Need Help?

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

Entries in garden blogging (3)


Garden Mentors and Facilitators; A Love Story.

Image copyrighted by Sheila RobertsonScratch beneath the surface of many gardeners’ bio - graphies and one finds inspiring people who influenced and  helped them realize their dreams. Sometimes these pivotal characters are responsible for imbuing a love of gardening; sometimes they are mentors to those who have already discovered a passion for horticulture. Often they are simply generous souls who, by contributing time and energy, help gardeners achieve their goals. A magic occurs when they also become one’s friends for life.

Sheila Robertson, aka Orchard Annie, had left a lenghty commentary on one of my blogs. It was so comprenhensive that I reprinted it in a blog post of its own. Then, I decided that I needed to know more about her. How did she come to amass such a body of practical gardening information?

Inspired by my curiosity, she submitted an informal autobiography in which she pays tribute to the men in her life that facilitated her journey. Serendipitously, inside her narrative, I discovered a romantic thread.

Although she has always been sufficiently strong and independent to “go it alone” and has been proud to do so, several men contributed to helping her realize her garden dreams. By doing so, they also enhanced her horticultural experiences while she travelled abroad or gardened at home. In her own words, excerpted from a mostly unedited first draft, here is Sheila's story.

Image copywrited by Sheila RobertsonAs a stay at home mom of fourteen years living in an owner built home economizing a family of five on a joiner man’s wages, budget and sweat equity are dear friends of mine. I was spoiled by a husband who built cabinetry for the likes of the King of Spain at a world-class yacht works. I only had to envision it and he would create it for me. I learnt to expect quality in my goals: attention to detail is everything, the medium can be budget. My favorite free pastime was checking out books from the library and feasting my eyes on landscape and home design.

When I found myself single and moving 60 miles for work, I had to relearn everything I knew about gardening, such as rabbits in the country are kept in check by hawks, in the burbs they are a nightmare!

I had researched what would add value to the home as I planned to stay only the few years until my youngest was out of school, so I set to work on low maintenance, best value curb appeal: evergreens, flowering shrubs, long lived perennials and, because this neighborhood is chock-a-block with dense shade trees of gigantic potential, small ornamental trees to create privacy and dappled shade.

High volume at work meant 20 hours of overtime weekly; exhausting but it afforded me the indulgence of several trips to Europe.

A view of the RHS Gardens at Wisely; image copyrighted by Sheila Robertson.One of the most vivid and haunting memories of all my travels was touring the Royal Horticultural Society Gardens at Wisely in Surrey, acclaimed the best of all the RHS. No form of garden is unrepresented and each is done to perfection. At every turn there is a breathtaking surprise.... turn round to see where you’ve been, the changed perspective offers a whole different delight. Their extensive arboretum is also aesthetically laid out, not a hodgepodge of species as so many are.

So there I was, gob stopped with awe looking about me and wishing I had someone to share this with, someone who appreciated the beauty… someone who appreciated me.

A bus had arrived and the passengers milled past I noticed many were smiling white haired couples hand in hand, enthralled by the magic only a garden paradise can bring, so touchingly in love with the world and each other.  I said to myself, “That’s what I want. Of every wish in life, I would be exactly like them.”

On returning home, I signed up on Match UK with the headline, “Would you care to show a lady from the States around Surrey?”…, wonderful friends to be made online! The extraordinary glimpses into British life these friends afforded me can’t be found in any guided tour I’d been on through the Visit Britain website. 

Orla, a manageress at my circa 1600 hotel and now dear friend, introduced me to her friend Clive via a phone call. An hour later, this enthusiastic hiker and history buff was leading me through woods to a lonely disused Norman church upon a steep ridge overlooking a valley. In the UK, building is restricted to certain areas, the effect is awe-inspiring: islands of dwellings in a sea of green farmland with waves of crazy quilt hedgerows.

Clive showed me his favorite estates, a centuries old mill turned into a restaurant with water wheel on display in operation, obscure village museums and most importantly, before I owned GPS he would drive me through the route I’d be on the days I was alone. I never tired of fitting in several stops every day, each home unique, each garden a revelation of how the same plants in bloom can paint a whole different picture.

