Monday, February 25, 2019

Columbine in a Walled Garden

The ruins of an old stone foundation can create the perfect backdrop for a romantic garden. Last June I was lucky enough to visit one such garden in Mississauga, Ontario. 

The foundation is all that remains of an old carriage stable at the back of this century home. Plants now nestle in cracks and crevices and vines have begun to take advantage of the crumbling stone and mortar walls that enclose the garden. Where the old cement floor made it impossible to garden, raised beds were constructed and filled with shade-loving plants. 

Growing in this sheltered micro-climate are ferns, Solomon's Seal and Bleeding Hearts. Clusters of delicate pink and white Columbine, Aquilegia have colonized the sunnier flowerbeds.

I grow Columbine in my own garden, but the lovely pink flowers I saw that day made me fall in love with them all over again.

If you are still putting together your spring seed order, don't forget to consider Columbine. They are so easy to grow from seed, I'd even recommend them for a beginner. While you can sometimes find a limited range of Columbine at local nurseries, they can be quite pricy for a plant that is a short-lived herbaceous perennial. Seeds are the more economical choice.

The timing of their flowers is perfect– right in that spring lull after tulips are finished. As well as pretty flowers, Columbine has attractive deeply lobed, pea-green foliage.

Growing Columbine

Columbine is one of the nicest flowers you can find in the garden in late April/May/early June (depending on your zone). 

They will grow in average garden soil, but they perform best in rich, well-drained soil that is evenly moist. Give them full sun or light shade An exception to this would be in a southern garden zone. Columbine is at home in the cool days of early spring so they will appreciate a position that offers a little relief from the hot afternoon sun. 

Don't let the fact that Columbine is a short-lived perennial deter you from growing this plant. They are prolific self-seeders, so new plants always seem to pop up to fill the shoes of their fading comrads. 

Columbine has a deep, carrot-like root that does not make it easy to move them around in the garden. I have managed to move very young seedlings, but the more settled in they are, the harder it is to transplant them successfully. 

Direct sowing seeds in the garden

The time to plant Columbine seeds is in the fall, late winter or early spring. Seeds germinate best if they experience a period of cold temperatures (at least 3-4 weeks at 40 F / 5 C.). 

Scatter seeds for a more naturalized planting or sow them 12-18 inches apart. Press the seeds into the soil, but do not cover them. Columbine seeds need light to germinate. Seedlings should emerge within 3-4 weeks. When the young plants emerge and begin to grow, keep them evenly moist. Thin to 10 inches apart if necessary.


Columbine is deer and rabbit resistant.

Pale green tracks on the surface of green foliage in the summertime is a sign of leaf miner. While the tracks can detract from the appearance of the plant, leaf minors never seem to do Columbine serious harm. To deter this pest cut back the foliage after the plant finishes flowering. Fresh new growth will appear after a week or two.

Columbine in my own garden.

Listed from left to right below.


Companion plants might include Bleeding Heart (Lamprocapnos spectabilis) Lupins, Woodland Phlox (Phlox divaricata), Foam Flower (Tiarella), Ferns, and Allium. 

Plant type: Short-lived herbaceous perennial

Height: from a little less than 1ft to 3 ft (depending on the type and growing conditions)

Spread: 1.5 to 2.5ft (again depending on the type of Columbine and its growing conditions)

Flower: Solid, bicolored and multicolored flowers

Bloom period: Spring

Leaf: Delicate, biternate foliage

Light: Full sun to light shade

Soil: Average to rich, moist, well-drained soil

Move: Columbine doesn't like to be moved or transplanted

Problems: Leaf miner

USDA Zones: 2-9

Columbine in my own garden. 

One of the things I want to point out about Columbine is the amazing diversity in size, shape and color of their flowers. Even in my relatively small collection of plants, there is quite a wide range of flower types and colors. 

Some Columbine flowers nod like bells on fine stems. Others face up or out and look a little like miniature Clematis flowers. Some blooms have short spurs that curl inwards while others have long spurs that remind me of a creature from an alien movie.

Columbine blooming in late May in my garden. 

Another one of the self-seeded Columbine in my garden.

