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

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Entries in flowerbeds (13)


Through the Eyes of a Gardener  

Supermarket Hibiscus by Roy Latham, QuickShotArtist.comNature bestowed upon my family the trait of acute perception. We see things others miss. This ability is a useful tool when communicating with difficult people, but a handicap when it overwhelms us with more information than we can process. We have no control over the spontaneity and speed with which our eyes gather data. It just happens.

Those who share this trait sometimes observe what they cannot understand, and that makes them anxious. Stress may be generated when an object that is out of place is first noticed. In the garden, I am irritated when I see subtle flaws in my work.

My uncle became a renowned home decorator by used this gift. He was valued for his skill in selecting and mixing the perfect shade for a wall’s color. Keen observation helped my father understand human nature. It made him a better restauranteur, a field where peering into other people’s souls is an effective way to help patrons decide what they want to eat. He and his sisters also used their sharp eyes to determine what made people tick.

Whenever they walked into a room, their attention would be drawn to a person whose deportment reflexively attracted their brain’s attention. First, they observed the body deportment and determined if the individual walked tall or inhibited. They noticed the facial expression, the knit of the brow, the purse of the lips, eye movement, eye contact and if the stare was piercing or diffused, whether the eyelid was wide open or lowered, the timber of the voice, the pallor of the skin, the strength of a handshake, and if it was warm or clammy.

They were also keenly aware how people expressed themselves, the choice of words, the inflection of voice, if a question was answered directly, if it was deflected, or if it was ignored. Sometimes, what they presumed they had discovered about a person upset them, deeply. Although they never willed it to happen, nothing about anyone escaped their scrutiny.

I too have the ability to absorb reflexively more visual information than I need. This occurs each time I walk into a crowded room and it overwhelms me. When I visited a nursery for the first time, my eyes darted back and forth over thousands of plants, like untamed horses racing through the wilderness, and I was unable to stop them. Today, with a better understanding of how my behavior is affected by the family DNA, I prefer to socialize in small groups and I don’t go shopping for plants unless I have a list to follow.

When I entered the work force, I used my genetic inheritance to hone my skills in design. I spent over 40 years staring at objects and analyzing colors, shapes, and textures. I would not call it work because the skills that defined the career positions were second nature to me. Designing a product took less time than it did for me to learn how to ski downhill.

Today, these skills are assets when I create flowerbeds. Yet, having this facility can also be an Achilles heel; sometimes I see more in the garden than is necessary to do my work, and I lose my concentration. Then, if I canvas my staff’s opinion, their fresh perspective will help reset my focus.

My eyes are so discerning that I am severe when evaluating the gardens I’ve designed. Although most homeowners are pleased with what I have done, sometimes I am not. After a project is finished, it remains a work of progress in my head. With closed eyes, I imagine that something is not quite right and I send a message to my brain that somewhere a flowerbed awaits tweaking. No one else sees the need to fine-tune it, only I do.  Even in my private garden, of all who come to admire, few - if any – notice the faults that I perceive to be there.

It is fortunate that acute perception has helped me achieve my career goals. Although this trait sometimes gets in the way, I have come to terms with the affect that it has upon me. I used to regard it as a handicap, but not anymore. If anything, it is my strength; it defines who I am.


Gardening Eyes and the Grandmother Clock: Yes, There is a Relationship.

Eupatorium rugosum "Chocolate".The flowering perennial, Eupatorium “Chocolate”, is inappropriately located in my garden.  Unlike the other plants in the flowerbed, I derive no pleasure from staring at it, because it appears lonely and lost.  No one else notices that it is out of place, but I do.

The height of the plant is too short for its location, the brown shading of the leaves causes it to disappear into the brown slatted fence behind, and its white flowers are too insipid for the garden’s colorful composition. Yet, all who admire my garden comment on the rich, unusual color of its foliage, and on its regal and stately deportment.

Foliage of Eupatorium r. Chocolate. Copyright photo by, used with permission. Click on image to link. Because of the opinions of others, I recognize that this plant has some redeeming value. In spite of what my eyes and brain tell me about its imperfections, the perennial is prominent in the eyes of my visitors and that is enough to stop me from digging it up and heaving it onto the compost heap.

One day, I must plant additional perennials nearby. A composition of several other taller and shorter plants will mitigate my perception of the Eupatorium, by contrasting its dark foliage and pale flowers with richer looking companions. Perhaps, when it is surrounded and enhanced by other plants, my eyes and my brain will be happy.

I experience a similar visual tension when I enter the home of my Boston-based children. There, I am confronted with an antique clock in the center hall. It appears to be just as lost, hanging alone on an empty wall, as the Eupatorium does growing in my garden.

Whenever I notice it, my eyes tell me that the clock needs a companion – a piece of furniture - to integrate it better into the room. With each visit, I desperately want to place a wood bench beneath it. Yet, I dare not share this critical vision with my children because, like the Eupatorium in my garden, the clock has a redeeming value to others that far surpasses the aesthetic disconnect that I feel.

