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Allan designs and plants flowering gardens in Montreal, Zone 5 [USDA Zone 4] .

See website, design work and favorite flowering plants at

Consultation and coaching for do-it-yourselfers is provided. Occasional emailed questions are welcome and answered free of charge. Oui, je parle francais.

See my work on Pinterest at Garden Guru Montreal


Penthouse Gardening with Mandevilla and Skyline

Every spring, I plant flowerpots for a client living on the border of Westmount, Quebec. There is great spiritual excitement working at this site. We garden on the top floor of a twelve-story assisted-living apartment building for seniors that sits at the highest point of Mont Royal, Montreal’s mountain in the middle of a city, modestly landscaped by Fredrick Law Olmstead twenty years after he created New York City’s Central Park.

To the south, we see the Saint Lawrence River and the Champlain Bridge that crosses it; to the west, a  horizon boasting the outline of a new hospital complex, beyond which the skyline fades into the river and the rural areas beyond. To the east, we admire the western slope of the mountain dotted with the lush green clouds of densely populating treetops that grace the elegant homes surrounding this residential municipality.

At this height, we feel a soothing silence broken first by the roar of wind blowing across the Saint Lawrence Valley as it bounces off the southern face of the mountain and second by the music of wind chimes that float from a neighboring penthouse on the same floor. Fortunately, the flowers that I plant are protected from the ethereal gusts of wind by clear Lucite panels that shelter both the client and her potted garden.

The spring sun bathes us in warmth as we work under bright skies that glow in a shade of blue rarely seen at street level; the birds in the treetops provide songs-to-plant-by and on dull days, the unobstructed view of dramatic cloud formations fill us with awe as they float before our eyes.

My staff and I feel a little closer to heaven gardening at this height with such a panoramic view. Although we spend hours designing and planting flowerpots, what we do here does not feel like work. This annual project is an opportunity to experience spirituality. Regardless of their age, personality, gender or field of study, none of the college students who help me plant remain unmoved by what they see.


When New Phlox Perennials Are Hard to Find

PHLOX PANICULATA AUTUMN JOYNew introductions of Phlox paniculata are usually offered in my area by online plant seller Veseys. Those hybrids offered in their spring catalogue that appealed to me finally arrived by post the other day and are now planted.  I hope they flower true to their photos and not as a variation of an already existing variety. Here are the four I chose:

Phlox Anastasia. This hybrid is expected to reach 3 feet in height. I was attracted to the color description; bright pink is a pleasant addition to the summer garden.

Phlox Autumn Joy, captioned above, belongs at the front of the border because it grows only two feet tall; it blooms in a rich, violet purple with unique violet blue streaks.

Phlox Cleopatra is considered disease resistant. Growing to three feet tall, it has unusual star-shaped flowers with an extra layer of petals. Along with a cherry-pink petal shade, its description as very free blooming is intriguing.

Phlox Rainbow Dancer is another disease resistant variety, growing to three feet in height. Its claim to fame is the vibrancy of its flowers that combine tones of pink and lavender–blue, the appearance of which varies with the amount of natural light.

Phlox paniculata is one of the most satisfying summer flowering perennials one can grow in USDA Zone 4 and Canada Zone 5. It contributes a vibrant coloration to the flower border from July to September while the ease with which it can be propagated by root division is a gardener’s delight.

For many years, the varieties of Phlox remained relatively the same with a new shade introduced every now and then but still looking similar to a pre-existing cousin.

When the garden industry recognized the consumers’ demand for fresh and unique looking perennials, the frequency with which new Phlox varieties appeared increased. However, that did not guarantee that a local nursery might be a reliable source of supply. Most retailers and wholesalers wait until a new hybrid acquires a proven track record for performance and sustainability before adding it to their inventory.

As a result, most new Phlox introductions must be purchased online. The upside is that the selection is vast while the down side is that small Phlox plants delivered by mail usually flower only in the second year. Since all Phlox plant seedlings look similar, it's a good idea to label the plants with weather proof tags. I've had no success with plant tag longevity in the past. This year I will expereiment with white plant tag spikes purchased from a Dollar Store and write on them with a china marker. I can only hope that the black wax of the marker will survive two seasons of sun and snow until the new plants bloom to identify themselves.


