Monday, January 28, 2019

Jacquie's Garden, Part 1: Spring into Summer

After over forty-five years in one home, Jacquie Jordan was ready for a change. Now in her seventies, Jacquie was looking for a fresh start and a smaller, less demanding garden. The opportunity to create something new more than made up for any regrets at leaving her old garden behind. Over time, there were many things about the backyard garden she had grown to be dissatisfied with. It seemed easier to start over with a clean slate than it did to make changes to the existing garden. So last spring Jacquie sold the property to an interested party.

Now, with new owners in place, the garden will invariably change. It makes me glad to have a photographic record of what was the culmination of years of work.

In this, the first of two posts, we will look back in time to see the transition of Jacquie's garden as it moves from spring into summer. The pictures were taken in June and then in August (several years later). The views are not identical but offer similar vantage points.

Jacquie's garden is located in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia on one of the hills that rolls up and away from the Halifax harbour. 

The front of her old home is level with the street on which it sits, but the backyard falls away from the house on a long, gradual slope. A walkway, deck and set of wooden steps take you from home's main floor down to the narrow terrace that you see in these first photographs.

Self-seeded Columbine

Hardy Geranium with Spanish Bluebells in the distance.

Cushion Spurge, Euphorbia Polychroma in the centre bottom of the picture. The spotted leaf to the left is Pulmonaria. The tall yellow daisy is Doronicum orientale.

One of the great advantages of designing a garden on a slope is the ability to look down on it from on high.  

"I'd sit upstairs by my living room window and plan where to dig the next garden patch. When that project was finished, I'd do the same thing until the whole garden was mostly the way I wanted it," Jacquie recounts.

By August the garden has really filled out and is full of color.

The final layout is comprised of irregularly shaped flowerbeds that are defined by areas of lawn. The neatly clipped grass contrasts with the fullness of the flowerbeds and offers just the right amount of order in this informal setting. The grass also functions as pathways that lead visitors through the plantings.

A cottage garden like this requires full sun. And it would be impossible to have such healthy looking plants without good, rich, organic soil. 

A big garden like Jacquie's takes a fairly serious time commitment. Why, oh why then, would anyone take on so much work? Jacquie would reply that she enjoys all the hours she spends in the garden.

"It's the 'doing' I love most," she told me in a recent phone conversation.


Too many accessories and a garden can start to look cluttered. How many is too many? I think Jacquie has it about right. There is usually a single object in any sightline.

A lime-colored Barberry and Japanese Blood Grass.

The shift between spring and summer is quite pronounced in the picture above and the one proceeding it. In August, the garden has decidedly reached its peak.

Culver's Root, Veronicastrum virginicum album has huge branching spikes of white flowers from mid-summer into the fall. It likes rich, moist, well-drained soil.  Full sun. Height: 120-180 cm, Spread: 75-90 cm (29-35 inches). USDA zones: 3-9.

Clematis 'Ville de Lyon' is a Group 3 clematis with large (4-6 inch) reddish-magenta flowers. It blooms mid-summer into early fall. Moist, well-drained soil. Full sun. Height: 10-12 feet. USDA zones: 4-9.

When Jacquie and I last spoke, I asked her which plants she lifted to take with her to the new, smaller garden. 

"In a large garden, like my old one", she told me, "there are a lot of filler plants by necessity. In my new, smaller garden there is only room for what's truly special." Not surprisingly quite a number of perennials came with her to her new garden. Daylilies and Clematis are among Jacquie's favourites. "I absolutely love, love Clematis. And I like daylilies. They are two plants I couldn't be without."

Perennial Salvia, Salvia nemorosa

I think it is a bit of a shame that ornamental grasses aren't used more often in cottage gardens. 

As you can see in the photograph above, they have a dramatic presence. With their tall, upright stature and fountain of green foliage, ornamental grasses make a striking backdrop for late summer flowers.

Culver's Root, Veronicastrum virginicum has huge branching spikes of lilac flowers. It likes rich, moist, well-drained soil. Full sun Height: 120-180 cm, Spread: 75-90 cm (29-35 inches). USDA zones: 3-9.

Phlox is another key flower in August.

I hope this look at the transition from spring into summer has brightened a cold winter's day for you.

Not any single part of a garden can shine all of the time, but the constant shift of plants coming in and out of flower ensures there is always something marvellous to see. 

In an upcoming post, we will take a more in-depth look at the garden in the summertime.

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Sunday, January 20, 2019

A Passion for Snowdrops

Carolyn Walker

Carolyn Walker will tell you that serendipity played a small role in her passion for snowdrops. When she and her husband bought a gardener's cottage on an old estate in the winter of 1983, they had no idea that thousands of snowdrops lay hidden under the snow.

