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

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Entries in garden design (142)


Six Steps to Creating Grassless Tree Lawns and Shade Gardens

A reader submitted the following inquiry:-

I am dying to transform my Williamsville NY tree lawn into something more than grass! I am thinking wildflowers but also need to keep in mind that I can’t have anything in the lawn that would obstruct vision when entering exiting the drive. I'd like to start this soon - any helpful ideas, suggestions!!!

Here is my reply:-

Step One. Decide upon a desired appearance of the completed tree lawn when grass has been removed and plants have been installed. If this proves to be a challenge, close your eyes and dig deep inside yourself to imagine the finished project. It’s easier than you might think. That idealized image will influence the choices you make as the project progresses.

Keep in mind that there is a difference between a tree lawn and woodland. The tree lawn may be a studied, deliberate composition while the woodland has a more spontaneous, naturally surprising feel about it.

The most inspiring advice for planting a beautiful spreading, woodland is found at the garden blog Carolyn’s Shade Gardens. This site is a beautifully illustrated treasure of suitable information.

In addition to the overall visual impression or mood that one wants the garden to convey, consider a garden’s personality. The choices are "wild and messy", "neat and trim" and "casual”.

Wild and messy refers to a combination of wildflowers, self-seeding woodland perennials, and other plants whose forms tend to be untidy.

Neat and trim implies a composition of tame and mound-like plants that respect a predetermined linear planting design. Such disciplined plants increase in size at a conservative rate.

A casual garden uses the same mound-like tame plants that are found in neat and trim but in an unstructured, informal collage-type arrangement. This style of planting may be achieved with a deliberately abstract placement of plants or by distributing them randomly and haphazardly throughout the garden.

Step Two. Select a procedure for effectively removing grass. That process will be influenced by one’s acceptance or disapproval of herbicides, [a very controversial topic, with valid arguments pro and con] and by local environmental by-laws that govern the use of such products.

When evaluating a grass removal procedure, one must consider the amount of time available for the task, the amount of physical energy one can muster, and one’s comfort with mechanical, chemical, and organic methods. In her book Beautiful No Mow Lawns, Evelyn J. Hadden identifies 5 different ways to remove grass from an existing lawn. It’s a must read.

Step Three. Inspect the density of the soil. Have the trees reached a maturity that makes the soil so dense with roots that it is difficult to dig there?

If the soil is root-bound, there are two options: One may use a roto-tiller to chop up the tree roots that grow close to the surface. While this method is effective, it can risk compromising the health of the trees. Some mature trees might be unaffected by surface roto-tilling, while others may be damaged. [It is wise to consult an arborist for advice on this subject]. Or, one can build raised beds about two feet high, above the root-bound soil, to create a happy growing place with minimal damage to the trees.

Soil amendments that are needed - and those that are always beneficial, like compost - should be considered at this point.

Step Four. Research the garden’s USDA hardiness Zone; that detail is important when selecting plants.

Step Five. Determine if the tree lawn creates part shade or full shade and if its soil is dry, moist, or normal. Dry means that neither natural rainfall nor irrigation hits the lawn. Moist implies a garden that is damp more than it is dry.

The information gathered will help determine what is or isn’t plantable around the trees. When researching suitable plants, or when perusing an online garden catalogue, look for adjectives in the product descriptions that match the garden’s growing conditions.

[It is at this point that one also starts paying attention to the mature height of suitable plants. My reader specifically requested plants that do not block her line of vision when entering or exiting the driveway.]

Step Six. Evaluate the role of aggressively spreading plants and ground cover perennials that sometimes grow for "miles". Is the area encompassing the tree lawn ample enough to accommodate such plants?

A garden is not a naturally occuring place. It is created by humans from a figment of imagination and, as such, it remains forever a work in progress. These six steps are only the beginning. There will always be something new to consider, to add, or to remove.


Thalictrum Hewitt’s Double is a Singular Sensation

Thalictrum Hewitt's Double floating over the partially spent September flowerbed.The tall, frothy Thalictrum that grows in the flowerbed on my front lawn is in its third year of maturity. As one can gather from the photo, it is a conversation piece. Everyone thinks that it’s a tree. No visitor to my home, or neighbor on my street, has ever seen such a delight for the eyes. It touches the admirer in a profound way.

I first discovered Thalictrum, the species, about 18 years ago, when I purchased over 100 seedling perennials, all of which had plant tags that indicated  flowers in pink or flowers in blue. At that time, Thalictum aquilegifolium, was an unknown entity to me. However, since it promised to provide pink blooms, I added it to the assortment, without a second’s thought. I was eager to be surprised.