I had several outings with an exceedingly well-mannered Protection Officer from New Scotland Yard who had worked with the Royal Family. He was my personal tour guide at Windsor Castle, so amazing the attention to detail, plus the tale of a ghost he had witnessed! The moat surrounding the Round Tower is a steep bank of landscaped splendor with black swans in the water far below…

On a trip the following year, I truly thought I was destined to live in England when I met Franklyn…….so like-minded and in love with touring estates, hiking sheep-dotted pastures and oceans of bluebell-coated woodland… and letting a pocket guide to the best pubs in England direct us over hill and dale down idyllic country lanes to cross-road hamlets and fantastic meals.  Then the recession hit so hard that neither of us could travel and I haven't returned to Europe since.

Back in the USA, in 2009, Sheila met Steve through Steve is a cheerful, caring and athletic farm boy with degrees in engineering and project management. He admitted to me he usually hated helping in the garden; however, the example I set of loving the process just as much as the finished product (and the subsequent enjoyment of these private havens from the rest of the world!) caused my yard to become his hobby also. It’s just him and me creating these plans…

Image copyrighted by Sheila RobertsonSteve’s engineering skills and school of hard knocks land-use knowledge from the farm are invaluable. He also has a much better eye for fine tuning curves and proportions. The plant materials and placement are my forte; Steve offers suggestions but, as in all things, never insists. I very much appreciate he does not care how I spend my time as long as it’s his choice when he joins in.

Thus far he has designed and built concrete piers to clip the large shade sail over the deck to, a grape arbor with benches, a fountain, a potting bench, several fences and paths, and two 300 gallon water butts (an inch of rain fills both) are replete with pumps for hoses in addition to large taps to quickly fill watering cans.

Image copyrighted by Sheila RobertsonIn a soggy spot of the lawn we dug out an 18-foot diameter circle one foot deep, tiled it, and used up those yards and yards of that ugly stone mulch I detested as drainage gravel sandwiched between landscape fabric to keep the layers from migrating into the clay below and fine black gravel on top. It makes an impressive fire pit area.

What I had once fervently wished for at RHS Wisely is mine! Both Steve and my hair have faded to white, and smiling hand in hand, he takes me to all of the public gardens and museums my little heart desires. I love him dearly. We have many more phases before our own English gardens rival those I fell in love with in Britain; I have no doubt they will be achieved. In all my dreams, I never knew life could be this much rewarding and fun!

Sheila gardens in Wisconsin in USDA Zone 5a. Due to the severity and unpredictability of the Great Lakes weather patterns, she plants only USDA Zone 4 perennials. When I first met her online, I encouraged her to create a blog of her own. Here is a link to her cleverly titled “Scents and Centsability”.


One Gardener's Gold Is Another One’s Garbage

I stumbled across a blog written by a gardener who had just purchased a weekend retreat in the country. In the process of re landscaping the new property, the writer decided to share with her readers the problems she faced and their optional, potential solutions.

One project entailed landscaping the front lawn -a gentle rolling hill that ran from the foundation of the home to the road. The new owner faced a challenge: - what to do with the rocks that protruded out of the ground. Well, they weren’t really rocks. They were, in fact, a grouping of deeply embedded boulders that peeked out of the earth in the center of the lawn. The gardener asked readers for their input.

I suspected that the rocks may have been in place since the glacier age and commented that they appeared to be so deeply embedded that it might be too costly to remove them. Since the blogger’s home was set in a rural area, with relaxed and informal landscaping, I suggested that the boulders remain in place. I recommended that they be incorporated into a plant composition in the center of the lawn.

The texture and color of the boulders were ideal for enhancing the foliage of vertical growing plants, especially those with variegated leaves. I have similar naturally occurring rocks in my own flowerbeds and, even though they are located at the surface, and easy to remove, I keep them in place because they make nearby plants look better. The contrast of grey stone against green foliage adds character to a garden.