The Best Root-Dividing Tool for the Perennial Flower Gardener

It’s easy to botch a perennial while dividing its roots. Traditional tools such as a spade or shovel, when strategically positioned over a root clump, can slip out of place and accidentally separate a plant’s stem from its root. The intended new plant is damaged beyond repair. Similarly, the blade of a hand-held saw can tilt from its upright position, cut at the wrong angle and give us nothing but useless, rootless foliage.

These unintended and unwelcome occurrences arise when we deal with mature root balls, including those perennials that dislike being uplifted. Either the density of the roots makes them difficult to penetrate or the gardener cannot gain sufficient control over the blade to make an accurate incision. The feeling is one of frustration. Sometimes it makes a gardener feel inept.

Over the years, I’ve used a variety of products to research the efficacy of one cutting edge over another. When I began gardening, I propagated perennials with pointed and flat edged spades that delivered an unacceptable success rate of 65%.  

Eventually, I moved on to using the half-moon blade of a lawn edger. It provided better precision and my success rate rose to 80%. Unfortunately, the blade was too small and too short to slice through deep or wide root balls. In addition, when applied to hardened, woody roots or when placed upon an awkwardly shaped rhizome cluster, the blade would slip and butcher the plant.

To improve my accuracy, I experimented with a small hacksaw, a small crosscut saw, and a small narrow crosscut saw. All were too cumbersome to carry to a work site. Furthermore, they were ergonomically challenging due to the spatial clearance necessary - and not always available – to draw a toothed blade across a root clump. In time, I resigned myself to the reality that propagating dense root balls would remain an unreliable garden chore.

However, a better solution surfaced when I accidentally discovered a retractable garden blade by Fiskars marketed as a Power Tooth Sliding Carabiner Saw. Yes, its official name is a mouthful.  Intended for cutting branches, its size and shape make it an ideal implement for root ball division.

It is sold in two sizes with a ten or a six-inch blade, I chose the smaller model because it best resembled a giant Exacto knife which I’d always enjoyed using. While the smaller size offers a tighter hand control with better accuracy for my needs, I expect that the ten-inch  blade will be more productive for dividing oversized root balls. At the time of writing this blog, the ten inch blade is better value at Amazon than the six inch blade - which is available at most big box stores. In either size, sharp teeth make this a powerful and precise instrument.

I‘m able to slice through root balls with the precision of a master chef and my success rate has risen to 99 %. Yet, it is safe, portable and convenient because it is lightweight and retractable. When I shove my hand impulsively into my tool bag, I’m certain not to cut myself.

The only feature missing from this product is instant visibility. Fiskars’ customary neon orange trim that makes its collection of garden implements easy to locate, is lacking on this item. A black garden tool dropped onto brown soil disappears from view even when it is literally right under one’s nose. For improved visibility, consider adding strips of red electrician’s tape to its handle. The following photo demonstrates how I solved the problem.

I discovered this item out of necessity. A member of my staff had lost the small retractable blade used to slice open bags of soil amendments and it needed replacing. As soon as I spotted the Fiskars item, I knew it would be a versatile problem-solving tool that would make my staff and I feel competent. It’s the serendipity of occurrences like this that add to the joy of gardening.



A Review of "Garden Design, a Book of Ideas"

Garden Design, a Book of Ideas, Heidi Howcroft & Marianne Majerus, Firefly Books

Glance at the image above to appreciate the shape and color of the Eupatorium flower head close-up in the foreground. Let your eyes caress the feathery texture of the upright ornamental grass in the background and notice how it contrasts with the smooth bark of the vertical trees while delineating the horizontal border of the pool. The book cover photo captures an example of garden design at its best and is an indication of the quality of information to be found inside.

In an age of sensory overload, authors Howcraft and Majerus found a successful way to reach out to readers. They created a refreshing visual reference book to introduce ideas to a new generation of garden owners, architects and designers who desire to know more, while reading less in order to focus on what is relevant to their needs.

The result is an enchanting sourcebook of ideas containing 600 inspiring photographs and 24 case studies. Ms. Howcroft uses comprehensive but lean text to encapsulate each garden design concept while Ms. Majerus adds precise photo-examples to elaborate.

