Category Archives: companion artisans

Jeff’s countryside idyll

It is hard to believe that there is life outside on a day when your cheeks will freeze in five minutes!  The birds are huddled in evergreens, the squirrels curled up in their leafy beds and the mice and voles are buried deep under their blankets of snow and soil.  Only the pushy crows and hungry hawks can be seen cutting through the skies….

I lie on the couch in front of a gentle fire with my dog Scout curled on my legs.  I’m half watching an impossibly young, blonde couple looking for a house in Goa, India, and in other moments, the unending and maddening political analysis on CNN.

What would be better than going back in time, back to the summer and to one of my favourite places, my friend Jeff’s house in the Quebec countryside.  Come with me as I show you his place, with gardens that are now relatively mature.  Jeff invites me annually so I can swish around the gardens, point here and there, saying this needs to go here and something else needs to go here instead.  He is a very patient man.

If you’re interested in earlier visits to this garden, go here, here and here.


The house’s blue mirrors the colour of the lake below.  Jeff is working on the forest that descends to the water, culling the diseased and dead ones, thinning some to maximize the view but still give privacy and encouraging the “keepers”.

The monumental thyme steps have grown in and beckon the visitor to follow….a path that leads to a grassy landing at the backside of the house, held up by another beautifully constructed stone wall that holds the hillside.


The multi-stemmed Amur maple (Acer ginnala), which turns a rich shade of red in the fall and is bullet-proof in terms of disease and insect damage, is surrounded by the species form of Japanese forest grass, Hakonechloa macra.  A few shaped golden cedars join the party but will likely be moved elsewhere as this form of forest grass grows quite tall and dwarfs them.


The dry-laid flagstone patio at the front of the house is a step down from the gravel road but is the perfect place to sit for tea or simply to enjoy the garden.  Pots with bright annuals are perched about, lending the space intense colour.  Indeed, primary colours abound in this new design — Jeff’s younger love of pastel colours has matured into a passion for depth and richness.


This raised bed, the first to be seen from the road, combines creeping sedums, Siberian cypress, Geranium ‘Rozanne’ and purple moor grass (Molinia caerulea), among others.  The idea is for the plants here to be low or diaphanous, so they do not present a visual barrier to the other plantings.


The bristlecone pine (at right; Pinus aristata) provides structure and interest.  A slow growing, beautiful, unique and ancient evergreen, it will over time reach great heights — but long after Jeff has kicked the bucket (sorry Jeff!)


The solidity and gorgeous texture of these stones are in glorious contrast to the plants above and adjacent.  The mounded shrubs that bracket this step are lace shrub or cut-leaf Stephanandra (Stephanandra incisa ‘Crispa’), which will over time tumble down over the edges.  They produce delicate white flowers in the early summer which attract the hum of bees and wasps; in autumn, the foliage turns a brilliant gold.  Jeff’s bold colour choices in this circular bed include lilies, beebalm, yarrow, geranium, garden phlox (yet to bloom), persicaria (the garden-worthy type!) and Calamagrostis.  The staked tree at the corner of the house is a young fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus), which will produce white filigree blossoms before it matures in late spring, early summer.  Hardy to Zone 3, it will provide an interesting feature and a tree for visitors to talk about long after they leave.

Thank you Jeff for letting me be a part of your beautiful countryside idyll!  I can’t wait for next year……….


A house in the country: stone, water and plants

I have written about my friend Jeff’s garden before, first here and then, here.  It has been a work in progress for several years now and just this summer, the work will finally be completed.

And the front of Jeff’s country ‘estate’ will have gone from this:


To this:

IMG_1880This garden has been a labour of love by three people: the homeowner, Jeff, of course who had high standards of excellence and a very clear vision of how he wanted his garden to look and feel; Jo Hodgson, who excels at making stone do exactly what she wants, in a way that is durable, beautiful and totally sympathetic to the landscape around it; and me, who just wanted to play with plants and be a part of this garden creation in paradise from Day 1.

IMG_1399The house and garden in question are on a hill overlooking a lake in the Quebec hills.

IMG_2181The slope from back to front is substantial, necessitating not only a tall wall but also a considerable staircase from the front road to the back door of the house.

IMG_1397This curved stone wall is one of the masterpieces of the project, with monumental stone steps alongside it.


IMG_1879The stairs are now how Jeff envisioned them: wide, generous and planted with mother of thyme and taller scented thymes, so that the progression downward is a sensory experience.

IMG_1881There are chairs placed here and there so that Jeff can come out with his morning coffee and experience the garden from different angles….

IMG_1893The gravel driveway is bound by large stones that hold a series of garden beds.  This raised one holds a tapestry of ground hugging sedums, Siberian cypress, creeping phlox and then diaphanous grasses — these are Molinia caerulea (Moor grass) that will throw up wands of waving seed heads in the late summer….

IMG_0173 This highest bed, closest to the road, includes a Bristlecone pine (Pinus aristata), which although slow-growing, will act as an evergreen anchor to this entry garden bed.

IMG_1886The lower bed closest to the entry patio sports classic perennials like catmint, Siberian iris and more…

IMG_1887…and the bed against the sunny side of the house sports beebalm, achillea and other hot plants, with morning glory climbing up the blue walls.

