The Hostas


In approaching the end of a term as Dean of the Faculty of Arts at Carleton University, Ottawa, the owner, A. T. “Trevor” Tolley (1927-2018) embarked on a quest to find a quiet summer cottage to spend the immediately upcoming two years in retirement as Dean. This sabbatical was to devote time to his writings on a book already in progress which was eventually published as Poetry of the Forties by McGill-Queen’s Press (MQUP).  Several properties were viewed and each failed to appeal. A dinner invitation from the then owner, who was a former student, along with an overnight stay, resulted in an offer to purchase the property when the host mentioned an intention to sell.

Before that dinner date, Trevor had never seen the property, and there was not much time to view it prior to the lavish dinner. However, awakening in the morning afterwards, with the sun on the rise, the property was seen in all its glory and magnificence. It seemed vast, totally isolated and pristine; no other building was visible, absolutely no neighbours were evident, and the sunrise reflection on the adjacent creek just added to its allure. It seemed perfect and well suited to his writing. He made an offer – one eagerly accepted. So the property was acquired in 1973; and residency took-place in July 1974, one week after marriage to his second wife, Glenda. They have resided on the property consecutively ever since.

Neither had any garden vision. The property had its deficiencies. The first repair was the replacement of the treacherous steps leading to the house. A dilapidated structure was attached to the house – an old summer kitchen and wood shed. There was an urgent need to maintain a clearing to and from the house to the driveway and the car.  Overgrown grass, scrub and weeds encircled the house. In curing this apparent neglect a 2-foot border was created which wrapped around the verandah. Various evergreens (junipers, mugo pine), perennials and bulbs (tulips and daffodils) were the early plantings – none of which survived.  In the very first summer attention was turned to the rough grass and scrub in the immediate vicinity west of the driveway.  A strip of 20 or more feet was bush whacked and mowed with a hand pushed roller mower.  Each year a few more feet were added, and in this way the expanse of lawn gradually came into existence. A power mower was eventually purchased in 1980 or thereabouts which led to a “spree” in lawn creation. It reached the woodlands where a two-foot wide path was hacked out. The activity had its wear and tear on Trevor’s upper arms and in particular his shoulders. The resulting pain forced him to seek medical attention. Lawn expansion came to an end. He had to rely on a lawn cutting service to maintain it, save and except for the woodland footpath. The service provider refused to cut the footpath, on the grounds “I don’t push lawn mowers.” A comprised solution was that if Trevor made the path wider so that the ride-on machine could be driven down it without impediment the lawn service would condescend to cut it. So it was arranged to clear scrub and trees in the path to create a level grass pathway through what is now the Woodlands Gardens. In the beginning, attention was given almost entirely to the interior of the house. The sole outdoor effort was the creation of the lawn.  Trevor absolutely enjoyed the growing expanse of lawn and took pride in it; he would have welcomed much more. Except for planting various trees throughout the lawn there was not much gardening.    A crowning feature of property was a large old Manitoba maple at the back that completely shaded the patio and skirted the north-west wall of the house.  Glenda’s young nephew (age 8) got his thrills from climbing out the upper bedroom window into the tree. The 1989 ice storm resulted in the whole tree crashing to the ground and exposing the patio to the full sun. The prolific growth of this tree shaped the course of the garden; the shade it provided restricted the growth of perennials most favoured by Trevor such as delphiniums, etc. In visiting the Artistic Nursery in Ottawa seeking advice, the owner, Mrs. Shmidt, recommend hostas and sedums.  Glenda came away with the two first hostas purchased; “Royal Standard” and “Honeybells”, as well as the sedum “Autumn Joy”. This was the beginning of a never-ending hosta journey. The next encounter was with the hostas “Gold Standard” and “August Moon”, and Glenda could not decide which of the two to buy. Trevor’s retort was, “Buy them both if you can’t make up your mind”. However, it was the hosta “Great Expectations” that determined the future course of the garden. It was this fifth hosta purchased that set the course from which there was no turning back. The acquisition of “Great Expectations” was a major commitment. Trevor was on half salary in the first two years after being Dean. Glenda was still a student finishing her PhD. There was not much discretionary income available, but the price demanded for this single hosta on initial presentation on the market was a hefty $20.00.  Glenda balked at the expenditure, but remained haunted by the plant. After a week or two, Trevor made the decisive move by purchasing the hosta. From this point on Glenda was “hooked”; each year brought new releases, and each year new plantings resulted. By 1998 a new hosta bed was being created each year. The last bed established in 2014 contains over 117 different varieties of hostas and 75 different varieties of daylilies. In the interim period 1980-1987 newly planted hostas died at an alarming rate. Inexperience on the part of Glenda was one thing; more noteworthy was the absence of shade trees and unsuitable soil. The soil was hardpan; in areas of the lawn where they were first planted, by July the ground was like packed concrete, and even when it rained the water skimmed the surface running off without penetrating the soil. The eventual success in growing the hostas with a good survival ratio was due to the establishment of raised beds. These beds have since flattened considerably.  But each bed was built up with loads of top soil trucked in. A very generous amount of sheep manure was then applied with each planting. Water remained a problem, inhibiting the growth and development of the hostas.  A new well installed in 2017 has given the hostas a new life.