Tuesday, June 11, 2019

The Beautiful Garden of Liz Primeau

To be honest, I was a little nervous about visiting Liz Primeau's garden. She's someone I looked up to and admired for years, so there was a lot of expectations when it came to seeing her garden for the first time. 

Liz Primeau was the founding editor of Canadian Gardening magazine and the former host of Canadian Gardening Television on HGTV. She's the author of three books; Front Gardens: Growing More than Grass, In Pursuit of Garlic: An Intimate Look at the Divinely Odorous Bulb and My Natural History: The Evolution of a Gardener. When it comes to gardening in Canada, she has been very influential.

But what would her own private, very personal, outdoor space be like?

Of course, the nervous anticipation I felt on the prospect of visiting the home of a gardening hero was all in my own head and had everything to do with me, and nothing to do with Liz Primeau. We demand a lot from the heroes in our lives–a little unfairly I think. 

As I pulled into a shady spot at the side of the road, it seemed important to feel that my admiration had not been misplaced. At its very core, I simply didn't want to be wrong.

Any apprehension I felt disappeared the moment I saw the rainbow of tulips blooming in the front garden. The colors were somewhat grouped, but the overall effect was a riot of spring color. 

And not surprisingly, there was not a blade of grass in sight.

At one time, much further back in history, an expanse of green lawn was a sign of wealth. It meant you could afford a team of gardeners to hand cut a field of grass. Push mowers and then the invention of gas and electric movers made it possible for anyone, not just the wealthy upper classes, to have a nice lawn. 

Still, the prestige of owning a well-manicured lawn persisted well into the last century. The dream after the Second World War was to have a family, a car in the driveway and house in the suburbs with a beautiful lawn. It took years for someone to question this prescription for a happy life.

After she and her husband bought a property in Mississauga, the first thing Liz Primeau created was a backyard garden. She filled it with summertime flowers and native plants. 

The front yard was a different story. Like every other house in the neighbourhood, it had a lawn which her husband mowed every Sunday. While the backyard was a healthy and diverse ecosystem that attracted a host of insects, birds and animals, the front yard was a monoculture, that by enlarge, bees, butterflies and other wild creatures seemed to avoid.

The final straw that made Liz Primeau take radical action was an infestation of white grubs that were leaving ugly bald patches in the grass. A lawn company advised a liberal application of malathion to bring them under control. Instead, she transformed the front yard into yet more garden.

In the present day, this may not seem like a particularly radical thing to do, but twenty-seven years ago, I am sure it raised more than a few of the neighbour's eyebrows.

Many years later the front yard continues to be a mix of perennials, trees and shrubs. The structure that you see above sits at the intersection of a few of the pathways that crisscross the garden. At first, I thought that it was made of twisted branches, but as I got closer, I realized it was a metal artwork. 

Up near the house, in the shade of a large evergreen, you can see the hint of a wooden bench through the greenery.

Cushion Spurge, Euphorbia Polychroma prefers full sun and somewhat dry conditions. Normal or sandy soil is best. Cut Euphorbia Polychroma back hard in early summer to keep it neat, compact and prevent unwanted seedlings. Euphorbia Polychroma extrudes a milky-white sap that can be irritating to the skin, so wear garden gloves anytime while pruning. Height: 30-45 cm (12-18 inches), Spread: 45-60 cm (18-23 inches). USDA Zones: 3-9.

Growing rhododendrons successfully given Ontario's harsh winters and dry summers is not an impossible feat, but it does require knowledge of their particular preferences. I was certainly impressed with the beauty of the pale lavender and hot pink flowers.

An unknown variety of Dwarf Bearded Iris and Creeping Jenny, Lysimachia nummularia 'Aurea'

The first view of the backyard as you round the corner of the house.

As I strolled around the garden in the morning sunshine, I was struck by a number of things. One was Liz Primeau's use of native plants. While they continue to grow in popularity, native plants are still somewhat under appreciated.

A mix of shade lovers that include hosta, Ostrich Ferns and Canadian Wild Ginger.

Canadian Wild Ginger, Asarum canadense is native to the woodlands of Eastern North America. It has bright green, heart-shaped leaves with insignificant brownish flowers that are largely hidden by the foliage. Although it will colonize an area and tends to be more vigorous than European Wild Ginger (Asarum europaeum), it is not considered to be invasive. Part to full shade. Sandy or clay soil is fine. Average to moist soil suit this plant best. Height: 10-15 cm (4-6 inches), Spread: 15-30 cm (6-12 inches). USDA zones: 3-9.

Ostrich Ferns, Matteuccia struthiopteris are native ferns that are easily grown in average, medium to damp soil. They are happiest however, in rich soil with constant moisture. They spread by underground rhizomes and can form dense colonies when grown in favourable conditions. Ostrich Ferns prefer a cooler climate and don't fare well in the hot, humid summers of the southern States. Part shade to full shade. Height: 3-6 ft, Spread: 5-8 ft. USDA Zones: 3-7.

