Country garden transformation, Part II: stone retaining walls and steps

I am so jealous. Can I live by a lake, far from town, surrounded by trees, chipmunks and birds? In a beautiful little blue house, with gardens all around?



But wait, there is a problem: the stone walls holding this jewel-box house on the hillside have been built by someone not qualified to do such a serious job — just how unqualified they were rang true when they began to dislodge, exposing the glue (yes, I said glue) that held one course to the next. Enter Jo Hodgson, who was trained or more likely, had the skills of dry stone walling imprinted on her soul in the Derbyshire Dales of England.

Last year she began the transformation here at Jeff’s house: look here for the first chapter. But of course before the work could be done (or re-done properly), things had to be undone.


And slowly, surely, and magically the new walls took shape.


The walling job that Jo has been working on this year at Jeff’s house in the Quebec countryside is monumental, probably one of the most challenging she has done, Jo says.  The house is perched on a hillside overlooking a picturesque, quiet lake with the front door off the road and the rear sliding doors a full eight feet below that grade.  So the wall at the rear corner of the house is tall, to be brief, and the stone steps that hug it are built into that elegantly curving wall.



IMG_1464 On the inside of this solidly built retaining wall is a  garden that will become a hot bed of reds, oranges, golds and sapphires.  It will encircle a small round lawn — hard to imagine at this stage so I will have to return next summer to show it to you in all its glory.  It will be the primary garden that visitors will see as they approach the house.


The giant steps that descend toward the the rear of the house hug the wall and will be planted with mother-of-thyme, a perennial that can be tread upon without fear of harm.  Rather than the rich soil which has been deposited in the garden beds, these stair sections will be filled with recycled earth, rocks and all, allowing the plants to thrive in the thin soil they prefer.

IMG_1546   This wondrous new landscape, with walls borne out of magic, sweat, vision and grit, and gardens providing pleasure in all seasons, is Jeff’s retirement present to himself.  And the gardens will indeed consume him.

IMG_1404   And if I’m lucky, I’ll be invited back next year when all is complete. And I will share with you his completed private paradise.

Got any great fall photos?


My friends at the Glebe Report are holding a photo contest.

It’s a “fall harvest” photography contest — so anything from gardens, flowers, plants, decorations, veggies etc. The contest entry period runs until Friday, October 10, midnight EST. Then, the voting for “best photo” takes place via Twitter on the 11th. The winner will receive an $85 gardening gift basket from Capital Home Hardware.

Go here for more details are at:

Good luck everyone!


To cut or not to cut?

Autumn always brings a certain anxiety in the gardening me.  To clean up or not to clean up?

It’s true that our spring season is so fast it seems but a whisper before the heat of summer — so leaving too much to do until then is a fool’s folly (is that a redundant expression?)  But taking down the glory that is autumn is just wrong when it is so beautiful –


Reds, like the flashing fiery foliage of dwarf burning bush (Euonymus alatus ‘Compactus’) and late season colour of Penstemon digitalis ‘Husker Red’, are set off against the complementary green provided by Cotoneaster dammeri ‘Coral Beauty’, Iris pseudoacorus and Paeonia lactiflora.  The Cotoneaster and peony leaves have yet to show their full autumn colour but will soon enough.  The powdery blue of upright juniper (Juniperus scopularum ‘Wichita Blue’), blue fescue grass (Festuca glauca ‘Elijah Blue’) and donkey tail spurge (Euphorbia myrsinites) provide a striking foil for the reds — perhaps their true destiny through all the preceding months.


In advance of the Cotoneaster display, which will include bright red berries, the lace shrub puts on a show of it’s own with delicate, cascading golden foliage.


Lavender joins the glaucous club while the blue trim of the house relates to them all.

Happily, the blues don’t need cutting, nor do the shrubs.  I took advantage of this visit to cut down the shasta daisy (Leucanthemum x superbum) but there will have to be a return visit after the first hard frost to continue cutting…

My little (mostly) shade garden

I thought I would post a few pictures from my own garden, which this year saw more of us because we weren’t distracted (and made exhausted and dejected) by our allotment.  We had the latter for three seasons (felt like 50) and each successive summer became more trying than the last.  Never-ending weeding, re-clearing and re-clearing again, no stake that could hold up our monumental tomatoes, nuclear bomb-proof horsetail and ragweed plants that mocked us every time we came.  My vision of a veggie plot like this one (at Longwood Gardens near Philadelphia):

I wish...
No, this is not my garden…

… ended up looking more like this tangle:

harvest 032
…this was my tomato patch…

But enough of that.  Onward and upward.  I figure to have a veggie plot that looked like the one in Longwood Gardens you’d have to employ a dozen horticulture interns or at least spend 8 hours a day at your plot, taking coffee breaks in your lean-to, like those eastern European gentlemen I have seen who have beet juice running through their veins ….