Much to Carolyn's delight the tiny, honey-scented blooms began to appear the following spring. Discovering thousands of snowdrops in late winter was thrilling. Carolyn says, "Many of those original snowdrops would bloom in February, so that’s when spring really began for me. When they flowered, I would put on my warmest set of work clothes, head out to the garden, and leave the winter doldrums behind."

Photograph by Carolyn Walker

Carolyn's interest in gardening actually begun much earlier.

"It was my roommate who really got me started–with houseplants–during our sophomore year in college," Carolyn tells me," As soon as I graduated, I branched out into vegetable gardening, which I pursued avidly for the next decade—I once grew 20 kinds of peppers.  Meanwhile, I went to law school and became an international corporate tax lawyer with weekends in the garden. In 1992, I decided I had had enough of the corporate world and quit.  When considering my next career, a friend suggested that I grow and sell plants. The rest is history."

Carolyn's fascination with snowdrops began to develop as her knowledge of gardening expanded.

"My snowdrop obsession began when I started reading old Heronswood catalogues. Dan Hinkley was a master at plant descriptions, and I ordered a few new cultivars each year. My fate as a galanthophile (British term for gardeners obsessed with snowdrops) was sealed when I visited Charles Cresson’s garden in Swarthmore Pennsylvania. Charles helped me see and appreciate the finest distinctions in snowdrops."

These days Carolyn not only collects snowdrops–she sells them too. The retail plant nursery Carolyn opened in 1992 specializes in plants for shade and offers an online catalogue of snowdrop plants (not bulbs) each spring. A few new varieties are added each year.

The tiny nodding flowers of Galanthus nivalis have white outer segments and 
green tips on the inner segments.

Growing your own Snowdrops

If you don't already have snowdrops in your garden, Carolyn recommends starting out with the common snowdrop Galanthus nivalis. They are readily available and easy to grow in almost any soil.
If you have already grown Galanthus nivalis, you may want to expand your collection to include some of the over 2,500 named cultivars available.
Curious to learn more about growing snowdrops, I asked Carolyn a series of questions:

Q: What growing conditions favour snowdrops best?

The most common species and their cultivars (G. nivalis, G. plicatus, G. elwesii, G woronowii, G. reginae-olgae, and G. gracilis) like partial shade or deciduous shade (not under evergreens– snowdrops like to take advantage of spring sunshine before deciduous trees leaf-out). They require well-drained soil that is rich in organic matter.
G. nivalis will grow just about anywhere and is happy in both moist and average soil. G. reginae-olgae likes a sunnier location and G. elwesii grows best in more southern garden zones 5 to 6 and warmer.

Q: Many gardeners will be surprised to learn that there are snowdrops that bloom as early as the fall. How has your collection of snowdrops extended the period of bloom in your garden?

Galanthus reginae-olgae starts blooming in my garden in early to mid-October and lasts for about four weeks. Just as it goes by, the first flowers of Galanthus elwesii var. monostichus 'Potter's Prelude' appear and continue through December. The giant snowdrop G. elwesii begins flowering in late January and February before the common snowdrop, G. nivalis, takes over for late February and March. The double 'Flore Pleno' and G. woronowii will provide flowers from late March into April depending on the weather.

Galanthus reginae-olgae. Photograph by Carolyn Walker.

Galanthus elwesii var. monostichus 'Potter's Prelude'
Photograph by Carolyn Walker

Q: Snowdrops flower at a time when there isn't a whole lot going on. That makes it easy to focus in on and appreciate the subtle distinctions in their flowers and foliage. Tell me a little about some of these unique and interesting characteristics.

'Ballerina'. Photograph by Carolyn Walker

I admire ‘Kite’ with its incredibly long outer segments (petals) and ‘Diggory’ for its plump and quilted flowers. Double snowdrops are fascinating as well. I particularly cherish ‘Ballerina’ for its elegance, while I laugh every time I pass by ‘Blewbury Tart’ having a bad hair day.

‘Lady Elphinstone’. Photograph by Carolyn Walker

Snowdrops with yellow inner marks and yellow ovaries (the cap on top of the flower) stand out as being quite distinct. I treasure my ‘Primrose Warburg’ and double yellow ‘Lady Elphinstone’. ‘E.A. Bowles’ is a poculiform snowdrop with inner and outer segments that are equal in size and pure white. 

Trym’ Photograph by Carolyn Walker

Another ornamental characteristic I’d like to mention is found in inverse poculiform snowdrops. In these flowers, the outer segments are shaped and marked like the inner segments. ‘Trym’ is the most famous example.  

