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 design (142)


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.


Tree Tunnels: A Visually Stunning Photo Essay

JACARANDA WALK, PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICAOne doesn’t have to be gardener to appreciate nature’s beauty. I discovered this photo-essay via a friend’s email; she sent it to me after receiving it from a colleague who had copied it from a foreign-language forwarded message received from Europe.

AUTUMN TREE TUNNEL, SMUGGLER'S NOTCH, VERMONT, USAIt is possible that it originated at

BAMBOO PATH, ARASHIYAMA, JAPANThe power of the images is so moving and pervasive, that readers around the world have been downloading this post and eagerly forwarding it to their contacts.

RUA GONCALO DE CARVALHO, PORTO ALEGRE, BRAZILIt has been re posted on countless other websites, including YouTube. Yet, there has been no accreditation to its originator. This reproduction has occurred even though the Digital Millennium Copyright Act protects the content of the original source.

GINKO TREE TUNNEL, TOKYO, JAPANThe photo-list impressed me so that I thought to share it with my readers.

WISTERIA TUNNEL, SHIZUOKA, JAPANHowever, as a blogger, I had an obligation to determine its source. 

CHERRY BLOSSOM TUNNEL, BONN, GERMANYThat created an ethical dilemma because this copyrighted material has already been reproduced without accreditation all over the internet and has been forwarded around the world via innumerable personal emails.

YEW TREE TUNNEL, WALES, UKBy now, some may incorrectly assume that it is in the public domain.

TUNNEL OF LOVE, KLEVAN, UKRAINEUsing a Google search, I discovered that, to the best of my knowledge, is the originator.

THE DARK HEDGES, GRACEHILL HOUSE, NORTHERN IRELANDI would be grateful to any reader who can confirm or correct this information. In the meanwhile, I hope that these images generate as much pleasure for you as they have for me and the thousands of readers around the world who have been sharing them with their friends.


Fine Foliage for Flowerbeds and Container Gardening, a book review

Fine Foliage, Karen Chapman and Christina Salwitz,       St. Lynn’s Press

Sometimes, a gardener will return from the nursery with a car full of annuals and perennials, place them in flowerbeds or containers according to the guidelines of good garden design, and yet, the resulting plant arrangements still look wanting.

Perhaps the gardener forgot about foliage. Foliage is to garden design what fashion accessories are to clothing. Without the addition of the interesting leaves of perennials, ornamental grasses, shrubs, annuals, and trees, a garden never seems to be complete.

Image copywrite by finefoliage.comFoliage works as a facilitator. It allows otherwise unintegratable plants to combine successfully with others. It also serves as a proscenium, helping to make a perennial or a combination of perennials and shrubs appear more beautiful. Foliage may also supplies direction, volume, color, texture, visual excitement, movement, and mystery.

However, foliage has another role to play; and that is the theme of this book. When plants that are defined by their leaves rather than by their flowers or berries, are combined with other foliage plants, they provide unusual and spiritual visual drama.

Image copywrite by finefoliage.comThe premise of Ms. Chapman and Ms. Salwitz’s beautiful and delightful little book is that it is possible to create successful, eye-catching plant combinations using foliage alone for flowerbed and container gardening. The publication showcases more than sixty inspired foliage-plant partnerships that illustrate this successful style of garden design, while, at the same time, revealing the authors’ immense talent in that field.

Each combination is given a two-page spread with full-color, exquisite, high quality photographs of the individual plants within. So that readers might achieve similar results in their own garden beds and containers, descriptive directions accompany each grouping. Attention is also paid to important details such as sun or shade requirements, seasons, growing zones, soil preference, plant characteristics and care.

Image copywrite by finefoliage.comHowever, what sets apart this book from other garden design manuals is the focus on helping the gardener… get to “beautiful”. The authors take the time to explain why each of their sixty foliage combinations is successful. This information allows readers to gain a designer’s perspective. That outlook, in turn, will enable them to make better choices; it also encourages gardeners to take risks - all in the hope of creating unique personal landscapes and container gardens.

This richly illustrated guide is full of easy-to-use advice. Gardeners of all skill levels will be able to adapt  instructions to create elegant, stylish, flowerbeds for their gardens and breathtaking, designer-looking, containers for their patios.

Image copywrite by finefoliage.comBoth authors are hands-on gardeners. Karen Chapman is a garden coach, horticulturist, garden writer and owner of a container design company. Christina Salwitz  is a garden coach and garden writer who specializes in garden and container design. The authors live with their respective families in the Seattle area of the State of Washington, in the USA.



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”.


Plant Gardens in the Sky; a book review about penthouse gardening

Roof Terrace Gardening, Michele Osborne, Aquamarine.

Gardening in the sky is not a novel idea. As far back as 600 or 500 BC, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar ordered the construction of urban hanging gardens to please his wife, saddened when she was separated from the plants of her homeland.

Today, many urban dwellers choose to incorporate adjacent rooftops into their living spaces. Here, on these very desirable roofs, terraces, and balconies, they create lush outdoor gardens that enhance the quality of their lives by adding a natural balance to city living.

High above the bustle of densely populated areas, urbanites living in these privileged spaces are able to experience air that seems purer, a sense of freedom and privacy, brighter daylight, infinitely more sunlight, and closeness to nature that is often associated with mountaintop experiences. At these heights, people are more likely to be aware of the ever-changing shapes of clouds, the colorful drama of sunrises and sunsets, and the majesty of thunderstorms.

With strategic planning, apartment dwellers that are fortunate enough to include a rooftop into their living quarters, a concept sometimes known as a penthouse, can enjoy many of the benefits of a garden. However, the approach to achieving a quality outdoor life, high above a densely populated urban area, requires an approach different from that used to create a bucolic retreat in a back yard or on an estate.

A rooftop garden design must take into consideration building and zoning regulations, structural integrity of the apartment building, irrigation and waterproofing, physical access for both enjoyment and maintenance, and weather elements that are harsher at great heights than they are at street level.

In this very practical mass-market publication, the author offers a variety of inspiring design ideas that meet the needs of most aspiring rooftop gardeners. Readers will learn how to plan a design for a multipurpose outdoor space that takes into consideration one’s needs for entertaining, relaxation, play, and contemplation.

The author has also includes suggestions for furniture, containers, ornamentation, lighting, water features, and the selection of plants. Readers will be guided into choosing vegetation, not only for beauty, but also for privacy, shade, accents, visual background filler, and for growing food. The plant recommendations are influenced by the ability of certain vegetation to withstand the exposed, harsh conditions associated with windy, sun drenched rooftop gardens.

Michele Osborne graduated from the Sorbonne in Paris as a linguist before moving to England. There, her passion for art and architecture inspired her to become a landscape designer. Working privately and with developers and architects, she has completed projects both in England and abroad. 

Designing many roof terraces in London's East End and Docklands allowed her to discover views of the city, which she found so exhilarating that she decided to abandon her Victorian terraced house in favour of a converted telephone exchange, where she could build her own roof garden. She is a winner of the prestigious Guardian's Britannia Home - builder's Award for "Best Landscaping" and her work has been exhibited at the Museum of Garden History in London.