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A writer's garden in Niagara

Forte perennial border, July 2004
The inspiration for the series of stories I have presented over the past year came from a song our children sang in elementary school: Bloom where you're planted. At the time, our family was adjusting to a new home in Ottawa and the theme was particularly apropos to our situation, the words suggested we make the most of each day, even though we were no longer 'planted' in the community we had called home for so many years.

The theme also applies to many of the gardens I have visited over the years. My favourite gardens were not necessarily the largest or most imposing. More often than not, the most memorable gardens were spaces that had evolved over time and were visibly a labour of love. These gardeners understood that a successful garden involved a relationship between the gardener and his or her plants, the place where they were physically 'planted' was secondary in importance.

This past July, our garden was opened as part of a local garden tour, a daunting and joyous experience rolled into one package. This was the fourth time I've opened our garden to the public, so I wanted to make sure there would be something new and hopefully special for visitors to experience. There is always a certain amount of apprehension on the part of garden owners who have agreed to this sort of tour, but I felt more than my share of pressure given that visitors would know that I design gardens for others as well as having my column appear weekly in the local papers. How would my garden measure up to their expectations?

View of the side entrance to the garden, 1999 after the pergola was built.

Side entrance in 2003, with the new walkway and maturing plants

This striking combination attracted the attention of many visitors. Allium spaerocephalum (drumstick allium), Helictotrichon sempervirens (oat grass) and Coreopsis verticillata 'Moonbean' (tickseed).
To understand my concerns, let me take you back to the beginnings of our garden. One of the selling features of our home was the large backyard. One caveat was that the property line stretched along a busy roadway behind the house. As more homes were built, the intersection behind our home became one of the busiest in the area. Fast food outlets, gas bars and chain stores sprang up, adding incessant traffic and light pollution (the lights are on all night) to the equation.

On top of this challenge, there was the compacted, clay soil, the cracked surface resembled pictures of the prairies during the dust-bowl years. The area had most likely been a shortcut to the main street for construction vehicles while the homes were being built. The brick and concrete debris we have unearthed over the years are a testament to its humble beginnings.

A less stubborn gardener would have moved, but newly developed properties just didn't have this kind of space (not in our price range, anyway). Neither did they have the convenience; we could just walk to any number of stores and services. Most importantly, I had already sculpted the oddly shaped lot into a series of serpentine beds for my growing perennial collection. I was hooked! Each bed had a backbone of small trees and flowering shrubs that grew over the next 17 years to create an interesting screen that affords a good deal of privacy from the roadway. A deliberate 'window' was left beneath our Russian olive tree so the garden could be enjoyed by passersby from the sidewalk behind the house.

Given the loads of topsoil, manure and mulch that have been delivered over the past 17 years, we should be living on a hill by now, but the clay soil seems to absorb all but the current years' additions.

In anticipation of this year's tour, a redesign of the south-facing perennial border began last summer. The whole bed was stripped down to bare soil, purged of nasty perennial weeds and any overly ambitious ground covers (goutweed for one). A fresh palette of perennials and ornamental grasses was planted. As a gardener who loves to try one of everything, discipline was essential. I tried to plant as if I were selecting materials for a client's garden: using generous groupings, blending sympathetic colour and texture combinations, all the while trying to select plants that would maintain a long season of interest.

We have added several significant structural elements to the garden as it matured. A large pergola-covered deck, built behind the kitchen, extends our living area right out into the garden. This area now houses my ever-growing collection of containers. A winding concrete pathway traces the route from the front drive to an extended patio hosting a table for alfresco dinners, beyond the deck. The side walk is enclosed with a second pergola covered with a trumpet vine and several varieties of clematis and grape. Shade tolerant hosta, astilbe, ferns, cranesbills and oriental lilies soften the edges of the pathway. In the distance, an exotic-looking zebra grass (Miscanthus sinensis 'Zebrinus') punctuates the end of the corridor, foreshadowing the vibrant colours of the sunny summer borders that lie ahead. Favourite herbs such as basil and lemon verbena are planted along the pathway so a casual encounter will release their rich perfume into the air.

Midway along the back lawn, a circular garden decorated with a simple brick pathway creates a memorable focal point for the property. This 'circle garden' has been the inspiration for many articles over the years as I have experimented with various planting schemes (there were many failures along the way).

When the garden was first conceived, we scooped the clay from the bed and filled it with friable topsoil. This created a new set of design challenges. Come winter, the clay subsoil acted as a giant container that did not drain, effectively drowning many unsuspecting plants such as hybrid tea roses, lavender and butterfly bush after their first summer of bloom. In the end, the garden was raised several inches, which did help, but seems to need periodic renewal. I gradually learned which plants would tolerate having their feet somewhat wet: daylilies and ornamental grasses such as Panicum virgatum 'Warrior', Miscanthus sin. 'Rubrum', and Miscanthus sin. 'Morning Light' were survivors.

The perennial grasses are enhanced with a hand crafted wooden obelisk that is home to a rose with rambling tendencies (Rosa 'Avalanche'). Rudbeckia 'Indian Summer' self seeds and pops up among the grasses around the outer edge of the bed, adding remarkable golden blooms to the picture. I love to see shades of violet/blue with the grasses, so Nepeta 'Dropmore hybrid', Veronica spicata, Salvia 'Victoria' and African Blue basil are generously planted as fillers.

I'm pleased to report the garden walk was a success. Clear blue skies with just a hint of a cool breeze and just over 450 guests stopped by to say hello. The garden was miraculously radiant, a harpist charmed visitors with Celtic tunes (a generous gift arranged by my son and his girlfriend) and life-sized 'his and hers' scarecrows appeared to be touring the back garden in a wheel barrow, it was a perfect day!

Given the busy intersection behind the house and our lack of a fence along the road, it was surprising to hear so many people comment: "I drive by this corner every day on my way to work. I had no idea this garden existed. It is like a private oasis."

The most rewarding comment of the day came from an intuitive senior, "I can feel this is a garden that is truly loved!" Apparently my efforts to 'Bloom where I'm planted' have proved successful.

Theresa M. Forte is a garden consultant, columnist and photographer based in Niagara Falls, Ont.

Images courtesy Theresa M. Forte


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