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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)


Recycling Junk in the Garden.

Photo credit:- The porcelain of houshold fixtures does not blend well with nature, no matter how beautiful the flowers. I would rather see a battered, rusting tractor on a lawn. Somehow, it seems to belong better.I received an email from the Montreal based journalist, Wendy Helfenbaum, who inquired if I would agree to an interview. Wendy asked for my input because she was planning to write a piece for our Montreal newspaper, The Gazette, about recycling household objects, to give them a second life in the garden. The article titled Finders, keepers… appeared in the Thursday, May 24, 2012 edition, in the Outdoor Living section.

I have mixed feeling on this subject. A recycled item in the garden brings a smile to some gardeners’ faces and a frown to others. Not everyone is comfortable with junk repurposed as garden art, even when it is used to make a humorous statement.

When I was asked to comment on using old steel bed frames as a lattice for climbing vines, at first I balked. Then I realized that for some, this sort of repurposing is a necessity. Where the homeowner‘s garden is used to grow crops to feed a family or to generate income, any inexpensive or no-cost object can be useful.

In such an environment, no one cares what a productive object looks like, as long as it reduces operating costs. Under these circumstances, the appearance of the garden is based upon utilitarian needs; here the fundamentals of design are not a major concern. In this agricultural space, a bed frame used as a lattice will not seem as out of place as it might be, when seen leaning against the front wall of a city home.

In the journalist's article, she also reported on a homeowner who used discarded window shutters to camouflage an ugly wire lattice fence. All the shutters were painted black and, when attached randomly along the fence, the varying heights of each shutter gave the visitor the impressions that they were looking at a city skyline. Furthermore, we learned about another homeowner who used discarded windows to build a greenhouse and a gardener who used old window doors to create an arbor.

Recycling found objects, such as old birdbaths, an institutional bench, or statuary from demolished churches, to create a focal point in the garden, is an effective design element. These unusual items draw the eye of the visitor into smaller gardens to create a feeling of depth and mystery; in larger spaces, they provide an opportunity for one’s eyes to rest.

Boulders culled from excavation sites, and broken marble objects are useful because they act as an effective foil for the texture of foliage growing nearby. I envy those who live in proximity to ancient ruins or crumbling heritage homes. I presume that such venues offer an abundance of weathered and worn relics to innovative homeowners. Such items add charm, texture, form, and visual interest to a garden.

The brick walls of abutting buildings that one sometimes finds in the back yards of urban homes are a serious aesthetic challenge. Trying to temper the appearance of these brick canvases can challenge anyone’s creativity. I have seen such walls effectively camouflaged with collections of antique license plates or vintage auto hub caps.

Another ingenious use of recycled objects is the placement of large antique mirrors inside tiny gardens. While leaning against the brick walls to create the illusion of a larger outdoor space, their hard edges are softened by the plants that frame them.

On the subject of quirky items in general, I tend to be cautious with my advice. I don’t appreciate recycled objects in my non-productive garden but I recognize that many people do. Some will design with found objects while tapping into their artistic flare and others will use them with a sense of humor or because of a need to be outrageous.

City dwellers do not have the same flexibility to repurpose items in the way that rural folk do. First, most urban gardens are not as expansive and therefore can’t accommodate unusual objects as easily as rural settings can. Second, an urban neighbor is more likely to become miffed upon seeing a quirky item displayed on someone else’s lawn. There’s a relaxed chaos found in nature that surrounds a rural property and it allows homeowners to boldly reuse products that would create visual dissonance anywhere else.

In my travel through the countryside, I have seen many objects turned into flower containers: oak barrels, tractor tires, old kiddy wagons and the front basket on the handlebars of a tricycle, wringer washing machines, large cafeteria stockpots, laundry sinks, bathtubs, and toilets. However, as outlandish but acceptable that these objects may appear in a bucolic setting, they are anathema to the urban dweller because they upset the delicate balance associated with the mood of a neighborhood. That is what I call visual dissonance.


Does Your Garden's Design Make You Feel Good? 

The Pattern Garden: The Essential Elements of Garden Making, Valerie Easton, Timber Press

What makes a garden successful? Is it the accolades heaped upon it by one’s colleagues? Is it the fame it garners for it originality? Is a garden successful because it makes the homeowner and visitor feel good? American garden writer, Valerie Easton, has chosen the latter and has made it the theme of her book.

There is a delightful abstract quality to this publication. In it, the author takes good garden design to a higher, more spiritual level. Instead of discussing the aesthetic and scientific elements of design, as so many traditional garden design books do, she focuses on the role played in garden design by archetypal ideas - a.k.a. patterns - that reference the longings of human beings. These pleasure and comfort-rooted ideas are those that inspire designers to create gardens that are satisfying beyond their beauty.

Ms. Easton believes that a garden should be more than an outdoor living area or plant display. A successful garden should encourage us to enter, to explore, to be surprised, and to linger. A garden should make us feel good.