Every aspect of garden design is explored from assessing a location, evaluating the soil, choosing a style for inspiration, selecting plants and hardscape elements to tackling challenging spaces.

Readers will find useful, effective treatments for their garden design needs regardless where they live. Images of professionally designed settings have been collected and categorized from a wide variety of sources to inspire urban folk, weekend suburbanites and countryside dwellers. The authors include ideas for contemporary gardens, classically defined landscapes and naturalistic meadows. Whether one’s home is a cabin or a castle, whether the locale is family friendly, cocktail party serene or BBQ informal, the suggestions offered are adaptable to most locales and budgets.

If you’re planning a new garden or refreshing an older one, add this book to your must- read list; after it has inspired the creation of the garden of your dreams, place it where it can be admired by gardening colleagues. It’s that beautiful.



Lespedeza Gibraltar Is A Waterfall Flowering Perennial

Extreme close up of a Lespedeza floret in my garden. With normal viewing, it isn't as attractive as it appears above.Whenever I receive a catalogue from an online nursery, my first action is to search for perennials I’ve never seen before. I pay attention to those that are considered hardy in USDA Zone 4 [Canada Zone 5]. I delve into details to select only flowering plants with a long bloom period. Finally, for those that appear to have potential, I evaluate for attractiveness and for colors that work well in the English-style flowerbed.

Photos used in the above-mentioned publications are often deceptive. An image may reflect a close-up of a petal or floret that in real life has no visual appeal. An image may have been captured with a lens filter that alters the plant’s true color to make it appear more attractive in print. Occasionally, the plant is staged with hidden props to hide an unattractive growing habit. Computer technology may be used to transform a plants image into a vision the human eye can never see. Rarely are we informed that a perennial is messy, aggressive, invasive or short-lived.

A true portrait of mature Lespedeza by White Flower Farms, Click on image for more details.One requires courage to experiment with newly introduced plants and, like inside the now-proverbial Forest Gump box of chocolates, one never knows what one is going to find. Even though no amount of technical prowess could hide the fact that Lespedeza was not an attractive perennial, I ignored cautionary guidelines when I first noticed it and bought blindly.

My onlione provider did not mention that it was bushy. The close up of Lespedeza thunbergii Gibraltar showed no sign of weeping or cascading. The small image of a floret close-up looked enticing as did the hype in the catalog informing me that this perennial would

  •  Bloom at the end of the season and for several months when little else is in bloom. It did.
  •  Flower in a rich, vivid color making it attractive from afar. It was, if one likes harsh tones.
  •  Spread at least five feet in diameter. It did.
  •  Cascade over sunny slopes. It does.
  •  Sport foliage that would remain attractive and disease free all summer, even in hot, humid climates. It did.

Limp and wilting in my autumn gardenUnfortunately, before the first season was over, I realised that Lespedeza is not a perennial for my neat city English-style garden. It belongs either in a rural setting where it might be valued for its practicality rather than for beauty or in a meadow-like garden where unpretentiousness is a virtue.

Flowers didn't turn brown immediately. They just lay there exhausted.Lespedeza Gibraltar is too robust for the pastel, polite and strategically planned urban theme. Its multidirectional growth and intense purple-pink coloration generate energy that prevents gardeners from combining it into pleasant plant compositions. In bloom, the pea-like florets appear scraggly even from afar and sorely wilted for a long while when flowering is over.   

There has to be a reason why this perennial doesn’t show up on most nursery offerings. Perhaps one explanation is that in fact it is a low growing, messy, flowering shrub that needs to be cut down to the ground every autumn. It’s a perennial want-to-be.

My garden was not the appropriate location for such a plant.Yet, in the context of a meadow garden, or in a matrix of a Piet Oudolf inspired composition, this plant has merit. When planted on a slope to cascade visually unobstructed, its texture and color interact well with other low growing plants. The harsh tone of its flowers blends well among the mellow hues of ornamental grasses and appear to glow happily next to bold native flowers. Lespedeza Gibraltar is a perennial that holds its own in the company of other robust garden personalities and proves once again that, in the plant world, one gardener’s nemesis is another gardener's friend.