Sunday, April 22, 2018

A Visit to Keppel Croft Garden: Part 1

The Bruce Peninsula is a thumb-shaped jut of land that lies between Georgian Bay and Lake Huron. It is a place of breathtaking views, rugged cliffs and dense forests that are home to some of the oldest trees in the eastern half of North America. The summers are short, hot and often dry. The winds that sweep across the Great Lakes make the winters long and cold. 

In this picturesque, but somewhat inhospitable place, Dawn and Bill Loney chose to make a home and create a garden.

"For a number of years we lived in the Eastern Arctic where all our gardening was done in juice cans," laughs Dawn Loney. "The serendipitous purchase of our farm at Big Bay in 1977 allowed us to contemplate gardening on a larger scale. The original garden included a bank of lilacs, several old apple trees, a clump of rhubarb, two blue columbines and a tulip. Little did we know that we would be gardening on a prehistoric beach with a skim of topsoil over three metres of gravel."

"Bill is the garden's guiding spirit at Keppel Croft Gardens," says Dawn. "He's a self-taught gardener whose interest became a hobby, which in turn became a passion, and then an obsession!" 

Dawn, herself, was no stranger to gardening having grown up in New Zealand where her parents kept an extensive garden. "Every year Bill and I, and the gardens, get older and, we hope, more interesting!" she jokes.

The old farmhouse with its red door beacons you in the distance.

From the first of May through to Thanksgiving, Keppel Croft has a steady stream of visitors. We arrived on a warm, sunny afternoon in late June. Once you park your car in the shade, you're free to wander the property at your leisure.

Dawn and Bill are very welcoming hosts: "Throughout the summer we are happy to host weddings, annual family picnics and other celebrations. Don’t forget to pack your picnic and enjoy staying a little longer in the gardens."

Dawn says there was never any a grand, overall vision for the gardens. 

"Most parts of the garden began after some thought, discussions and sometimes some sketches on the back of an envelope or in Bill's garden idea book. We originally planted close to the house because we wanted to be able to find things in the long grass!"

In prehistoric times, the Bruce Peninsula lay under a shallow warm sea. Over millions of years sand, silt, clay and lime-rich organic material became compressed into layers of rock. Gardening on an ancient shingle beach makes a pick axe Bill's gardening tool of choice.

"After realizing that conventional plantings are impossible in most places in the garden, Bill perfected a planting technique which has been quite successful. He begins by digging a hole with his pick axe then everything is sieved into a wheelbarrow. The stones are collected in buckets and the soil amended before being put back in the planting hole."

"The surprise garden was made on top of a large square of carpet placed over our septic bed," says Dawn.

Today, Keppel Croft Gardens stretches over four acres and includes perennial borders, a rockery, xeriscape, zen and woodland gardens. 

"There are several ponds as well as numerous art installations. Our collection of lilacs is growing with additions each year. Among plans for this gardening season, Bill hopes to complete the dry stream, which is a project that has taken several years already. We also hope to renovate the iris beds and the old vegetable garden which got overshadowed by trees," says Dawn.

In June, the peonies are at their ruffled best. Over the years Bill has built an impressive collection.

"Peonies- so stalwart! They'll will be blooming when I am long gone," says Bill. "Nothing eats them! They provide three season's of interest; colourful spring shoots then glorious, perfumed blossoms followed by attractive seed heads and colourful autumn foliage. They're no worry in the winter either."

Centranthus ruber 'Albus' (see profile below)

Gorgeous Oriental Poppy.

A shady bench.

"Jupiter's Beard (Centranthus rubra) red, white or various shades in between...It's a prolific self-seeder that thrives in the hot, dry location with poor, stoney soil. It doesn't like to be transplanted, especially when its older," says Bill.

Jupiter's Beard or Red Valerian, Centranthus ruber is a short-lived perennial that has fragrant pinkish-red flowers. Removing faded flowers will encourage them to bloom all summer long. It likes hot, dry sites and poor soil. The flowers are also attractive to butterflies. Height: 30-90 cm (12-35 inches), Spread: 30-45 cm (12-18 inches). USDA zones 4-9.

Centranthus ruber 'Albus' is the white flowering form. The small star-shaped clusters of flowers are again fragrant.