The inspiration to consider garden design from this perspective came to the author from two diverse but complementary sources. First, was the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, or natural transitions, and secondly was Christopher Alexander’s collection of universally appealing patterns of urban design. Ms. Easton has distilled Mr. Alexander’s patterns down to 14 garden-specific ones that are essential to bringing people comfort and contentment outdoors.

Properly adapted to our personal needs, these patterns help create environments that satisfy us at our deepest levels. They explain why one garden is successful while another garden is not. In a successful garden, we should be able to feel ourselves moving through and experiencing the outdoor space on many sensory and emotional levels. By comparison, the author holds that an unsuccessful garden is worth admiring only from a distance because it engages one’s eyes and intellect and nothing more.

To help us appreciate the essence of a satisfying garden, she reacquaints us with its contextual and changing habits, as reinterpreted through the concepts of the Alexander patterns. For example, the reader will learn

  • How weather, soil, topography, and views create a unique garden site,
  • How the relationship of the garden’s scale to the house affects our overall impression of an outdoor space
  • How outdoor rooms, pathways, bridges and gates create a personal journey filled with anticipation
  • How enclosures and exposures provide shelter and borders to influence our levels of comfort  
  • How patios, sheds and focal points create desirable garden destinations
  • The soothing role played by water's sound and reflection
  • How ornamentation and containers provide garden art that pleases the eye
  • The contribution of organic and manmade materials in influencing our visual-tactile experience       

In addition to the refreshing approach that the author has taken to the topic of garden design, Timber Press also assigned a team of talented artist-photographers to illustrate Ms. Easton’s inspiring words. Special mention must go to Jacqueline Koch and her associates, Richard Hartlage and Allan Mandell.

Valerie Easton blgs at


The "Gardens of the Bank of Springfield" is a Masterpiece 

(c) Adam Woodruff + Associates Adam Woodruff is an award winning garden designer whose landscaping for the Gardens of the Bank of Springfield, Missouri has been recognized by the Perennial Plant Association, the Missouri Botanical Gardens, and featured in Horticulture Magazine.

His remarkable comfort in designing with perennial plants is evident in the eye-catching photos taken of his creation. These images tell us that he is more than a garden and landscape designer. Adam Woodruff is a talented artist who uses colorful plant combinations as his medium. There is originality and vibrancy to his work and the powerfulness of his execution is rarely seen elsewhere.

The image posted above is one of ten sumptuous photographs. They illustrate an article he wrote that was reblogged on April 20, 2012 by Designers on Design, titled Commercial Seasonal Display, Part 1. Although they were intended both for commercial publicity and professional colleagues, the collection of images posted there will amaze and deeply touch all perennial garden lovers. 

In his bio, Mr. Woodruff pays homage to his mentors, Piet Oudilf and Roy Diblik. However, after seeing pictures of his work, I think we should be paying homage to Adam Woodruff himself. Isn’t it admirable when students take what they have learned from talented masters and use it to reach heights that surpass their mentors?

Unusually imaginative planting schemes give his gardens their originality. Using the term garden artisans to describe himself and his associates, the work produced by the team of Adam Woodruff + Associates is pleasurable and engaging. By combining herbaceous plants with woody ones, the resulting landscapes provide visual interest for all seasons.

A hearty Thank You to the team at Designers on Design for raising our awareness of an American treasure.


Buffalo Style Gardens: an American Phenomenon

Have you noticed the Buffalo style gardens that have been evolving in western Upstate New York? This type of gardening is considered by some to be an original American contribution to urban landscaping. Although the style pays homage to Romantic English gardens, its unique and distinct local flavor sets it apart from other gardening idioms. Cultivated in the northern part of the USA, in an unusually temperate micro-climate, its development has come as a surprise to those who wrongly associate Buffalo with severe winters[ not true] and a short growing season [also not true]. That so many of its residents have successfully embraced this style to make it their own is a phenomenon.

insiders.seeamerica.comFor this online, armchair garden tourist, the following four characteristics identify such a garden:-

1] Front yard lawns are replaced, entirely or partially, with dramatic perennial flowerbeds, and the strip of grass that separates the city road form the public sidewalk is similarly and painstakingly landscaped.

2] In older parts of town where Victorian architecture abounds, the exterior of the homes are painted in vivid shades that disregard the colors of nearby houses and flowers.

3] Gardens are defined by very dense and very lush plantings, a Romantic spirit, a liberal use of foliage, and an intense attention to texture, form, and color.