Aquelegia canadensis in a private garden.

One very distinctive looking flower is the native Aquelegia canadensis. The long tubular spurs are only accessible to long-tongued pollinators like hummingbirds and hawk moths.

Aquelegia canadensis is native to eastern North America. It has yellow flowers that have long, red spurs. Aquilegia canadensis freely self-seeds and will naturalize to form colonies. This species form has good resistance to leaf miner. Attractive to hummingbirds. It likes moist, rich well-drained soil. Light shade. Height: 24- 36 inches, Spread: 12-18 inches. USDA zones: 3-8.

Aquilegia vulgaris 'Nora Barlow' is a selection that has frilly red, pink and green tricolored flowers.

Aquilegia vulgaris has fluffy flowers with short spurs that might be described as hooked. These curled spurs, which look a little like the talons of an eagle (aquila in Latin), gave Columbine its botanical name.

Aquilegia vulgaris 'Barlow mixed' comes in shades of pink, blue, purple, almost black and white. I have both pink and purple in my own garden (see below).

Aquilegia vulgaris 'Barlow mixed' in my garden.

Columbine seeds can be purchased from local garden centres and any number of mail-order companies, but I found the listing for Swallowtail Garden Seeds particularly intriguing as there are 30 Columbines conveniently listed on just one page (they ship to Canada, the USA and international). Check out the pale blue Alpine, the petite Dwarf White or maybe you might like the sweet mix of cream and purple that the Olympica offers.

I haven't ordered from Plant World Seeds (international shipping), but they have some very interesting and rare Columbine seeds that have me seriously tempted.

I hope this post has inspired you to grow some Columbine this spring. They are an old-fashioned cottage garden favourite that is sure to bring a bit of romance to your garden even in the absence of crumbling ruins.

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Monday, February 18, 2019

Jacquie's Summertime Garden, Part 2

Imagine an artist trying to learn how to paint by reading a dry textbook. It would be pretty difficult, don't you think? Sure you could learn a few basics, but without pictures or illustrations, it would be a challenge to fire your imagination enough to confidently put brush to canvas.

Gardening is similar in many ways–you learn by seeing and doing. So when you're pouring through gardening books this winter, keep in mind how much the photographs can be an important learning tool. Teach yourself to look at the pictures with a critical eye. 

Identify similarities in the gardens you like and even those you dislike. Take those observations and consider them in terms of your own space. When you do find a garden you like, try to identify the underlying design principals at work so you can apply them in your own yard. 

Note more than just the flowers that appeal to you. Pay attention to how they are grouped, how the colors are combined and the role that foliage plays in the overall planting.

The garden I am about to show you wasn't created overnight. It was years in the making. A lot of trial and error was at work here, so don't look at the end result and feel intimidated. Learn by example. That's what I always aspire to do.

A Backdrop of Green

Green forms the backdrop for all the other colors in Jacquie Jordan's garden In Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Even though the green is a unifying element, there is great diversity in the shade of green–there's deep forest green of the evergreens, the sharp chartreuse of the deciduous tree on the middle right (above) and the medium green of the lawn. There's also lovely variegation that adds variety to the green elements.


Jacquie has also taken shape into account when she groups plants– both the shape of the plant and the shape of the leaves. There is a widely varied mix of low mounded plants and tall, upright perennials and trees. Contrasting shapes allow the foliage to make its own contribution to the beauty of her garden.


Cottage gardens perennials are planted in a more carefree and natural way than they are in a more traditional flower border (like one you might see in an English manor). Plant height is not stepped up from low plants to tall plants at the centre core of the flowerbeds. Instead, the arrangement of plants is much more casual. In Jacquie's garden, a tall daylily or a bright yellow Rudbeckia is quite at home on the outer edge of a flowerbed. 

Color and its Repetition

As in many cottage-style gardens, Jacquie has uses a wide range of flower colors. These splashes of color add drama and keep the eye moving from one flowerbed to the next.

Such a cacophony of color might easily verge on the chaotic, but Jacquie has cleverly used repetition to help link one flowerbed to the next. Scroll back and look at the way she has used the deep maroon. The color packs a punch and unifies two different areas of the garden.

