. Clear them away, if needed, in the spring.
Avoid ‘bee hotels’ they tend to become habitat for mites and diseases that kill off the pollinators that they are meant to help. They can also become a buffet for woodpeckers, leading to the loss of an entire generation of bees in a matter of minutes.
For plants, look for native species and avoid double blooms or pollen free varieties since they don’t produce much, if any, food for pollinators. Also, look for varieties that bloom in hot, dry conditions or very early or late in the growing season, since there are times that food is often scarce for pollinators. Despite all the recent publicity about dandelions being the first food for bees, trees, especially silver, sugar and red maples, fill that role. For late season, there are many species of fall blooming asters and goldenrod native to Ontario that appeal to a wide range of pollinator species. Providing food for the larval stage of pollinators in also important, some of which have close relationships with specific plant species, but for the generalists, wild cherries, native willows (both tree and shrub forms) and oaks support many species of pollinators. Remember, if nothing is eating your garden, it isn’t part of the ecosystem, so don’t panic if something is chewing on a few leaves, that’s a sign that you are successfully attracting and supporting critical species in your little slice of paradise.
Q.4. In the last few years Ottawa-Gatineau has experienced the effects of a changing climate through increased frequency and severity of flooding. How do plants and trees make cities more resilient to the impacts of climate change?
I’m going to add one more item to ‘plants and trees’ and that is soil. When healthy, soil can soak up an incredible amount of rainwater, holding it where it falls and allowing it to slowly filter into the water table, rather than quickly running off over the ground and pouring into rivers and streams. Most urban soils are compacted and low in soil biology and it takes either direct intervention or lots of plants and time to re-create healthy soil. When a site is already being disturbed, either for construction of as part of a landscaping project, it is extremely helpful to break up the deep soil compaction to a depth of 50cm to 100cm, if possible, and to introduce some compost into that soil. Not only will this help the water soak in, it will encourage deep root growth in trees, shrubs, perennials and even turf, helping with infiltration and increasing drought resistance in the landscape. When working on a site, covering the soil with organic matter (compost and/or mulch), as soon as possible after disturbance, will help keep it from losing the existing biology. Once a dense cover of plants is established or restored, additional mulch isn’t required if the leaves of those plants are allowed to remain each fall and stems are chopped-and-dropped back into the gardens rather than being removed.
To stay healthy, soil needs trees and plants. Roots stabilize the soil and foliage protects it from compaction and weathering. Plants also release up to 40% of the sugars that they produce through photosynthesis directly into the soil, which feeds a complex web of soil life. That soil life transports nutrients and water to the plant’s roots, breaks down contaminants, creates humus and glues the soil particles into granules which both hold water and nutrients and allow air to move through soil as roots breath. Plants and soil have a complex and symbiotic relationship, and neither can remain truly healthy without the other.
Q.5. What effect does spending time around plants, including trees, have on you personally?
Sanity maintenance. Both the physical and the psychological effects of spending time in natural spaces are well documented. From a personal standpoint, garden time is a slower pace and a reality check about what is important in life. We depend on the ecosystem in which we live and if it is unwell, we are also unwell. When we help to heal nature, we are also helping to heal ourselves.
Q.6. As a landscape designer, have you noticed a shift in the public’s interest in designing outdoor spaces that are low impact and regenerative?
I’m encountering more and more people who are concerned about the state of the climate and the global ecosystem. People are looking for ways to cope with this and for direct ways, even small ones, to work toward solutions. I’m seeing the trend toward adoption of sustainable and regenerative approaches to gardening and landscaping less as an industry trend than one being driven by people concerned for our future. In some cases, these are gardeners looking for ways that their existing interest can be part of the solution to global challenges. In other cases, people are coming to gardening and landscaping as a small but tangible part of a larger effort to undo the damage that human activities have caused to the biosphere.
Q.7. Have you worked with children at all to design and maintain gardens? If so, what are the benefits of getting children involved in gardening?
I’ve assisted on a couple of public-school projects but more as a plant and design expert than working directly with the students. I think that spending time in natural spaces is very important antidote to the over stimulation that children experience in most urban environments. The curiosity and wonder that children, especially very young children, bring to interactions with nature can also help the adults around them restore their own connection and relationship with the natural environment.
Q.8. Finally, do you have a favourite local native tree species or a favourite tree in Ottawa? If so, which one and why?
My favourites vary a lot based on what tree best suits the available space but some small, Ontario native varieties that I think deserve to be included in more urban yards include:
Pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) which flowers in May, produces berries for birds and will grow in full sun or partial to full shade.
Musclewood, (Carpinus caroliniana) which has a very striking bark and trunk form and will grow as an understory tree, which makes it well suited to very shaded yards.
Hop Hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana), a small, tough, drought tolerant tree with interesting papery seed pods that hang on the tree into winter.
Hawthorne, (various native species of Crataegus) which is a spring flowering, small tree that produces small pommes for wildlife and is tolerant of drought and moderate pollution.
In my own yard, I’m currently very happy with my Siberian C hardy peach, which blooms in hot pink every May and produces small peaches in October, and my Montmorency sour cherry, which produces the best pie cherries every year at the start of July.
Siberian C Peach tree.