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

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

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Entries in garden design (141)


White Persicaria and Red Roses

White Persicaria polymorpha, Rose Emily Carr and on the left foliage from Eupatorium purpureum that will bloom later in the seasonThe above drama occurred serendipitously.  Originally, a flowerbed was planted to be a theatre perormance. Contrasts in colors, textures, heights, and movements supplied by a composition of continuously blooming roses and perennials were created for the pleasure of apartment dwellers when they looked down from their terraces high above a garden in a private park.

The tall red roses planted five years ago – Emily Carr, from the Canadian Artists collection of hardy shrub roses - were the focal point of the flowerbed. Although they looked stunning in bloom, something was amiss because most of the strong visual energy that the roses supplied weakened by the time it reached the twelfth floor above. More staging was required.

The solution and inspiration came from a visit to a wholesale perennial grower in the countryside. A large round flowerbed was planted in the center of a circular driveway to serve as a landmark for clients approaching along a winding country road.

In the centre of the 10-foot diameter bed, three Persicaria polymorpha perennials were planted in triangle formation several feet apart from one another. At the time of my visit, the composition had matured over three years to create a tall swaying grove of white feathery texture.

The very rugged but elegant plant, also known as Knotweed, is a sun perennial that also grows with magnificence in part shade. The bloom period is quite extensive and the luxuriously sensual flower heads - alive or dead - remain shapely and texturally interesting throughout the season.

To draw focus to the flowerbed, I decided to use this perennial as a proscenium for the red roses. In addition to contributing height and drama, it also diverted tenants' eyes away from a view of the neighboring apartment building.  

However, never was any thought given to the powerful visual impact this perennial might make on the appearance of the roses themselves. Emily Carr roses were intended to be the main attraction, to enhance the appearance of other plants and to give pleasure to the apartment dwellers. Instead, Persicaria made the roses appear to bloom more beautiful than ever before. It enhanced the red color; it showcased the shape of the flower; it made the composition glow and gave it movement. A new dimension to the overall design of the garden was created simply by planting this white perennial behind the red roses. That is serendipity.


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.



Fran Sorin's Inspirational Garden Guide Has Been Reissued.

Digging Deep: Unearthing Your Creative Roots Through Gardening,  Fran Sorin,   Braided Worlds Publishing.             

There is one book in my library that I can never part with: Fran Sorin’s Digging Deep. When it was published ten years ago, it validated the personal creativity I discovered when I first began to garden. On its pages, I also found a lifetime mentor in the author’s warm, inspiring voice and I return to her words whenever I need to refresh my creativity.

Recently, the book was republished in a revised tenth anniversary edition with a forward by the esteemed author and Mind/Body/Spirit/ thinker and practitioner, Larry Dossey, M.D. It is well worth reading again.

Gardening is more than simply growing plants. It is a creative, rewarding and spiritual experience. However, not all potential gardeners feel they have the skill to identify their needs, to express themselves or to find fulfillment. They do! Just ask Fran.

Ms. Sorin demonstrates that by digging deep into our souls all of us can find the garden of our dreams - an idyllic setting that generates personal happiness; a place to reconnect with nature to help make our lives feel complete.   

With a background in landscape design, psychology, communications and healing, the author built a successful career assisting clients to imagine and realize their buried wishes. On occasion, the process would prove challenging because some clients thought they were uncreative and expressed helplessness in articulating a personal vision.

To overcome that mindset, the author introduced them to self-awareness, an introspection of sorts that helps one find innate creativity stored within. Digging deep within oneself allows one to discover hidden dreams that translate into a meaningful garden. It also represents the first of seven steps that guide the reader to acheive that goal namely: imagining, envisioning, planning, planting, tending, enjoying, and completing.

The new edition includes revisions that reflect the evolution in lifestyle and conventional wisdom over the past ten years with a corresponding deletion of information from the original that is now superfluous or outdated. Its re-publication is also prescient.

Our society has become so technologically obsessed and increasingly nature deprived that many of us are spiritually and physically detached from the world we were intended to inhabit. The reissuing of this book is an inspiration to re build our bonds with nature to help us create richer, more joyful lives.

Readers will be so charmed by the author's intimate style of writing they will want her for a friend. Seasoned gardeners will recognize themselves on her pages and will delight in the affirmation she brings them. Novice gardeners will be inspired.



I Didn't Charge for My Gardening Advice.

My financial adviser Billy called me the other day and asked if I would offer garden design advice to one of his neighbors. The wife is undergoing chemotherapy and has determined that a revamp of her tired-looking garden would be an ideal project to put back some balance into her life. Their garden truly needs a major overhaul and I was pleased to offer suggestions; I even recommended the name of a handy man that can do it economically. The husband is on board with the project and eager to make it happen.

When I first heard the family name of these neighbors, I smiled. Their two children had been classmates of my two daughters in elementary school over thirty-five years ago; both children and parents are among the nicest people my wife and I had ever met. That our two families did not develop a long-term relationship was a loss. We lived at opposite ends of town and our paths did not cross outside the schoolyard.

Given the unusual three-way relationship between us all, professional fees seemed  inapropriate and my wife inquired how I intended to handle this matter. I replied in a nano-second and without deliberation. There would be no charge for this meeting.