She's done the same thing with yellow and white. The vast majority of the flowers have a color echo somewhere else on the horizon. There is no odd-man out when it comes to color. 

"Blooms are usually so fleeting, that I usually think of texture and foliage colour first, then the flower colour," says Jacquie. "I'll take a blossom and walk around the garden with it until I find a plant I think it will be happy with, and if everything else works, I'll try it in that space. I'll wait a season and If the bloom absolutely clashes with its neighbours, and I can't live with it, I'll try somewhere else.  It's surprising though, how often colours you never think will be harmonious, actually complement each other. "

Adding Sophistication to a Color Echo

Here you see the combination of a Sedum with deep reddish-purple stems and a Smoke Bush, Cotinus with foliage of the same color. 

The parts of the plant are different, but the color is the same.

Seek out plants with Interesting Features

This spring, try to make a point of selecting plants with more than just their flower in mind. These Sedum that Jacquie has collected are great examples of plants with interesting features: variegation and stem color. 

(Above Left) There are a number of different cultivars of Sedum that have cream or butter-colored variegation (Sedum, Autumn Stonecrop 'Autumn Charm' and Sedum, Autumn Stonecrop 'Frosted Fire' to name just two). 
(Right) This Sedum has flowers with a matching stem color (Sedum 'Matrona' is an example).

Height and another example of Shape

This island flowerbed just wouldn't have the same appeal if it were all low-growing perennials. The raised plant pot, the ornamental grasses and the metal obelisk all add height.

Notice also that the perennials have varying shapes There are low, mounded plants and perennials whose foliage sprays up and out. They are the green equivalent of a fountain.

"The attraction for me is colorful and unusual foliage or flowers, unique shapes and evergreens for year-round interest," says Jacquie.


Have you ever watched a movie trailer and come away feeling like you have already seen the whole movie, or at least all the best parts of it? Why bother lugging to the movie theatre if you already know the whole plot?

The element of surprise is an excellent motivator. In a garden, don't show all your cards at once. Keep a few cards up your sleeve. A garden should reveal itself slowly. When you're walking around Jacquie's garden, the pathways twist and turn. The view is often obstructed by tall plants. You never know what's next. 


Use your garden to express your own unique personality. Here Jacquie has created a moss-covered seat for an old chair.

Don't stress about Plant Placement.

When Jacquie buys a new plant, she'll wander around the garden with it still in its nursery pot looking to find it a home. As with so many things, she experiments. Some things work and others don't. Not every plant finds its perfect home the first time. 

It's also important to remember that plants in nursery pots tend to dry out quickly! Even after you revive them with water, they become stressed and soon enough they'll become pot bound. It's better to chance a mistake than leave the plant in its pot waiting for a decision.

Always remember to take pleasure in what's works and then go back and correct what didn't work. Persistence is your most important ally when it comes to gardening. Even after years of experience, Jacquie will often move plants around. Slowly, over time, your garden will come together.

The Workload

As you can well imagine, maintaining a garden of this size is quite a bit of work, but Jacquie would tell you that it's the "doing" she loves best. 

Weeds aren't the huge issue you might think they'd be in her garden. The mature plants are so tightly packed in that weeds have difficulty gaining a foothold. 

The task that Jacquie finds the most daunting is actually edging the flowerbeds. "I'd finally get the whole garden edged and then I'd have to start over from the beginning to keep it looking good all the time," Jacquie laments.

Tiger lilies with daylilies behind.

The Role of Trees and Shrubs

Jacquie's island-shaped flowerbeds are filled with more than just flowers. There is always a conifer or a few shrubs, and often a small tree. 

She says, "I have trees and shrubs in every bed but it didn't start out that way. I now have Japanese Maples, azaleas, rhododendrons, Berberis, Chamaecyparis of all types, Cotinus, hydrangeas, Pieris, oses and many varieties of Sambucus (some of which look almost like Japanese Maples). Most of my trees and shrubs are trellises for my Clematis."

Flowers or Foliage? I asked Jacquie which she valued most. 