IMG_1882The bed next to the front door is Jeff’s Ode to Tom Stuart-Smith and his love of juxtaposition:  here we have used the species Hakonechloa macra alongside Thuja occidentalis ‘Golden Globe’ and a central pivot provided by an Acer ginnala (a multi-stemmed Amur maple) — as the Acer palmatum ‘Bloodgood’ expired the year before from the harsh winter conditions.

IMG_1883A beautifully large and lusciously chartreuse pot holds a spectacular petunia cultivar called ‘Phantom’, along with an Angel’s trumpet (Datura cv.)  Despite being nipped by the frost in late spring, the display is lush and striking.

IMG_1892The last frontier is the retaining wall at the rear of the house — certainly not a highly visible location but nevertheless, the same attention to detail and precision is going into the construction of this wall.

IMG_1891It is a spectacular project that is coming to a close.  I hope to return in the fall to take some more shots of this beautiful house with its developing garden in the fiery autumn colours.  Stay tuned…

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!


Country garden transformation, Part 1: stone walls and patio

I can’t quite recall when we first met, but my friendship with Jeff began in this way:

“I’d like you to design my garden.”

“Sure Jeff.  Great!  Do you have an idea of what you might like?”

“Yes.  I want it to be a combination of an English country garden, like Sissinghurst, with a bit of Versailles thrown in.”

So, in a plot of unadorned Quebec wilderness around a lovely blue house, my very first commissioned garden design was born.  Jeff had this charming home built on a piece of family property that overlooks a picturesque lake.  The family cottage is halfway down the hill with its own shallow beach and it had decades of happy summer history for Jeff and his siblings.  But now, Jeff wanted a year-round place to call his own on this same piece of heaven and was not at all adverse to the daily commutes into town.


The gardens that I originally designed many years ago were in rectangular shaped beds to the left and right of the front door.  I used classic garden perennials like creeping phlox, Siberian iris and lambs ears, with a dose of geranium, aster, lady’s mantle and snakeroot thrown in for good measure.  Lots of whites and blues, with soft yellows and some dusky pinks were used to satisfy the prescribed palette.  And Jeff’s yearning for structure propelled a fixation on golden cedar balls (*wink*) some time later.  Unfortunately, a few tries at sentinel evergreens near the front door always seemed to end in disappointment.


Never mind.  Many years passed and last summer Jeff contacted me again.

“It’s time to re-design my garden.  What do you think?”

“Great.  What do you think you’d like?”

“I’m loving Piet Oudolf and the ‘New American garden’ style.  Reds, oranges and golds with that loose feeling.  Spectacular.”

And with that, he showed me pictures of inspirational gardens done by the heavy hitters.  Oh yeah, sure.  No pressure.

“What happened Jeff?  This is a completely different colour palette, not to mention sensibility;  it’s much more dynamic and hot.  Not pastel at all.”  Not only that, he had fallen in love with Tom Stuart Smith‘s gardens, where sublime combinations of grasses, formal evergreens (yay! he could keep some of those golden globe cedars) and perennials with meadow origins are king.   That’s the thing about gardens — different plants, different moods are always beckoning.  It’s hard to stay loyal to one style.  But he still loved structure and views.

So then we spoke of the stonework.  “Who did this?” I asked, spying the crumbling bits of rock, teetering walls and lumps of glue no longer holding the capstones in place.  The stonework had been done since my planting efforts, but were now showing signs of disrepair, not to mention a certain amount of ‘biting off more than one could chew’ on the part of the original contractor.  (Now I must admit, I might not have actually said this out loud, but I know Jeff was just as disappointed with this local effort as I was.)

“I’m getting it re-done.  Do you know Jo Hodgson?”

Do I know Jo?  Of course I knew Jo.  She is only the best dry stone waller around.


I think you get the idea.  Or perhaps you don’t.  Here, let me help you.


And if you want to make sure that your stone work is sympathetic to your surroundings, then she’s your girl.


But Jeff did not need convincing – he was already sold.  That’s good because this kind of stonework requires deep pockets and an ‘island’ attitude; after all, she is just one pair of very adept hands.  So this fall, Jo made her first visit and this was the result:


It still makes me laugh.  We all know that things have to look much worse before they can look better.  All the existing walls and flagstone were lifted and put aside with the help of Jo’s bright orange Kubota.  The plantings next to the front foundation remain, holding their breath till the work is done.


Before any stones are put in place, the sub-base is laid; gravel will act as both support and provide excellent drainage, so that the foundation stones don’t shift.  This is the wall that marks and holds the gravel driveway, raised above the house.  The wall’s base is wide and solid, ensuring the wall itself will never, ever move.


Looking from the opposite direction, now the driveway support wall is all but complete.  Jeff says the place looks more like a quarry than his front garden.


As work continued, the giant curb stones now mark the perimeter of the patio as well as the foundation beds and larger beds.  The weather began to turn so in order to keep the rain off the stone dust base for the patio, a tarp was erected.



The patio is finally laid and the front door is marked with specially chosen platform stones.  It is a far cry from the wonky patio and wooden steps that were there before.


Soil is placed in the beds and covered with tarps for now.  They await the magic of plants next spring.


Work is suspended for the winter and Jo will return next year to resume the project.  Jeff can barely wait till spring when the virgin beds will be planted; the one closest the viewer at driveway height is bound by that beautiful wall of mortar-free stone and the other is nudged behind it below, on grade with the patio.

Do check back and see how it progresses in 2014.