‘Anglesey Orange Tip’. Photograph by Carolyn Walker

Finally, orange flushed snowdrops like ‘Anglesey Orange Tip’ is quite unique and interesting.

Q: Readers may be surprised to learn that there are actually thousands of named snowdrop cultivars. Do you have a few favourites?

I have picked six that I think any gardener would want to add to their garden after planting the most available species, G. nivalis, G. elwesii, and G. woronowii.  They are:

S. Arnott–considered to be the snowdrop that English gardeners would take to a desert island if they could have just one
Opheliaa Greatorex double that is easy to grow and a classic
Lady Beatrix Stanley–another classic double (doubles are my customer's favourites of the moderately priced cultivars)
Blewbury Tart–exotic with lots of green on the outside (multiplies prolifically)
Potter’s Prelude–fall-blooming
Primrose Warburg–yellow (which is all the rage right now)

Galanthus 'Blewbury Tart'. Photograph by Carolyn Walker

Galanthus 'Primrose Warburg'. Photograph by Carolyn Walker

Q: What is the best way to purchase snowdrops?

Like daffodils, snowdrops can be purchased as dried bulbs. If you are purchasing common snowdrops, inexpensive dried bulbs are fine, but for more rare and expensive varieties, dried bulbs are not your best option. Snowdrops do not like to be dried, so even for Galanthus nivalis there will be a high mortality rate. Plants that do survive may never perform well. It's always best to start with plants when available.

Occasionally snowdrops that have bloomed and gone dormant are lifted and sold in late summer.  Generally, this method is pretty reliable, but if the following winter is unusually harsh, bulbs lifted in summer are often not as hardy as spring-planted ones.

The best way to purchase snowdrops is "in the green" or as a plant blooming in spring. This assures that you have received the correct variety and allows you to be confident the plant is healthy. Acquiring blooming snowdrops also gives the plant plenty of time to get established before winter arrives.

A classic double 'Lady Beatrix Stanley'. Photograph by Carolyn Walker

Q: How and when should you divide Snowdrops?

Snowdrops don't need to be divided unless they become crowded and stop producing flowers, but dividing clumps regularly will greatly increase the number of snowdrops you have in the garden.
Lift them as soon as they have finished flowering. Divide and replant them spreading out the bulbs.

Q: Do you have any suggestions for companion plants?

My favourites are Italian arum, hardy cyclamen, winter aconite, snow crocus, Siberian and Tubergen squill, silver-leafed lamium, heucheras, hellebores, camellias and evergreen ferns.

Top row left to right: lamium, Siberian squill, rose-colored hellebore. Bottom row left to right: Burgundy-colored hellebore, winter aconite and heuchera.

Snowdrops and cyclamen in Colesbourne Park. Photograph by Carolyn Walker

Further reading:

The Plant Lover's Guide to Snowdrops by Naomi Slade is the best reference for gardeners just getting started with snowdrops. (RHS Plant Lover's Guide Series)

A Gardener's Guide to Snowdrops by Freda Cox (2013). Carolyn describes it as, "...a great reference with hand-drawn illustrations of 750 snowdrops."

Snowdrops by Gunter Waldorf with 300 photos.

Snowdrops: A Monograph of Cultivated Galanthus by Matt Bishop, Aaron Davis and Jon Grimshaw (Griffin Press 2006) Carolyn describes this book as the "British snowdrop bible". Unfortunately, it is out of print, but you may be able to find a copy in a secondhand bookstore.

Sources for Snowdrops:

American Sources:
• Carolyn's Shade Gardens
 Brent and Becky's Bulbs
 Far Reaches Farm
• Temple Nursery

Canadian Sources (Sadly only single and double Snowdrops are available here in Canada):
• Botanus
• Breck's Bulbs
• Vesseys

More Information and Links:

Carolyn's Shade Gardens is a retail nursery in Bryn Mawr, PA. specializing in unusual perennials for shade. The nursery includes a two-acre ornamental garden which allows visitors a chance to see the plants in a variety of settings.
Most of the plants are sold at a series of spring open houses. Many of them are grown by Carolyn herself without the use of fertilizers and sprays (except for deer). Perennials include a good selection of hellebores, pulmonarias, hosta, ferns, primroses, phlox, hardy geranium, unusual bulbs and of course, snowdrops.
The only plants the nursery ships are snowdrops and miniature hosta. (Please note: Plants can be shipped within the USA only. Sadly, Carolyn cannot ship plants to Canada.)

To be added to the email notification list for the 2020 Snowdrop Catalogue, please email Carolyn at

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