Over the years, this species perennial, a very different-looking plant from the Hewitt's Double variety, would grow successfully and fully easy-care in my back yard garden. Tall and upright during the months of June and July, its stately, elegant pale salmon-pink plumes appeared iridescent in the shade but faded in bright sunlight. These feathery heads added an ethereal mood to my garden. When allowed to grow and mature without propagation, they created a grove of pastel softness suitable for any fairy tale illustration.

The species delivered such an impact to my soul that I was motivated to seek out other varieties. Almost 15 years later, A. Hewitt’s Double, a Thalictrum with a longer bloom period  [June to late September] appeared in some nurseries and I decided, this time, to plant it on my front lawn, where growing conditions seem to pamper perennials more than my back yard does. I expected some similarities with the species, but those are few.

Closeup of Hewitt's Double flower head.One characteristic that sets this plant apart from others is its translucent lilac colored flower heads. They scintillate in sun – especially when they are backlit – and glow in part shade. These visuals create a nearly supernatural mood in the garden. What a bonus!

Another unusual characteristic about Hewitt’s Double is that it cannot grow upright, even with the help of heavy-duty stakes, which are unquestionably necessary. Its flower heads grow in such a precarious position, that heavy rain and strong wind will cause the heads to crack off from its otherwise formidable stalks.

Up until this year, I expected that staking the plant in a delphinium style, i.e., one very tall support behind the plant, would be sufficient to keep it from buckling over. It wasn’t!  By the end of summer, I had added an additional three stakes behind the first, each one taller and thicker than the last. None was able to prevent the plant from bowing over to catch the sun. And combined, they were no match for nature's pull.

Because several tall broomsticks together were no match for the pull of this plant, I resorted to using a one-inch wide steel I-bar, 6 feet tall. The perennial became upright as soon as I inserted this metal stake into the earth with the help of a mallet [it took at least 200 whacks to secure it in place] and tethered the plant to it. For that solution, I must thank my lawn service staff who came up with the idea and gifted me with this repurposed steel object.

Especially when held upright, an astute garden designer may have noticed in the posted image that the proportions of this perennial are not suitable for both the narrow width of the flowerbed and the height of the neighboring plants.

Hewitt’s Double towers awkwardly over the other perennials because none of them grow tall enough to anchor or integrate it into the color scheme. This impression, of one plant floating above the others, while it creates movement, also creates instability which makes me uncomfortable. That is reason enough to lift and place it elsewhere.

The rose patch that grows directly behind this flowerbed, and up against the elevated veranda, appears to be a better location. I intend to move the Thalictrum to the left of the pink Rose Bonica that appears in the far background.

I hope that both this rose, along with Rose Carefree Wonder to its right, will provide sufficient height, volume and shape to weave Hewlitt’s Double into the overall garden design. I expect that the iridescent lilac color of this unusual perennial will appear enhanced and even more amazing when it blooms next to the rich baby-pink of rose Bonica.


The Surprise of Pink Hydrangea Invincibelle Spirit

Hydrangea Invincibelle Spirit by Proven Winners. The flower heads in my garden are a shade lighter.Readers might recall that I once had a roller coaster emotional experience with the pink flowering Hydrangea, Invincibelle Spirit. That love-hate relationship continued for the first two years after planting. The saga ended when I made peace with the plant by treating it as an integral part of my flowerbed design, i.e. as a summer perennial. I staked it when necessary and dead headed the spent florets when they blackened.

Image supplied by Proven WinnersHowever, something magical happened this season. This summer, Invincibelle Spirit, arched over nicely so that staking became an option and not a necessity, and the spent flower heads did not turn black. Then, during the month following the initial blooming, the spent flowers transitioned from pink to ivory-beige. As it appears now in my flowerbed, it provides a fascinating texture to the overall composition.

The camera captured a prominent green cast to the color of the spent flowers that was not visible in the garden.The unexpected and pleasant surprise continued when, in the midst of drought and searing heat, the spent hydrangea shrub was audaciously transplanted, by this sometimes reckless gardener, without any apparent consequences.

If only I had remembered one important fact about this plant, learned while researching it online:- deadhead flowers when spent. That action would have stimulated reblooming and I might have enjoyed an additional crop of pink florets. I’ll remember that for next year.

The above image demonstrates the appearance of the spent flower heads at the beginning of September, over a month after they lost their pink color. In full disclosure, the plant was staked just before it was photographed. Otherwise staking was not required, even after transplanting.

It has taken three years for me to appreciate firsthand what the grower, Proven Winners, had promised so long ago. I hope the results that I’ve experienced this summer turn out to be a permanent evolution; and not an aberration brought on by the unrecognizable weather conditions we’ve experienced lately.

Proven Winners attaches elaborate hang tags to plants in their series of Endless Summer hydrangeas. These tags are full of information influencing and reinforcing consumer decisions to buy. I wish that a similar marketing strategy had also been used for Hydrangea Invincibelle Spirit. That way, I might have been alerted to the possibility that this plant required maturation before I would reap benefits.

