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)


A White and Green Garden That Flows

Philadelphus Minnesota Snowflake, appreciation for gardens planted in a white and green color scheme did not come easily. It has been a learning process that required several years of research and personal education. The photo essays of the iconic White Gardens at Sissinghurst in the UK were merely that, photo essays; they did not inspire me. Instead, I was actually puzzled by the owner’s intentions.

However, I was set straight by reading about the goals of contemporary designers, who can and do successfully execute white and green garden themes. Much of that came from studying the opinions and  images from garden blogging colleagues around the world, over a period of four years.

This season, therefore, when a new client, asked for a garden makeover and insisted that green and white be the only two colors I could use, I was prepared and empowered.

Phlox paniculata David,,cora-louiseI was commissioned to plant a garden of my own design with the understanding that, in the even that it did not please the client, I would redo it. The homeowner and I were on a journey to discover a garden that she could feel but could not articulate or sketch. In order to avoid any frustration and disappointment on my part, later on, I psyched myself up for the very strong possibility that a great number of plants would be rejected after planting and replaced. They were.

The client, a successful businessperson in her own right, is hands-on and in control of most projects that she undertakes. However, she knew nothing about gardening. All she had was a personal vision, without the technical vocabulary to describe it. My mission, therefore, was to help her find a way to establish creative ownership of her garden.

I began by working with a selection of plants far greater than that which her flowerbeds could hold. Then my staff and I planted, rearranged, discarded, and replaced where necessary.

By giving the client more choices than she needed, with enough plants to either welcome or banish, I was able to engage her imagination and intentionally provoke her to critique our work, all the while encouraging her to develop a personal vocabulary to express her garden needs. With time, this ritual would empower her to oversee the garden’s design and in the end she discovered her garden voice.

Sprawling Rosa Alba meidiland, surprised me was the realization that the homeowner, without any formal education in the elements of design, let alone gardening, understood the importance of movement. She wanted her garden to flow. In one instance, the most beautiful, most expensive plants were rejected because they impeded this movement.

Flow meant that the eye was to move through the garden, seamlessly, and that there would be no symmetry in the flowerbeds to create a static, visual experience. If the scanning eye stopped abruptly, the plant or plants that it fixed upon were either moved or removed.

My intention had been not only to -  literally -  give my client the flowerbeds of her dreams, but also to stimulate her creative potential, as it relates to gardening. I learned about this process when I first read Fran Sorin's book, Digging Deep. The idea that every person has a creative side to their personality, no matter how hard they protest to the contrary, seemed revolutionary at the time that I read Fran’s words. Now, after coaxing creativity out of countless clients, I appreciate even more her powerful insight into human nature.

Rhododendron Catawabiense album, white and green garden I agreed to deliver could not be a cookie cutter or formula project. There was no preconceived plan in my repertoire to depend on. Nor was there a good old reliable template to whip out and recycle. I had to start from square one.

I began with a few background shrubs to give the white flowers a rich green environment in which to glow. My only restriction here was to avoid evergreen conifers. However, broad-leaved evergreens, such as Buxus, Ilex, and white-blooming Rhododendron were permitted. I also included a Philadelphus Minnesota Snowflake as an eventual anchor plant, when it grows to maturity, because its white flowers are delightful both to admire and to inhale. And the contrast of the white petals on the dark green foliage is enchanting. Then we added a layer of dwarf, deciduous, white blooming shrubs.

White Itoh peony Cora Louise,,cora-louiseIncluded in this assortment are Weigela White Knight, Itea Little Henry, and white Potentilla. In between and in front of them, we planted white shrub roses, one growing vertical and one horizontal, white Itoh peonies, an hydrangea, pale cream hemerocallis, white astillbe, and white phlox paniculata in both short and tall varieties.

In order to allow all plants to grow exponentially, some empty negative spaces remained. Into them, we inserted a combination of the annual flower white Cleome and perennials white Persicaria Polymorpha and pink Eupatorium atropurpurea. The client agreed to Eupatorium for the first season even though it flowers in light pink only because I needed a temporary stopgap. 

I expect that in the end, the Persicaria will have to go because its eventual verticality will impede flow. However, if the client appreciates the soft pastel shade of Eupatorium, that plant might remain because it’ produces rounded, frothy flower heads that echo the shapes of the nearby Buxus.Together the fluffiness and repetition combine to enhance the sense of flow.

As I write this report, the garden has already been tweaked several times; I removed some plants because they did not seem appropriate, and the client pointed out others that did not work for her. Now, as we wait for the blooming of one of the two white roses that still hasn’t bloomed this season, the client has already indicated that she is pleased with the overall appearance of the garden. Flow has been achieved.  


Astilbe Amethyst: Another Awesome Perennial

The Astilbe family is one of  the politest collection of flowering perennials. Not only do these plants grow almost maintenance-free, but they bloom in colors that cooperate, behave, and blend in well with practically every garden color scheme.