With Roman numerals on its aged, ivory face – a reminiscence of Queen Victoria’s England - the wood-framed antique timepiece speaks of its long history. This austere-looking clock was a wedding present to my daughter and son-in-law from his grandmother. Instead of a monetary or utilitarian gift, she chose to buy the newlyweds an item that would perpetuate her memory in their lives.

Selecting and purchasing the gift was difficult for Grandma. Her frail physical condition made it challenging for her to leave home; when she did go out, her body’s low energy caused immense fatigue. Nevertheless, she considered a wedding gift for her grandson sufficiently important to ignore all of her ailments in order to shop.

The clock she selected is over one hundred years old. It and thousands like it once graced the walls of every railway station in the UK. When they were replaced with more accurate timepieces, hundreds of the old clocks were shipped to North America. There they were sold in quaint shops to unsuspecting neophyte antique collectors. According to experts, once these clocks break down, they will never again keep time, no matter how often they are repaired and regardless how qualified the watchmaker.

Yet, in spite of the fact that I perceive the clock to be out of place, and that it regularly stops working, my children do not intend to remove it. Like the stately, regal Eupatorium growing in my garden, this historical object has an undeniable prominence.

In the Midwest of America, where my son-in-law’s parents were raised, a present is considered holy. The energy and thought invested in selecting a gift is more important than its monetary worth or intrinsic utility. The gesture of generosity and thoughtfulness is its primary value. When my children made me aware of this Midwestern trait, I finally appreciated the importance of the clock in their lives.

Now, in my imagination, I can see passengers inside a Victorian railway station, staring at the clock. It hangs on the wall with authority, surrounded by oak benches that anchor it into the overall interior design. It is the most important item in the waiting room. Then, I envisage Grandma buying the clock in an antique shop and, suddenly, I notice her face break out with a smile of extreme satisfaction for having found a suitable present. Eventually, I see her exhausted and hobbling with pain - but never complaining - as she heads back to her car.

Like the visitors to my garden, who found regality in a plant that I disliked, I gained an appreciation for Grandma’s clock when I saw it through the eyes of my children.


Note:  The above image of foliage is the most accurate depiction of brown shading on the leaves of Eupatorium rugosum Chocolate. I found it via Google Images at  Since all of Rob’s photos are copyrighted, it is used here with his permission, for which I am grateful. Readers who visit his garden website and click on the "photo" icon in the website banner will be rewarded with a large array of stunning close-ups of perennial flowers from USDA Zone 6.


Thalictrum delavayi "Splendide"

This past season, a variety of Thalictrum, that was new to my garden, gave me such great pleasure that I am eager and pleased to share that experience. Every year, a local nursery promotes one of several Thalictrum varieties. Since imitation is the finest form of flattery, each spring, I too will plant the featured perennial both in my own flowerbeds and in the gardens I design. Last year, I worked with Thalictrum "Hewitt’s Double". This year, the choice has been "Splendide".

The breeder was being kind when he named this variety. Splendid is an adjective that is so overworked on our hyperbolic, commercial, world that the name didn’t give me a hint of what to expect. To say that I am ecstatic about its performance would be to understate my glee. This perennial scintillated as it bloomed magnificently in my garden, up until the last week of September. Then, by mid October, when the older, taller stems lost their flowers, the shorter, newer ones at the base of the plant,  continued to bloom on for another few days. This is one of the best gift plants for a USDA Zone 4 gardener; it is full of so many surprises.

Of course, my jubilation at the continuous blooming is somewhat tempered because this is the first season that the plant has been growing in my garden. Who knows what the grower fed it at the outset, to make it appear so impressive or to flower for so long? Now, I must wait until next season to determine its realistic bloom time. But the pleasure of this plant is more than just its lengthy flowering period. This perennial introduces a novel shade of pink to the garden, an unusual billowy shape, exquisitely fine floral texture, and an almost humorous upside-down verticality that some fastidious gardeners might consider to be a flaw.

As we all know, nothing in the world is perfect and even the best of anything has its down side. One flaw - and only a garden blogger will care - is that this plant is camera-shy;  I had to resort to posting professional trade images here to illustrate my impressions of this plant and to convey its unusual beauty. A second flaw is that it is top-heavy; although heavy is not an adjective to describe a frothy, billowy cloud with cherry milkshake coloration. As is worships the sun, it bows down from its "waist". That is not a shortcoming if the plant was smaller, but since it reaches five feet in height in my garden and even taller in warmer climates, staking it is a requirement. Normally, I do not recommend plants that need this kind of care but this one is too beautiful to ignore.

In my clients’ gardens, I used a four foot stake and allowed the top of the flower-cloud to billow downwards. When the fluffy lavender pink clouds cascade, they create a soft, reverse vertical direction in the flowerbed. Gardeners who are able to position this plant so that it is backlit by the afternoon sun will rejoice with the ethereal effect that the lacy flowers create when the sunrays shine through them..

When researching this perennial, I came across an irreverent, but extremely clever, sales pitch for it. The people at Plant Delight Nursery, Inc. in the Carolinas are such humorous horticulturists, that I need to share their gem-of-a-description with my readers. The added, italicized commentary and translation are my own.