4] Neighbors design their front yard flowerbeds to compete with each other for attention. Whether they adorn the front of a home or if they are secluded in a side or back yard, the plant compositions represent idealized horticultural visions usually found in the imagination of flower gardeners. We dream about them as goals, one day to be realized. Yet, here they grow on the southern shores of Lake Ontario, where winds sometimes make the occasional winter snowfall feel more severe than it is.

gardenwalkbuffalo.comThe gardeners of this city have created horticultural beauty of such high quality that their work has captured the attention of the rest of America. Admiring camera-equipped tourists arrive from outside the Niagara-Erie area, national magazines place journalists there to write about it, and other cities send delegations to determine if they can emulate Buffalo’s success. When local residents realized that their own personal gardens had become tourist attractions, they came together to designate the last weekend of July as an annual summer festival to celebrate their work. Today 350 private Buffalo gardens make up a free-of-charge, self-guided walking tour that is organized by hundreds of gardener-volunteers, underwritten by thirty sponsors, and attracting about 50,000 tourists over its two-day span. It is the largest garden tour in America.

gardenwalkbuffalo.comThe’s Daily Dish has described this collection of gardens thusly: “There are Japanese gardens, English gardens, Russian gardens (i.e., barely controlled wildernesses) and what I would call Buffalo gardens - eclectic, funky mixes in which found objects and exotic-looking surrounding rooftops figure prominently". While not all of the participating gardens are situated on former front lawns, it is exactly those viewed-from-the street flowerbeds that have captured my attention. Readers who have attempted to replace their front lawns with perennial combinations understand that this project is more challenging than it appears; because a front yard converted into one large perennial flowerbed is prone to be messy and scraggly.

gardenwalkbuffalo.comThis does not appear to happen so much in Buffalo, as one can determine from the uppermost image posted above. Here, a meticulous gardener displays a keen eye for composition and design, a sophisticated understanding how plants perform, and a courageous approach to the use of color.

gardenwalkbuffalo.comOnce, the city of Buffalo was considered the grungy rust belt of America. Now, a community of avid, amateur gardeners is transforming it into what Martha Stewart Living suggests might become the epicenter of American Horticulture. The walking tour of Buffalo's gardens is an example of how successful a grass-roots initiative can be, especially one that is completely independent of government assistance or intervention. Some number crunchers believe that this private two-day event pumps over 3 million dollars annually into the local economy.

Readers interested in planning their vacation to coincide with this event can click onto the tour’s website at http:/


How to Grow Food and Flowers on a Balcony: a book review

Small-Space Container Gardens: Transform Your Balcony, Porch, or Patio with Fruit, Flowers, Foliage & Herbs, Fern Richardson, Timber Press.

One doesn’t need a yard in order to garden. In the equal-opportunity world that many of us inhabit, anyone who wishes to grow plants ought to be able to do so, no matter where they reside. The fact that so many apartment-dwellers and condo-owners choose gardening as their passion, speaks not only to the ingenuity and zeal of the individual hobbyist, but also to the versatility and adaptability of most plants to container gardening.

Master Gardener, Fern Richardson writes about small-space gardening with an authentic voice. She lives in an apartment with minimal outdoor living area, yet manages to grow food, flowers, and plants with only a balcony and front porch as her garden. Her book is filled with ingenious ways to convert tiny areas into outdoor oases, complete with plant vegetation and small-scale furniture so that anyone’s balcony, porch, or tiny patio may become a multi-purpose outdoor living area.

The book is divided into nine easy, comprehensive lessons. Chapter One overarches the main elements of a small garden, namely the colors, shapes, sizes, and textures of plants and containers, appropriate furniture, and the option of lighting. Chapter Two discusses the pivotal role that weather and climate play in affecting the productivity, hardiness, and health of container-grown plants. The third chapter offers suggestions for attracting wildlife and the fourth is about growing food - yes, one can grow food in containers. Read the book to discover how it can be done.

The author grows, figs, peaches nectarines, and blueberries on her balcony in Southern California, and offers suggestions for successfully growing vegetables, not only in her warm climate but also in colder areas where, due to shorter growing seasons, seeds must germinate quickly. Readers who garden in northern locations will be pleased that the author has paid attention to their climate needs.

Chapter Five includes a photo essay on designing with succulents and aromas. The theme of the sixth chapter is about building privacy, while the seventh introduces lushness and verticality in the form of wall gardens and vertical plants that draw the eye upward to relieve a feeling of claustrophobia that sometimes occurs in small spaces.

The eighth chapter is aptly titled Green Thumb Crash Course, Learning the Essentials for Success. Here, the author writes about the importance of using high quality potting soil, essential details for container planting, repotting root bound plants, the role of fertilizer and irrigation, bulb forcing, whether or not to deadhead, and pruning technique. The last chapter is devoted to troubleshooting pests and diseases. In this fascinating segment, we learn how some companion plants help to control such uninvited guests. Even readers who do not garden in containers might find reasons to include these beneficial plants in their growing beds.

It must be mentioned that the photography sourced for this book is outstanding. To illustrate Ms. Richardson’s text, the works of over thirty illustrious garden photographers were tapped. For example, the cover image by Marie Viljoen that is repeated on page 72 is a masterpiece of narrative photography and composition.

All of the stunning visuals enhance the reader’s understanding of the advice offered by Fern Richardson, who, by the way, is an extraordinarily effective communicator. Add to this recipe, Timber Press’ hallmark, avant-garde graphic design, and the result is a publication that raises the artistic bar for all future gardening manuals. This is a beautiful and inspiring book to own.