Category Archives: my projects

Stick with me…

….and I promise to write on this blog more often!

Today’s gardening column in the Ottawa Citizen was my last.  That is because they have parted ways with their freelance writers – that’s right, as I understand, all of them.

Thank you so much for following me through my columns talking about gardens, plants, our struggles and triumphs.  It was a privilege writing for Ottawa’s paper for so many years.

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But, you’ll still find me here and hopefully in some other select gardening publications as well.

Stay tuned….

 

Gardens change…

Life changes.  Gardens change.

Some of this is planned, orchestrated, made better.  Other times changes are borne out of circumstance that don’t necessarily fit into your idea of aesthetics.

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Some time ago we placed mattresses on our living room floor so that our beloved Skye-dog would not be alone at night.  You see, she can no longer negotiate our stairs and we didn’t want her to be relegated to the downstairs without us.  So we all sleep in the living room together.  She will be 14 this month and is a 5+ year lymphoma survivor.

For some, this would be anathema.  For us, it is togetherness and there is a certain simplicity to it.

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The living room is one thing.  The garden is another.

As anyone with an aging dog knows, we must tweak how we live to accommodate them.  This may mean mobility aids, raised dishes, night lights, shortened walks, regular vet visits, ramps and modified outings.

Our backyard was never doggie friendly.  Years ago, when our beloved best friend was Riley, one day she exited the kitchen door to the backyard and leaped off the porch stairs — much like she had all her life — but this time to touch down in agony on the ground.  Her anterior cruciate ligament was ruptured and she would need surgery to repair it.  In Skye’s case, she could no longer negotiate the steep stairs and a solution for nightly potty breaks had to be figured out.

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That’s when my wonderful friend Jo Hodgson stepped in last fall and built in one day our doggie ramp…which was a god-send to us throughout the winter of 2015-16 — a winter that was not supposed to be seen by Skye-dog at all…

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But the garden!  The garden!

It is a work in progress.  And always will be … as circumstances change.

What is a garden worth?  Does it exist without love?  Without associations?

This garden will forever reflect this relationship.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

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:

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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.

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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…

A young family’s garden: space for plants, kids *and* quiet contemplation

An established garden can be both a curse and an opportunity.  A curse because chances are you will be dealing with plants that have been loved and let loose by the previous owners for decades.  And an opportunity because once the jumble is untangled and the potential is uncovered, the new garden can be a gem.  This was the case in a garden that was developed over a period of several years, transitioning from a forgotten, tired space to an active and changing one… I am happy to have helped this transition along…

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In the case of this particular garden, four large trees have provided both shade and root competition.  They straddle the west side of the garden — an ancient apple, two green ash and one butternut — and it was a surprise to all that the ash were the first to fail.  As everyone in Ottawa now knows, the last two years has seen the emerald ash borer decimate the green ash population in our city.  It seems few trees have been spared and the two in this garden have also unfortunately joined the list.  Apple trees are prone to every single type of insect and pathogen, but this beloved tree is still kicking.  The butternut is also defying the odds, as many have been succumbing to butternut canker, a fungus that has been killing trees quickly since the 1960s.

When I first came to this garden, the planting under the trees along this fence line included a very mature hedge of French hybrid lilacs with an under-planting of Annabelle hydrangea.  The lilac bushes had long since stopped blooming as they were in day-long shade, but the hydrangea (for which the homeowner had expressed her disdain) were thriving.  You may not know this but Annabelle hydrangea *always thrive*.  I can’t recall how long it took us to dig out both the lilac and hydrangea or how deep our excavations went, but our efforts spanned more than one visit and the biggest challenge may have been distinguishing between the roots of the plants that we were removing versus those of the trees we believed were staying!

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Lilac and hydrangea gone: check.  New fence: check.  Shade-loving perennials placed in east-facing bed: check.  Raised stone herb garden converted to small pond: check.

This garden is now a lush oasis with not only a million shades of green but spaces for the homeowner’s small kids to play: the raised pond provides endless fascination, the small lawn a place for them to play and the plants an opportunity to learn their names….as I’m told is actually happening, even with their 5 year old boy!

IMG_1780A blue garden shed is not only a place to store tools and the like, but also a focal point.  More than this, it provides the kids with an opportunity to play hide and seek….and the flagstone patio surrounded by a sunny garden to it’s left provides a spot for the adults to sit and contemplate life — notice the bright red bistro set.

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The basic “working man’s” terracotta pots provide an opportunity to make a summer-long colourful display.  This way, the annuals are the show and not their containers.  Stuffed full of plants, the homeowners won’t have to wait to enjoy the splendour…

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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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Image from: http://www.flower-gardening-made-easy.com/edible-flowers.html

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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)

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

Reverie…

I have to thank my good friend Barb for this.

Not because she took the picture but because she said, “Why don’t you sit out on your front porch?”  To which I replied, “There’s no room.”

Well, clearly as you can see, there is room.  And we loved doing just so this past spring and summer.

It was mid-May and the weather was glorious.

And all the most intoxicating flowers were in bloom:  honeysuckle, lilac and lily of the valley.

Hold that thought  …