With bloom periods ranging from June until September, one can enjoy this plant all season long. In addition, the heights of different Astilbes vary so greatly, that an assorted collection, randomly planted in a flowerbed, might resemble scattered notes on sheet music. No wonder landscape architects use them, albeit sparingly, when they are obliged to add neat flowers to their serene, green plant compositions.

Astilbes grow in, tight, upright clumps that increase in size slowly. There are no spreading roots systems that require controlling, no messy sprawl, no staking of its flowering, feathery spikes, almost no pest, bug, or fungus problems, no additional nutrients required, no winter protection, and in colder climates, no exponential growth from one season to the next.

In fact, when the blooms have dies, the elegant, brown spiky seed heads add texture and vertical architectural detail to the garden. Furthermore, the Astilbe colors, even though they span every shade of pink, mauve, violet, red, peach, and cream - to - white, never appear garish, bold, or offensive.

However, one Astilbe does not conform to this modesty. The variety Amethyst is a scintillating pink extravaganza. It sizzles in the sun, where it ought not to be, like a display of fireworks, and glows intensely in shade and part - shade in vivid tones of lavender - pink. As a specimen plant, it is breathtaking; and when combined with other perennials in the garden, it is transformational.

At maturity, A. Amethyst reaches 40 inches in height and two feet in width. It performs best in a moist garden situated in part to full shade. However, mine is planted in damp sun, where the daylight makes the flower heads sparkle, and it is doing just fine.

I purchased  this variety last year for my test garden because I had never seen it in bloom and because the trade description suggested that it might be an ideal addition to my repertoire of elegant, tall perennials. I was not disappointed. The combination of good height, architectural presence, and intense color makes this versatile perennial a traffic stopper.


A Master Class in Designing with Ornamental Grasses, an eBook review 

Do you feel that you don’t know enough about ornamental grasses? Were you planning to enroll in a university extension course to learn more about them or, perhaps, buy a book on the subject? Now, from the comfort of your home and the convenience of your favorite electronic appliance, you can download Michael King’s two eBooks, Grasses Book One and Grasses Book Two. Together, these two volumes provide the reader with a master class in designing with ornamental grasses.

Ornamental grasses are essential to modern garden design and to the times in which we live. On one hand, their architectural forms make them ideal plants to enhance modern structures and on the other, they reflect our newfound respect for natural looking landscapes. Of late, we have come to echo this modernism and naturalist philosophy in both our private and public gardens.

Many home gardeners include grasses in the design of their flowerbeds; and public parks have used them as dominant themes in their landscaping. So significant an idiom have they become in contemporary gardening that many public spaces that incorporate them, such as The Lurie Gardens in Chicago and The High Line of New York City, have become internationally respected botanical icons.

To incorporate grasses into both private and public landscaping, fundamental information about both their nature and their potential is required. To plant them helter-skelter, the way some of us treat perennial flowers, will not do. Using grasses correctly and effectively requires prior knowledge. That, of course, is the reason to download Michael King’s two eBooks.

BOOK 1 introduces the reader to ornamental grasses, details their characteristics, and explains how they can be used in garden design. The reader will learn how their lack of bold color and their free flowing shapes help to create an illusion of naturalism in any garden. One discovers how the verticality of these plants provides a visual relief, as the eye of the garden visitor is drawn upwards rather than horizontally. Included, as well, is a survey of the best ornamental grasses for garden designs, classified by height.

BOOK 2 begins with technical information associated with growing, caring for, and sustaining ornamental grasses. The author also provides a frank overview of the drawbacks of using them and suggests how to deal with resulting negative issues. The volume then move on to a valuable demonstration on combining grasses with other plants and provides guidance on their use in designing, on integrating them into lawns, and in the creation of meadows.

With a calibrated precision rarely found in the lectures of the best educators, Michael King effectively teaches us about designing with ornamental grasses, in small, easy increments. The result is that at the end of these sumptuously illustrated two eBooks, one is as well informed on this subject, as any garden designer needs to be.

The eBooks are available online at


Thorny, Leggy, Fragrant, White Rugosa Rose "Blanc Double de Coubert" the summer, I use white flowers as garden accents to enhance others colors in the flowerbed. However, in early and late spring, white is the dominant player in many gardens, including mine. In warmer climates, gardeners swoon with the arrival of white galanthus [snowdrops] at winter’s end; and early spring brings us white flowering bulbs such as crocus, hyacinth, and narcissus.

Before colorful summer perennials begin to bloom, my season begins with white rose Blanc Double de Coubert. It flowers almost in loneliness. The only flourishing plant nearby is yellow Trollius, shown above. A hard-to-see Baptisia australis grows next to the rose on the left, but it is not cooperating. It refuses to flower in tandem with its neighbors. In some years, it has displayed its purple buds in unison with other flowers, but this spring, it is late. When it blooms, its purple-blue flowers create visual drama with the yellow and white ones.