Back to my little shade garden.


I tend to be attracted to perennials with unusual foliage or flowers that are ‘non’ flowers (like the delicate spires of Heuchera or Heucherella, or the weird blossoms of Astrantia).  But perhaps no plant has thrilled me more this summer than Astilboides tabularisa knock-your-socks-off shade loving perennial that can reach 3 to 6 feet tall while in flower.  Mine hasn’t done that yet, but the foliage alone is worth looking for and seizing this plant when you find it.


 It is possible to get carried away with foliage.  I clearly am in this jam-packed vignette…

…. that I may have to edit next spring.

You can see how small our urban plot actually is in this shot; and much to Skye’s chagrin, we have banished grass from this postage stamp garden.


And looking right, you’ll see the other half of the garden which abuts our ivy-laden garage.


After wrestling the creeping bellflower out of this sunny bed in the spring and giving the celandine poppy a reprieve, I fulfilled my promise to liberate my terracotta “oil jar” from under the back porch.  Now it takes centre stage, with a planting of tropicals that I snagged at the Montreal Botanical Garden’s Great Gardening Weekend sale back in May.

Forgive the exposed rim...

Can you count and name the number of plants in the foreground of this shot (not including the containerized ones)?

And tell me about the rusty sculpture….?


Here is an easier one; just four plants ;c)

My Old Dog

I know there are a lot of dog lovers out there and it’s not just me. So forgive me if I spend this time to talk about mine.


You see, for about the last three years my beloved border collie Skye-dog has been living on borrowed time.

Some of you may know that in late February 2011 she was diagnosed with lymphoma.  After we got over the shock of such a gut-wrenching diagnosis and put our proverbial ‘big girl panties’ on, and remembering that my first dog, Riley, lived only a month after her diagnosis of auto-immune hemolytic anemia brought on by a cancerous tumour in her chest, we were keen to fight and said yes to treatment.  In the case of canine lymphoma it is chemotherapy.

Never having had a friend, family member or even acquaintance who had gone through chemotherapy, but only feeling scared and apprehensive, we asked about how it would affect her quality of life.  We were told that most dogs do very well and show very few side effects:  the possibility of diarrhea, perhaps vomiting, some inappetence and likely tiredness within a few days of treatment was what we should expect.  So we and Skye-dog embarked on a six month course of chemotherapy.


Our goal was to achieve remission and to stay cancer-free for as long as possible.  The veterinary oncologist said statistically the first remission was likely to last 12 to 18 months at best.  If she relapsed, successive chemotherapy treatments could be given but the succeeding remissions would get shorter and shorter until such time as we would have to accept the inevitable. Our luck had not been good with treatment for a chronic condition so we did not have very heroic expectations.  If Skye didn’t react well to the chemotherapy we could always stop.

Skye dock diving

However, she surprised everyone by not only flying through treatment but also by continuing to live without any symptoms of her lymphoma for what has now been three years and five months.

She is now just over 12 years old and still with us.  I am happy to say that lymphoma is a word rarely mentioned in our house and we choose to believe that we have it beat. But she is now an old dog suffering from old dog ailments, the most serious of which is spondylosis.  This is a condition that affects the spine, resulting in ‘bone spurs’, which are bony growths that manifest between the vertebrae.  Some say they form as a result of trauma others as a result of a genetic predisposition — most common in older, larger dogs.  This growth can affect the nerves along the spine creating pain, stiffness, limited range of motion and sometimes, lameness.  If severe, treatment for younger dogs can involve surgical correction but for older dogs, it is simply pain management, restricted activity, relatively benign procedures like laser therapy, neural therapy (sub-cutaneous injections of homeopathic remedies), acupuncture and physiotherapy.  We have done all of the above except for acupuncture and Skye’s first foray into hydrotherapy begins tomorrow.


Skye loves water so I’m hoping that she takes some pleasure in this new experience.  Her first visit will include getting used to the environment (a long, narrow raised pool with warmish salt water) and the hydrotherapists themselves who will introduce her to the routine by first giving some underwater massage. She’ll wear a doggie life jacket to ensure she doesn’t need to work too hard and may not even swim at all until she feels comfortable.  I’ll be alongside the pool during the exercise, praising her and encouraging her on.