From another perspective, perhaps this variety should not be brought to market until it is at least four years old. It must be very challenging to be a commercial grower and find that, in spite of the sincere efforts of humans, the unpredictable and uncontrollable power of nature will always prevail.


Garden with Fountain in an Underprivileged Neighborhood

Image used with permission of the photographer.In a low-income residential pocket of Montreal, an owner of low rent housing is making life slightly more bearable for his tenants and their neighbors. The property owner loves gardens and has found a way to share that passion with those less fortunate.

The landlords of most residential buildings located in working class neighborhoods have no interest in lawns or their beautification. The business model used by these entrepreneurs demands that they keep operating expenses low, because rent revenue for each apartment is modest. Therefore, it is normal to see their front lawns neglected or cared for with a minimum of effort. However, the situation changes when superintendents of these apartments take pride in the appearance of the buildings or when property owners themselves have a love for nature.

In the case of this landlord, not only does he appreciate beautiful flowers and plants but the superintendant of the building loves to garden. Consequently, I have a standing order that whenever, I find myself with a surplus of easy-care plants, i.e. when I propagate, or when I dig up plants that my clients do not need or want, I am to deliver them to the businessman's home, a convenient arrangement because he's my neighbor.

The benefits of plants growing in a low-income neighborhood cannot be overstated. It makes the tenants feel good when they step outdoors. Even neighbors, who walk by the front lawn of the building featured in the above photo, slow down to admire the garden. At first, they are unaware the fountain exists because it blends in with the building's brickwork. Then, as they continue walking, they hear the sound of gurgling water -  not something they expect to hear in their neighborhood. Their eyes follow their ears to locate the sound, and when they see the fountain, it makes them smile.

The boxwood shrubs in the foreground and privet hedge in the upper left come from a client's garden; hemerocallis around the fountain grew in mine, while the Hostas were propagated from the proprietor’s private collection. The superintendent constructed the formation in his spare time, with scattered rocks that he found in empty fields and with large stones that I sent him, found in the flower beds I refreshed this season. He also installed the fountain component which the landlord purchased at a big box store.

I asked the property owner if there were any human-interest anecdotes inspired by the gardens on the front lawns of his properties. He replied that the sight of blooming flowers is always a traffic stopper in a part of town where few people grow plants and even less have the disposable income to buy cut flowers.

Furthermore, he reported that during the recent very hot summer, tenants and passersby, most of whom live without air conditioning, removed their shoes and dipped their feet into the fountain to cool off. That wasn’t the intended function for this water feature and the proprietor considers it to be an unsanitary activity. Nevertheless, he understands that no matter how it is used, the fountain is fulfilling an important need for the residents of the neighborhood.


Fifteen Low-Growing White Flowering Plants


After reading last week’s post about a white and green garden, a fellow blogger asked for recommendations for low-growing white plants.

Using a cut-off point of approximately 12 inches, I have compiled a list suggesting those plants wherein most, but not all, will grow reliably in my zone of USDA 4 [equivalent to Zone 5 for Canadians].

Readers who would like to supplement the list that appears below with additional suggestions for white-flowering plants, that grow up to 12 inches tall, but suitable for warmer climates, are invited to submit recommendations in the comment section at the foot of this post. I'm certain that my fellow blogger will be most appreciative.

Plants that are considered to be aggressive or self-seeders have been omitted from the list of fifteen; however, rock-garden plants that spread or sprawl almost-to-eternity are included because, when they bloom, they are breathtakingly beautiful.

Like most plant lists, this one provides names of those that might be unsuitable for some eco- climates. Therefore, technical details for each should be sourced online to determine if one’s growing conditions are compatible. A plant name with an asterisk* indicates that it has not yet been tested in my garden.

Most of the suggested plants flower in spring or early summer. However, the three plants, Achillea ptarmica Ballerina, Armeria maretima, and Rosa chinensis all have a remarkably long bloom period.

Achillea ptarmica Ballerina 12-18 inches

Anemone canadensis* 15 inches

Arabis caucasica 8 inches

Arenaria Montana 2-4 inches

Armeria maretima alba 4-6 inches

Aruncus aethusifolus 8-12 inches

Bergenia Bressingham White 12-16 inches

Campanula carpatica White Clips 6-12 inches

Dianthus deltoids Alba 8 inches

Dicentra Ivory Hearts 10-12 inches

Geranium sanguinem album 10-18 inches

Phlox subulata white 6 inches

Pulmonaria Sissinghurst White 12 inches

Saxifraga arendsii 4-6 inches

Rosa chinensis white [miniature rose] 12-18 inches

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