As usual in the world of garden blogging, mine was not the only opinion that the writer received. A reader in the UK commented strongly that the blogger should remove the rocks on the front lawn. What an interesting opposite point of view. Perhaps that reader had a more traditional view of the purpose of a country front lawn than I do. Was there a cultural bias at play, here?

I know very little about UK gardeners – only what I have learned from friends who have visited the homes of their British hosts. They report that, when they arrive, it is customary for the host to direct the visitors' attention to the garden before setting foot inside the house. By comparison, on this side of the Atlantic,  a host might first draw a visitor’s attention to new granite countertops in the kitchen or an entertainment system in the family room. The garden might be shown later, if at all.

Some believe that if a garden defines one or one’s home, then it must always remain attractive to visitors. Under those circumstances, rocks, that are smack-in-the-middle of a green lawn, are deemed an eyesore. In contrast, my fellow blogger who is also defined by her garden, but who enjoys the privacy of her rural retreat, left the boulders in her lawn, exactly where she found them.


Sidetracked from Garden Blogging by a Health Care System

The posting of a garden related article has been delayed because I am preoccupied caring for my 96 year old mother in law. I’ve been spending a lot of time at the hospital where she was admitted for tests because she experienced atypical symptoms related to the flu.

I was not permitted to accompany her into the ER, nor was I allowed to visit until 8 hours later. The ER was overcrowded and there was no room for relatives. At night, my wife and I gained entry because a kind nurse’s aide snuck us through a secondary entrance. That is when I learned that only half of the tests had been done. I also noticed that each cubicle, built to hold one bed, contained two. Doctors and nurses were not at their usual posts. Most staff had been in the trauma room all day long and no one knew when they would return. It was the first of the month and the emergency room is always severely overloaded on that date. It would take twenty-four hours after being admitted for my M I L to be finally diagnosed with the flu.

The first of the month is a serious matter in our society. That’s when welfare cheques are delivered to qualifying recipients. After paying rent, because no one can survive by living on the streets in our climate, the balance is spent unwisely by just enough people to clog up the medical system.  Many purchase alcohol, place themselves in physical danger, and land up in the trauma department of the ER. According to the nursing staff, it is a regular monthly occurrence.

The culture of poverty has been with us since the beginning of civilization and is unlikely ever to disappear. No amount of education or training can overcome the mindset of those who believe that there is nothing in life worth striving for. The welfare cheque came into existence, not only to shield such people, but also to help those that experience reversals of fortune. It acts as a social safety net to protect the unlucky ones. Up until 15 years ago, it also removed the incentive for some unambitious people to find work. However, since that time, governments became wiser and now restrict benefits to those with real needs. It is also an expensive program and that explains why new immigrants must wait 3 years before they can qualify for it.

In Canada, we are the beneficiaries of a legislated heath care program that works well most of the time. However, it is so costly that the government, the only HMO allowed by law, must keep a tight rein on expenses. Consequently, there are serious shortages of doctors and nurses. On one hand, the program is a bottomless money pit because health care is astronomically expensive and, on the other hand, not having it is unthinkable in our social liberal democracy. Even the most conservative politicians here recognize that health care is a basic human right for all citizens.

To protect the unfortunate from suffering is a humanitarian gesture. However, the welfare cheque is costly and the consequence of self-destructive behavior adds additional expenses. In spite of the price tag, most industrial societies choose this scenario deliberately. If we didn’t take care of the less fortunate, some fear that we might create mobs of disenchanted people, easily mobilized by rabble rousers for unwelcome causes. The result might be anarchy, insurgency, or the destruction of private property.

In the early part of the 20th century, many feared that poverty would invite Marxism or communism. Some still hold to that opinion. How ironic that a well functioning capitalist society, in order to protect the status quo, must rely on welfare, one of the purest forms of socialism. Others will argue that it is charity, a noble form of human behavior. I tend to agree with this last opinion because we, as a society, are judged by how we treat the less fortunate among us, no matter who they are.