My decision was not influenced by the fact that the wife is ill or by the warm disposition of these extraordinarily nice people. I took my cue from Billy. He is my role model for generosity of heart. If he asks for help on behalf of another person, I will offer it for the same fee that he has been charging me for the past twenty years, whenever I rely upon him to help me navigate through choppy and unfamiliar waters, i.e. there is no charge.

Before becoming a financial adviser, Billy was an architect with a background in commerce, housing developer, and renovator. In those roles, he took upon himself the responsibility of guiding some of his clients through financial crises that might have otherwise caused them to lose their homes. That serendipitous kindness, combined with a facility with numbers, led him naturally into his present career as a financial adviser.

During the past twenty years, he has worn several hats in our relationship with him. While renovating our home, inadvertently he became our personal therapist due to the trauma and upheaval that the project created. When I retired from industry, he guided me through the maze of bureaucracy so that I might ease into my golden years with dignity. Now, whenever there is maintenance to be done around my home, I ask for his opinion. That counsel is offered with enthusiasm and sincerity; usually, I receive instructions for a solution and the name of a handy man or contractor whom he has already vetted for competence, reliability, and affordability. Later, he will inquire if the recommended tradesperson satisfied my needs.

In all the years that we have known him, whenever my wife and I have leaned upon Billy, and it has been frequently, he has never asked for compensation. My calls to him are not screened and my email inquiries are sometimes answered late at night, on weekends and on holidays. At the worst, while communicating by phone, he will sometimes put me on hold in order to comfort another client in distress.

To ease my guilt for taking advantage of his kind nature, I once offered payment when time invested in my issues became excessive and to this day, I will insert a plant into his garden, at no cost to him, when I discover there is a difficult-to-find item or a flower color on his wife’s wish list. The irony is that Billy is a competent weekend gardener and there is very little that I am able to do for him. Recognizing that I have a need to be helpful, he will occasionally contact me for garden advice just to make me feel good.

Realistically, my gestures of appreciation to him will never sufficiently compensate for his accumulated generosity of self. Therefore, when he phoned and asked me to assist his neighbor, I was delighted to do as he does. I passed it forward by sharing my time and knowledge with them without motive, expectation, or compensation. That too, made me feel good.


Plants That Need Companions Can Be Lovely

The setting for this plant composition enhances the appearance of yellow forsythia. I forsook my forsythia many years ago.

In USDA Zone 4 where I garden, this shrub appears unpleasant when it flowers because it grows alone; no other tall shrub is in bloom at the same time and there is no other surrounding green vegetation to offset the seemingly harsh colors of its petals.

Consequently, this plant stands out in dramatic starkness; in my growing zone, forsythia is appreciated solely because it is the first tall shrub to bloom - not because anyone thinks it is pretty. Perhaps more homeowners here might consider it beautiful if complementary plants surrounded it, i.e., flowering shrubs of a comparable height and volume that temper the energy of forsythia’s intense coloration.

Years ago, when I first moved into my home, I found a single forsythia bush planted by a previous homeowner. It was garish-looking against the grey early-spring sky and the still-dormant, straw-colored grass. A specimen of an identical shrub, growing on my neighbor’s lawn, looked no better. In one case, backed by a sober grey stone façade, and in the other, up against a conservatively dark red brick wall, our matching shrubs looked like overly made up courtesans invading a house of worship. In time, both my neighbor and I dug up and discarded our unsightly guests.

In warmer growing zones, where other plants are in bloom at the same time as forsythia and where the colors of home exteriors allow this plant to blend in better chromatically, there is a positive appreciation for this shrub.

The photos posted here were taken on a recent spring trip to Boston, which is located in one growing zone warmer than mine, USDA Zone 5. There, I discovered forsythia blooming in concert with tall, early-flowering intense lavender-pink rhododendron-azaleas. [Yes, that is the new nomenclature] Backed by a light-coloured cream façade that subtly echoes forsythia`s yellow, the results are eye-catching.

The blending of three colors in a harmony of tone and volume creates a delightful visual experience. In addition, the shrub is set among glossy evergreen groundcover that enriches the composition. Dark green raises the number of colors in the composition to four. In such a compatible tonal environment, the yellow-flowering shrub looks beautiful.

This successful combination was achievable for several reasons. First, Boston has a longer growing season than Montreal does. As a result, the early-blooming rhodo-azaleas develop sufficiently tall and wide to balance the energy of forsythia. Secondly, many home exteriors in Boston are surfaced in pleasant light tones that enhance the shades of early-blooming plants. Thirdly, challenging conditions of heat, shade, and drought in some parts of this eastern seaboard city demand ubiquitous planting of evergreen ground cover. The color-rich lushness of these all-purpose problem-solving plants enhances the appearance of nearby shrubs and perennials.

In Montreal, USDA Zone 4, where winter often lingers too long, there are no colorfully blooming shrubs in early spring that reach the volume necessary to moderate the vivid color of forsythia. Sombre toned home exteriors also exaggerate the intensity of its yellow flowers. Furthermore, a more temperate climate allows us to cover our grounds with turf that is rarely green enough at this time of year. As a result, forsythia appears harsh when it blooms and few of my neighbors are inclined to include it in their landscape plans.

Ironically, the one flowering shrub that offends in my home city appears stunning when it blooms in a climate that is merely one growing zone warmer. This observation may be generalized as follows:-  a plant that looks pretty in a catalog, eye-catching in a nursery, or impressive in a friend's flowerbed, may not appear equally beautiful when added to one's own garden. Surroundings can enhance or diminish the beauty of any plant.