“Holy S...!  a censored, colloquial expression of intense, pleasurable astonishment with no polite equivalent. This giant meadow rue from French heuchera breeder, Thierry Delabroye popped up as a garden seedling  unplanned parenthood  resulting from a midnight rendezvous  an illicit intimate encounter  between the Chinese T. delavayi and T. elegans...oh, those hot French liaisons! The result is a 9' tall stalk,  well, 5 feet in USDA Zone 4  composed of lacy, deer-resistant foliage, the top 3' of which is a massive 4' wide   believe it!  cloud-like cluster of lavender-pink dangling flowers  like dense pink snowflakes  starting in late June (NC) and continuing until late summer.  It blooms throughout the month of September in USDA Zone 4b.  Because of the immense floral weight, the stems are more slanted than the politics on MSNBC,   it flops over  so a support structure of strong neighbors is suggested.  Don’t rely on the neighbors. Use a tall stake. 'Splendide' also had its tubes snipped (legal in France),  the plant is sterile and will not self seed. so don't worry about having unwanted meadow rues to support.  It’s so beautiful, I wish I had countless seedlings to share with others! Rich soils,  use compost!  like relatives, are highly recommended.”

Unlike the Species that blooms earlier in the season, in a pale pink color that fades in the sun, this variety holds its intense, twinkling shade of lavender-pink all season long. Its unusual flower, color, form, and texture offer the creative gardener an opportunity to think outside the box when situating this variety in the flowerbed. At the least, it is challenging fun; at best, it is an experience bordering on joyful.


Upscale Gardening with a Mass-Market Manual, a book review

Plant Combinations for Your Landscape by Tony Lord, with photographs by Andrew Lawson, Published by Creative Homeowners.

A prominent garden designer and a garden photographer have put their names to a mass-market how-to garden book. This attractively priced, lavishly illustrated, and dwarf-sized publication measures only 5.5 x 6.5 inches. However, it is no less important than more elaborate and larger-sized volumes selling at three times the price.

The conciseness of the gardening advice is as compact as the book itself, yet it contains everything a new gardener needs to know about plants and how to combine them in the garden. The author has divided the manual into six clearly defined topics plus an invaluable introductory chapter. These preparatory pages instruct the reader how to use the guide effectively and how to interpret the short hand symbols; it also clearly explains concepts that are fundamental to garden design.

These concepts include the value of light, bedding and borders, the importance of color- repetition- balance, the role of containers and hanging baskets, meadow planting, the June gap in the flower garden, the late spring shearing of tall summer plants, late summer color, bulbs, and climbers. Distilled into twenty tiny pages, this treasury of basic information, fundamental to garden design, can be read in a flash.

The opening chapter instructs the reader about the essence of a garden’s basic structure, namely shrubs and small trees. The list included no less than sixty-five plants. The next chapter introduces forty-two climbing plants that add a vertical dimension to a garden, followed by a chapter discussing sixty of the most versatile of all plants, the rose.

The subsequent chapter discusses perennials, the herbaceous plants that play an essential role in designing and filling a garden. Here, the reader will discover seventy-eight of them. Twenty-six attractive bulbs are also included in this book because of their ability to grow through layers of other plants. Finally, the book ends with a chapter discussing sixty-four annuals. This topic includes biennials, frost-tender perennials, and vegetables with ornamental foliage.

Each of the chapters begins with an introduction and overview of its topic, followed by a short summary about each plant. The summary divides into two short paragraphs. One, titled How it Works, is a concise explanation of the growth habit and appearance of a specific plant. Another paragraph, titled Recommended Partners, lists additional plants that combine successfully with the featured one in order to enhance the garden.

Because it prevents the reader from feeling daunted by the subject of garden design and plant combinations, this book is important for first-time gardeners. If one uses the structure of the book itself, the undertaking will be easy to accomplish.  By reading about one component of design at a time, at one’s own pace, one can easily build a garden in stages. The trick is to follow the sequence of the chapters. It’s that simple – that’s what manuals are intended to do – and Mr. Lord and Mr. Lawson accomplish that task admirably.

This review is also posted to




Psst! Wanna See Some Really Cool Garden Pictures?

The internet has made it possible to access the web sites of internationally acclaimed and talented professionals who are garden designers, writers, or photographers. Visitors to these sites are rarely disappointed; most come away bowled over by the talent and creativity that they encounter there.

Another online source of information and pleasure, delivered in words or pictures, or both, may be found in the garden blogs of more than 4,000 hobbyists and amateurs who communicate from all corners of the globe. On rare occasions, a posting from one of these sources will stand out and merit special attention and accolade.

This past week, on August 1, 2011, to be exact, one such garden blogger has taken his site from respected hobbyist to world class professional, when he posted some camera shots he took of the Bellevue Botanical Gardens, in Seattle, Washington. Known to his readers as scottweberpdx, and blogging at Rhone Street Gardens, this garden blogger has created a collection of sublime plant images that are world class. From the point of view of pictorial composition, texture, perspective, and color, they are all works of art that I would be eager to hang on my walls.

The protocol of garden blogging does not permit me to reproduce any of these spectacular images on my site. Therefore, I urge readers to click onto the blog logo above to experience firsthand what I can only write about.