Anna Leighton

Anna: How did you end up in horticulture?

 Sara: When I went to university, ‘girls’ as women were called then, had three career options: becoming a secretary, a nurse or a teacher. I had majored in English and History, and didn’t like science but took the closest thing to horticulture that was offered, Applied Botany. My Dad was a gardener in Washington D.C. and Maryland where we lived when I was growing up. I got an awareness of gardening from him, and on the hikes we took every weekend, he pointed out native plants and how they grew in the forest. I grew my first garden in the early ‘60s when I was teaching grade 5-8 in Tanzania as a Peace Corps volunteer. 

When I arrived in Saskatoon , I took horticulture courses I was in my forties by then) and worked in the horticulture plots in the summer and later at Garden Line, the U. of S. information service. Once I had my degree I became a horticulture specialist with the Extension Division at the University. This job involved teaching, writing and administration. I’m now retired but continue to write books and give workshops on horticulture topics.  

Anna: What do you like most about horticulture?  

Sara: Developing my own garden gives me the most pleasure, although it is hard work. I live south of Saskatoon on five acres of sand that used to be pasture. I began without a grand design, but by the time I got to the two acres farthest from the house, I knew that they had to be planted with drought tolerant, colourful  foliage that would make a visual impact from a distance. Drought and deer are my biggest problems. The deer have come to regard my place as an all-season salad bar. 

Anna: Could you garden without using plants introduced from other parts of the world?  

Sara: Horticulture without plants from distant lands would be like doing without coffee and oranges for breakfast. It would cut down on variety. 

Anna: What do  you see as essential skills for a gardener to have?  

Sara: Knowing  plants and soil, and how to culture plants and which ones are hardy. Plant diversity is important for the more you have, the easier it is to contend with insects and disease, which translates into less pesticide use, more birds and insects such as butterflies, and a healthier garden. Being willing and able to do hard physical work is important. Propagating your own plants is fun, but not essential. And it is useful to have a good eye when it comes to design. 

I enjoy having birds around and have several feeders. I am not a birder myself, but a friend who participates in the Boxing Day bird count always checks the place out.  

Sara Williams, retired as the horticultural specialist of the University of Saskatchewan, is co-author of Perennials for the Plains and Prairies and author of the award-winning Creating the Prairie Xeriscape. With Hugh Skinner, she has written Best Trees and Shrubs for the Prairies. Her latest book is In A Cold Land: Saskatchewan’s Horticultural Pioneers, the stories and plant introductions of Cecil Patterson, Les Kerr, Percy Wright and Bert Porter. Best Groundcovers and Vines for the Prairies, by Sara Williams and Hugh Skinner will be published in early spring, 2007.

She holds a B.A from the University of Michigan in English and History as well as a B.Sc. and M.Sc. from the University of Saskatchewan in Horticulture.  

Sara developed her first garden in the 1960s in the school courtyard in Tanzania in East Africa where she taught.  She now gardens on 5 acres of sand near Saskatoon.

Sara was interviewed by Anna Leighton in Saskatoon in early January 2007.