For a dog who has always been fast, fearless and bossy, seeing her struggle with her back legs, choosing to bypass the stony beach and its floating dock on our daily walks and finding new hobbies like toad hunting and short-distance ‘two-ball’, has been a real transition for the both of us. As an older dog, I know her time left with us now is limited.  I am so grateful that the lymphoma didn’t take her three years ago — but — accepting this ‘new normal’ of restricted activity, abbreviated walks and lots of snoozing is making me sad.  I understand it can be characterized as anticipatory grief, and that we can become mired in it if we don’t pay attention.

2011 June 08 008

So, we will be off to the swim therapy tomorrow, thankful that we are still a team, thankful that each day starts off with our walks and is marked by doggie meal and ‘pill time’, that our kitchen counter is full of her bottles and potions, that her beds are almost in every room of our house, that her snore is music to me and that our car will always smell of ‘dog’, that is, her.  No matter what the future holds, she will always be my Skye-dog.


The romantic garden of Page Dickey or Garden Conservancy Tour: Part IV

What I believed to perhaps be the highlight of our garden touring was the North Salem, NY, home and life-work of Page Dickey.  She is known for her garden writing, primarily two books that chronicled her life alongside her garden here at Duck Hill (Duck Hill Journal: A Year in a Country Garden, 1991; and then Embroidered Ground: Revisiting the Garden, twenty years later in 2011).


The garden is clearly mature.  A product of years and years of love, both volumptuous and restrained, overgrown and controlled.  Dickey has called this garden home for the last 30 plus years.


One of the first things I thought upon entering this garden was, “Gosh, her husband must really like to prune.”  And I see in this personal article by Anne Raver in the NY Times from 2010 that her new millenium husband, Bosco Schell, does indeed enjoy clipping.

Thankfully so.  Because these boxwood balls (what is it about men and their boxwood balls?) are barely navigable, but who wants to nix such mature specimens?  Not Page Dickey who says in her most recent book, “I don’t have the energy to start again.”

The crabapple trees that form a grid in the courtyard garden next to the house are really what she is referring to when she says this.  If there was any thought to taking them down and starting again, it is clearly not an option.  For they are floriferous in the spring and then demonstrate such linear architecture in the winter months that taking them down would be nothing less than criminal.  Embraced by neatly clipped yew hedges, these trees need constant attention so the paths can be navigated without getting a branch in your face.



But there are such beautiful moments here; moments where the visitor can breathe a bit easier and smell the fragrance on this hillside.


I have always gardened in confined spaces.  Urban gardens, bounded by garages, fences, walls.  My hands ache and my back weakens when I imagine tending a garden that is even a little bit bigger than mine in the city.


There is a lot to do here.  And Page Dickey is keenly aware of what happens when your garden grows beyond your capabilities.  Replacing perennials with shrubs and ground covers in order to help curb the maintenance is an important focus.


And this is exactly what she’s done in parts of the property.  The shady parts.  The wild parts.  The parts that become a focus, and a relief, with age…


All made more spectacular because of the contrast with the civility closer to the clapboard house: the highly organized and pristine vegetable garden that was a naive inspiration to me…


But this garden is not simply a set of views, images or lessons.  It is someone’s home.  Someone’s passion with plants, moments in time and space, shared with family and animals.



I really appreciated the glimpse.  And the imagining without the work.  Thank you to all those gardeners who clip, rake, sweep, snip, stake, and primp so that when we come and visit, it all looks so easy.



Garden Conservancy Tour 2014: Part III


Are you as crazy about these pebbled concrete pools as I am?  This garden is the little jewel in the middle of Hudson, NY, called ‘Hudson Hood’ and the third private garden we visited on our tour this summer.

Hudson is worth visiting for the history alone.  What I didn’t know is that although much of its downtown core has been gentrified and adopted by ex-NYC’ers as their ‘retirement project’, there still exists a very real divide between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’.

Be that as it may, as a tourist you can choose to learn as much or as little about the place while you’re there.  I will save what I’ve learned for another post.  In the meantime, more about ‘Hudson Hood’.


This urban garden is characterized as a ‘shotgun’ garden — meaning it is long and narrow.  Indeed, it is — plus it is shaded by a giant tulip tree, giving it a feeling of repose and calm.

It is primarily a green garden, with care and consideration given to shapes and textures of plants and their leaves.


Much of the garden is viewable as you enter.  As you walk through it, you are totally surprised when you come upon a totally hidden – and modernist – pond and screened-in sanctuary…


What is there not to love?  Such a bold departure, but a perfect spot to sit, contemplate life and watch dragonflies zip around the waterlilies….


Having a place where you can enjoy your efforts, with a cushioned bench to snooze and have a glass of something refreshing is golden — make sure you include a special spot like this in your garden in order to make it truly magical.





Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 79 other followers