Rosa Blanc Double de Coubert is not my favorite plant. I chose it when I had no preconceived ideas how to landscape the area around my deck. The decision to purchase was based upon two factors: It is tall [grows to almost five feet] and intensely fragrant. As a rugosa, [hardy to USDA Zone 3] it is known to bloom continuously throughout the season. Not so for me!  In my garden, it blooms impressively in spring - when its flowers are appreciated because few other perennials are in bloom - and then flowers moderately through summer, when other perennials take center stage.

This plant family is tough, vigorous, disease resistant, and edible. In autumn, rugosas develop decorative red hips used to make tea that is rich in vitamin C [ascorbic acid] as well as jam and jelly. It has been reported that during World War 2, when fruit was scarce, homemade rose hip jam was a valued food item in the U.K. Today, those who consider it a delicacy, still derive pleasure from making it.

My dislike for rugosa roses begins with its thick, woody branches, which are ugly when bare, and continues with the fact that its weapon grade, large thorns are dangerous. Another area of discontent is the suckering of its roots that spread to form nuisance thickets. Thorny groves are inhospitable to adventurous pets and young children looking for a wayward ball. Furthermore, there is no room for thickets in my urban flowerbeds. After four years of thriving politely, this plant has not yet become invasive; there are no suckers at the roots; but I await them with defiance. If they appear, I will remove and discard the plant.

The legginess this plant displays is not an issue for me. I camouflage the bare limbs with later blooming tall perennials such as tall, blue platycodon and phlox paniculata. or early bloomimg peony bushes. When I am in the mood, I will cut the rose’s unsightly woody branches down to the ground so that the plant may regenerate itself.  The ease with which it regrows to its former self is one of its attractive features. This almost instantaneous revival allows gardeners to remove suckering branches easily from the root, to propagate more plant or to reduce the size of the shrub.

The irony of growing this rugosa is that the fragrance for which it was purchased has eluded me. My life style and work responsibilities do not permit me to spend time inhaling its sweet odor. How sad that is; I remember previous generations deliberately making time to appreciate aromatic plants. I also remember being outdoors; doing nothing, while experiencing natures intoxicating fragrances. That occurred while my children were small, when my wife and I would linger at home simply to be a reassuring, visible presence in their lives. How times have changed!


Use Plants for Dramatic Theater in the Garden; a book review

All the Garden’s a Stage, Choosing the Best Performing Plants for a Sustainable Garden,        Jane C.Gates, Schiffer Publishing.

Of late, the publishing industry has been adapting its books to the vast pluralistic community that gardens. Writers first identify a segment of the market and then create a book for a specific audience. The result is that a how-to publication has been written to match almost every gardener’s personality.

I consider gardening to be a theatrical production; and Jane C. Gates has written a guide for people just like me. My garden is a Broadway musical. It has an overture in May, a dramatic act in June; and just before the July intermission, a show stopping number occurs in the rose bed. After intermission, several acts, each with a showy flourish, have been scripted to run through August and September, before the curtain comes down in October.

In every growing season, there are stars: plants that take center stage in the flowerbed and wow both my audience and me. To make the production a rounding success, before casting I audition the appropriate actor/plant for every character’s role. Ms. Gates and I understand each other because, to my delight, she elaborates in depth on this topic.

Her guide to design and planning is about making one’s garden production a success. In it she deals with many other factors that contribute to crowd-pleasing performances. For example, she recommends indulging the star plants by caring for their basic needs. We are taught to recognize that each plant plays a different character in the production, a role determined by its reaction to air, wind, lighting, and temperature.

As Ms. Gates point out, Basic information on a plants growth should make you a better director and help define not only what plants look best [on stage] but which will perform the way the script of your garden demands.

The author continues by advising us to avoid glamorous but temperamental diva plants in favor of reliable leading ladies. A cast of garden growers that perform well together will make your overall design into a rave performance.

The new gardener will also be introduced to specific plant characters that seasoned hobbyists consider old friends in their repertory theatre. These include plants also known as Moisture Mayvens, Forest Dwellers, Mountaineers, Denizens of the Dry, Tropical Beauties, and more.

In this guide to “garden design as theater”, the author touches on practical subjects that enhance the enjoyment of the production. One is minimal garden maintenance; another is the contemporary concern about sustainability. As well, there is a wise and balanced discussion on lawns. Not to be overlooked is the important contribution made by garden props. The items that make the leading characters look good may range from gazebos and chicken coops to boulders and waterfalls.

An important lesson found in this publication is that a garden is animate and therefore, imperfect; it is always in a stage of transition. Like a Broadway show, there will be scene changes, and some scenes will work better than others do. The reader is cautioned not to expect perfection because the perfect gardens portrayed in magazine shoots and advertising are illusions. Even in botanical theatre, there is no such thing as ideal.

For the passionate hobbyist, the garden is live drama, created with living characters, who come together to form a community of players. When properly nurtured, staged, and directed, they put on a spectacular theatrical production. That is my kind of gardening and this is my kind of garden book.