"I think I value flowers and foliage equally but am much more interested in foliage than I used to be. For instance, hostas never used to interest me much, except as a filler, and now I'm crazy about them, " Jacquie says.

Problem Solving

Every garden has its challenges. It's so much easier to work with problem issues rather than fight them. Poor drainage is a concern in Jacquie's garden. I love her solution: a drainage ditch that curves its way whimsically through the garden.

Eupatorium rugosum 'Chocolate' 

I hope you've enjoyed this two-part series and have found a few ideas that can be put to work in your garden.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Gardening with Emma: Review and Giveaway

Did you have a mentor who inspired your love of gardening? 

For me, it was my Mom. I might have eventually found my way to gardening, but it would likely have been at a point much later in my life. I certainly would not have brought to this new-found hobby the same wealth of knowledge I had under my mother's gentle influence. 

Funnily enough, I don't recall her teaching me a thing. What I do remember was the joy she took in growing flowers.

From the book Gardening with Emma, ©2019, by Emma & Steve Biggs, Photography by Donna Griffith. Published by Storey Publishing. 
Used with permission of the authors and their publisher.

For Emma Biggs, author of the new book Gardening with Emma, a love of growing edibles began with the encouragement of her father Steven. Thirteen-year-old Emma writes in the early pages of her book:

"My Dad used to give me a corner of his garden. After a couple of years, I planted so many tomato and herb plants that he gave me a bigger corner of his garden so I could fit in all my plants. Now I give him a corner of my garden!"

The key thing that has been handed down from parent to child is not so much knowledge, but passion. A love for gardening is inspiring in a way that dry information about how to grow edibles can never be. 

This brings me to what I liked best about Emma's new book. Her enthusiasm for gardening is evident on every single page. And that passion is infectious. Any kid immersed in its pages is bound to be inspired.

For this review, I requested a few page-spreads from the book to show you just how well it was conceived and organized. Practical information and useful tips are interspersed with an abundance of kid-friendly projects and interesting activities that will get children outdoors. Here's just a small sampling:

• Grow a rainbow garden
• Create a beanpole teepee
• Make a miniature garden
• Create a tickle garden
• Grow a flower stand (which is a terrific alternative to a lemonade stand)

Each idea is illustrated with great pictures and humorous cartoon characters kids are sure to love.

From the book Gardening with Emma, ©2019, by Emma & Steve Biggs, Photography by Donna Griffith. Published by Storey Publishing. 
Used with permission of the authors and their publisher.

I sometimes think that important things get lost on the way to adulthood. I marvel at this boy, on the page opposite "U-Pick Slug Control", and know that I am way too squeamish to ever let slugs and snails glide over my clothes and onto my skin. Where did my childhood sense of discovery and adventure go? When did I become such a wimp?

Emma's book is a pleasure to read. She reminds us all to put the fun back into gardening. Every school and public library should have at least one copy of Gardening with Emma.

Usually, when I do a giveaway, I rely on luck to select a winner. In this case, I have decided not to leave things to chance. Instead, a winner will be chosen based on merit. 

To enter the giveaway, please tell us who you hope to mentor with this book; a son or daughter, a niece or nephew, a grandchild or perhaps the kid that lives next door. Tell us why you think this particular child will love Gardening with Emma and/or why you think it is important to encourage a new generation of gardeners. Co-authors Emma and Steve Biggs will select a final winner from all the entries.

Because this book will go to a winner through the mail, we will have to limit entry to readers in Canada and the USA. Please leave a comment below, if you would like to be included in the book draw. The draw will remain open until Sunday, March 2nd. If you are not a blogger, you can enter by leaving a comment on the Three Dogs in a Garden Facebook page (there is an additional link to the Facebook page at the bottom of the blog). You are also welcome to enter by sending me an email (

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About the Author/s

Emma Biggs is a 13-year-old with a passion for gardening. She shares her kid-focused gardening ideas at events, on radio shows and on her blog. Her father, Steven Biggs is a garden writer and blogger who lectures frequently at gardening events across Canada. They can be found online at Emma, Steven and the rest of their family live in Toronto.