Two visitors relaxing and enjoying the view. 

Traditional flowerbeds will often have a band of bare earth on the outer edge. It makes the tangle of a traditional cottage garden look neat and contained, but bare earth is often an open invitation to weeds. At Keppel Croft, Bill takes a more novel approach:

"The mowing strips around the beds keep us and the other grass mowers sane. To create them, I dig a trench with a spade that is 5 to 7 cm deep. Then I set thin, pliable wood form along the outer edges. A piece of 2 x 6 is placed at the ends to keep the form upright and restrict excess concrete from escaping. Next I pour in a layer of concrete, lay down a piece of reinforcing material and pour another layer of concrete. Finally I set palm sized flat rocks in the surface and there you have it!"

 "To create the pebble mulch, I use a layer of wet newspaper over the ground, then a sheet of plastic and cover the whole thing with a layer of gravel. Pronto, a long lasting inorganic mulch! You only weed and water the holes in which the plants are located. There's just one drawback. No one ever explained an easy way to remove autumn debris without raking off the gravel."

Plume Poppy, Macleaya cordata 

Plume Poppy, Macleaya cordata in its fall colors.

Plume Poppy, Macleaya cordata is a somewhat controversial perennial. It's a tall, statuesque perennial that has gorgeous foliage and panicles of tiny white blooms that are the plant's namesake "plumes." In the fall, the leaves take on the most amazing shades of yellow and orange. The down side is that Plume Poppy is an aggressive plant that spreads by rhizomes and by seed. It has proven to be a problem in warmer parts of the United States and is considered a noxious weed in Hawaii.

It's a plant that's tempted me for years, so I asked Bill for his opinion. "Wouldn't be without it," he tells me. "When in flower it has Victorian wallpaper colours. It spreads by roots and seeds but is controllable ...except you never want to tear it out."

Bill's endorsement and those colors make it very tempting. Just remember, if you'd like to grow this perennial, you'll have to work to keep it in check.

A pretty sundial in the near distance.

Pinks, Dianthus

Peonies, Jupiter's Beard and a couple of wicker seats under an old apple tree.

"How I wished for a stone barn foundation or an old silo, but our barn foundation still has a working barn resting on it," says Bill. 

"This folly was built using an old stone wall construction technique making use of forms. Many of the stones were collected, often a few at a time, in a dry stream bed at the back of the farm. It took several years with the help of WWOOFers (short for Woldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) to complete the construction. The folly is now taking on a life of its own and, with time, it should improve in appearance with weathering."

There is more of the garden to see, but I think I will have to leave that for a Part 2.

Don't forget that Keppel Croft is a garden you can visit yourself this summer! 

For directions, hours of operation and other details check out the garden's listing on the Rural Gardens of Grey-Bruce website. You can also visit the garden's website for more information.

There are a couple of special events this summer:

June 21, 2018
Summer Solstice celebrated at Keppel Henge. The event is attended by the Bruce County Astronomical Society and several Tai Chi clubs that come with picnics and exercise in the gardens before the Summer Solstice observation in the Henge. The celebration usually includes a presentation about the solstice and there are often special telescopes brought along for sharing a view of the sun! "We always cross our fingers and hope for a sunny day," says Dawn.

July 14th, 2018, 10am - 4pm, Admission $3
Art in the Garden features forty plus artists and artisans with creations for sale. There will also be plant sales and live music.


  1. I will be in Toronto during July and woould love to go visit. How far it is from the city? By car. Thank you and best from Chile!

    1. According to Google maps it is about 3yrs drive from downtown Toronto. You may be able to find information on places to eat and stay here:

  2. What lovely photos, I so enjoyed my visit here today

  3. What a lovely place. One can see the passion this couple has for gardening. They have created an amazing retreat in their back garden.

  4. Wow, Bill is one gardener to be highly admired. Having to use a pick axe to create plant holes, wow!
    I agree with him about peonies. In our new yard, barely above postage stamp size I have managed to find room only for one peony. It's bound to be very spoiled.

  5. How beautiful these gardens are, Jennifer, and to think that they are so kind as to share it with others. What a wonderful day to be able to walk the property and see all of this beauty.
    Thank you for sharing, and have a wonderful weekend!


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