Category Archives: my designs

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 winter reverie…

….with colourful summer planters!  But first, here I am with my big sister in the Gatineau hills.  She’s holding the leaf; I’m eating an apple.  My two loves: the outdoors and food.


Successful summer planters are full and lush.  They are also fearless and creative….


This is the planter that undergoes seasonal changes at True Loaf bakery on Gladstone in Ottawa’s centretown.  If you crave chewy, flavourful, delicious and inventive bread, both savoury and sweet, this is your destination!

This planter combines white cosmos, buttery yellow petunia, golden Carex, white Gaura, ‘Diamond Frost’ euphorbia, a hit of fire-y zinnia, ‘Tiger Eye’ sumac and the blades of Acidanthera.  It probably didn’t need the orange-red zinnia, or else would have benefited from more plants of that colour.  Oh well – live and learn.


As you can clearly see, I can’t get enough of yellow, chartreuse, green and white, so this is my garden in the early summer.  Incorporating a large pot into a garden planting can be very rewarding and can afford a big statement, that can be changed according to the season.


This is a family garden, where kidlets enjoy the raised pond and lawn play area while the adults appreciate the colourful planters.   Grouping smaller planters like this into a vignette makes a bigger statement than just one.  As you can see, the blue-silvery planter is raised on a simple metal stand, giving it extra height and presence.


Planters can be anything — this one uses an antique bucket to great effect and is very much a part of the garden display in a plant nursery in Hudson, NY.


The same nursery, this time with a large copper tub acting as planter, along with a vintage red truck.  Such whimsy!  When you’re building your arrangements, think about coloured foliage as much as you think about flower colour….


This mirrored planting shows the value of both scale and foliage.  Palms provide bulk and height, massive ‘Gryphon’ begonias (large, palm shaped leaves) provide texture and a metallic quality, ‘Bonfire’ begonias shout red and English ivy trail.  This is the perfect combination for a sheltered, shady porch.


Another entrance planter enthralls in the sunshine with luscious chartreuse, yellow and black….

I can’t wait to create some new combinations in 2017…..


Dreaming of containers….

Is it too early to be talking about container planting?  Is it ever?

I don’t think so.

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These glorious containers are just about the first thing you see when you venture into the wonderland that is Chanticleer Garden near Philadelphia.  The tricks here include: large containers with drainage holes, clustering or grouping those containers, choosing similar or complementary colours and shapes with your containers, and using  bold plants.  Not simply annuals, but tropicals for scale and oomph, as well as interesting shapes, colours and textures.  If you have a spot where your planters will get morning sun and afternoon shade (or filtered light), your options are practically endless.


What is striking about this planting is the juxtaposition of context (i.e. modern galvanized trough planters, pea stone and monochrome background) and raucous display — a riot of bright colour (angel wing begonia), loose grasses (purple fountain grass) and dripping chartreuse edgers (golden creeping jenny).

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In contrast, here is a simple but no less striking container planting using foxtail fern (Asparagus densiflorus ‘Meyersii’) in a classic glazed pot.  What I love is the movement in this fern, which aptly looks like sea anemones swaying in the ocean.   I found it in the courtyard of the Florida Botanical Gardens in Largo.

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…and here is a similar tropical container planting on steroids!  At Longwood Gardens, everything is big.  Asparagus fern plants billow out from a classic terracotta pot while the striking leaves of elephant ears (or giant alocasia/taro  known botanically as Macrorrhiza maki) erupt from the centre.  This kind of knock your socks off container planting needs lots of water and nutrients to keep it looking lush and green.

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More BIG displays at Longwood, which is not surprising since it reflects the wealth and ceremony of the DuPont name.  This purple and silvery-blue display uses an antique urn to showcase the deadly century plant (Agave americana) underplanted with everblooming fan flower (Scaevola aemula).

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This squat agave, with no less deadly spines, is called Palmer’s century plant (Agave palmeri) and is actually the largest agave found growing in the United States.


Big, bold displays using tropicals and annuals are what’s needed at a home’s entrance.  Although this home is facing south, the front door is located on a covered porch so the planters flanking it must be shade tolerant.  I used palms for height, decorative leafy begonias for oomph, angel wing begonia for bright colour and some simple english ivy for more trailing effect.  The display is so lush you don’t need an attractive container when all is said and done!

002Another entrance also called for a pair of planters, but this time with a similar colour palette and different combinations of plants.


Planters that grace public areas on frequented sidewalks have to present a unique face to the world.  They have to be lush from the get-go, with plants that intermingle with each other and knit together so yanking any one out is next to impossible.  Take that, vandals!

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So take a lesson from these planters for this coming spring: plant lush, plant full and plant with a sensitive eye to colour and texture.  You can’t lose!


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:

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…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)

A whole new meaning to the word “foster”

“I’m not ashamed of what I did.  I just don’t understand how it happened.”

That was my husband, who after months of care, attention and making sure I didn’t inadvertently vacuum it up or knock it down, safe-guarded this hibernating creature from September 2013 through May 2014 on the stairs down to our basement.  In my husband’s defence (in his own words), it’s dark down there. IMG_0571

 Yesterday, he set it free.

Yes, it is a dried up maple key.

But I’ll bet that maple key never saw so much love and compassion.

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.

Allotment review and dreams for 2013

As many of you already know, we began our journey into allotment gardening two years ago with a large, sunny plot at Ottawa’s city-run allotments in the Alta Vista neighbourhood.  The garden is 25′ x 50′ and when we arrived in the spring of 2011, our designated plot was boggy (ok, under water!) and unkempt.

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When we were finally able to access it after the water had subsided, we carefully pulled up all the sturdy tomato stakes, piled them in a corner and waited for our delivery of mushroom compost.

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Of course, when we returned, the stakes were nowhere to be found.

We started slowly and methodically and finally had a significant portion (say, two-thirds) of the entire plot prepared and then planted.  At the end of Year 1, we had tamed much of the space, leaving it top-dressed with straw to await the spring of 2012.

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Then, this past year we had a relatively dry season.  But miraculously, we still had a bountiful harvest.


Not least of which the cutting garden – it was rapturous!


Of course, this is from someone who has a relatively small city plot, mostly shade, where it has never been possible to seed annuals simply for the joy of cutting and filling vases in the house.


But now I present you with the real reason for this post.  Behold:  the epitome of veggie gardening — the gardens at Longwood.

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Honestly, a girl can dream can’t she?

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Now I know that Longwood has an army of gardeners working on these display gardens, and a wealth of knowledge, but it’s good to have something to aspire to, no?

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Meanwhile, in our own allotment, I will have to make crisper edges, organize my veggies better as well as place ornamental flowers and vegetables so that they make sense visually (my nasturtiums last year looked lovely as young plants but soon overran both the plants next to them as well as the path) — I think I’ll use the ‘Lemon Gem’ and ‘Tangerine Gem’ marigolds as an edger next to the leafy veggies.

Image from:

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I’ll also think about constructing more efficient and effective plant supports, something that Longwood does spectacularly.

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And growing monster sunflowers ….just for the joy of it (and to feed the birds)!

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Now don’t be telling me that veggie gardening is all about the harvest because yes, I am in agreement with that.  But as an ornamental gardener primarily, I am determined to make my allotment a feast for the eyes as well as for the belly :c)


As it stands, I have a long way to go!  I can’t wait for the spring …. I’ll keep you posted.