Large Flowering Trillium, Trillium grandiflorum is a wildflower native to Ontario. They have white flowers with three petals which are held aloft on a stem containing a whorl of three leaves. Their flowers are pollinated by ants, flies and beetles. Trilliums are spring ephemerals that require patience. They can take up to 7 years to go from seed to flower. As the flowers fade, they turn from white to a soft pink. Trilliums require moist, well-drained, slightly sandy soil that is rich in organic matter. Full to part shade. Height: 20-50 cm (7-19 inches) USDA Zones: 4-9.

The dominant feature of the backyard is a gazebo. It's painted a sophisticated charcoal color that blends into its surroundings, but it also has a flashy, orangey-red door that demands your attention. That push and pull make this traditional structure modern and edgy.

There are two styles of pathways in this part of the backyard. On the right, the path is made of rounded pea gravel, and on the left, there are big slabs of flagstone leading to the gazebo. Same material; different scale. If the same stone had been used, I think it would have been much less interesting. 

Another thing I'd like to point out is the relatively flat areas of the backyard that are dominated by groundcovers. Without these areas of quiet order, the garden could have looked like a messy jungle. The open areas of thyme and the Creeping Jenny offers breathing room and a break from the natural chaos that is a cottage garden.

Another thing I noticed in Liz Primeau's garden was a certain frugality in her repetition of plants. Certainly, she repeats these plants because she likes them, and of course, there is a cost saving in using plants you already have to make more plants, but I think there is more at work here than personal preference and the need to save money. 

On a design level, the repetition of flowers, like the dwarf bearded iris you see above, links one part of the garden to another. Repeated elements aren't a shortcoming, they're an asset that unifies the front and backyards.

Even without many flowers, there is a nice mix of colors and texture in the foliage here.

Polygonatum odoratum 'Variegatum' is a variegated form that has arching reddish colored stems and foliage that is edged with creamy-white. The fragrance of the flowers is lily-like. Height: 50-60 cm (20-23 inches) Spread: 30-45 cm (12-18 inches)

Well, I hope you enjoyed this tour as much as I did. Thinking things over, I see Liz Primeau's subtle influence in my preference to garden organically, in my use of native plants, and in my own front garden, where there is not a single blade of grass. And for that, I am grateful.


  1. What a joyful garden! It is such an interesting and fun sight - wish I could walk past it daily!

  2. Oh wow, what a stunning landscape! And I love love love your header photo, too!

  3. Beautiful. I have to admit, since I gave up growing, mowing & blowing a lawn back in 2000 I have grown weary of the sound of lawn mowers and leaf blowers from my neighbors who still continue the practice. One neighbor even put in "Astroturf". He hates the required lawn care but just can't break away from the "suburbia look". What is very odd are the local deer must hate it also and constantly leave their droppings on it! Liz Primeau has a wonderful garden! And even though she has the "planting power & knowledge" to completely obscure her neighbors with thick planted borders she has chosen not too. She has left "positive space" for light, air movement and seeing eyes that wish to observe & learn. You can travel in this garden, going from the forest to a prairie then onto the coast. Beautiful!

    1. I have only ever visited one garden with an artificial lawn. In this case shade made it impossible to grow grass. The flowerbeds were quite beautiful, but the lawn had a weird grey cast to it. I think my main concern with fake grass is the effect it must have on the creatures below it. It must be a no man's land without insects or worms.

  4. Beautiful garden..I miss all those gardening shows that used to be on TV...Good ideas about how to garden with no grass...Lovely photos!

    1. Me too Betty! Youtube somewhat makes up for it. I usually watch Gardener's World (although it is English many of the same things apply), Garden Answer and a few other shows online.

  5. still a beautiful garden where flowers and decorations are neat!

  6. Hi there Jennifer
    I thought I might first identify the mystery dwarf bearded iris .. It is Cherry Garden. I have it in my own garden and it is a beauty .. well deserves to be repeated !
    This is an amazing, gorgeous garden(s) .. I think we all aspire to have our gardens have such a positive impact on our lives and thoughts.
    I have been lucky enough to have Garden PA (aka hubby) agree to lose as much grass as possible .. of which we have none in the back and side gardens .. just a little patch in the front remains, a guy has to have a little grass to mow right ? LOL
    Otherwise it is all gone and I have the gardens and walkways I have always dreamed of.
    I so appreciate seeing other gardens and I too miss the down to earth , practical garden shows we used to have in Canada .. what happened to them ?
    In any case .. a beautiful post of a wonderful garden and gardener !

    1. Thanks for identifying the dwarf bearded iris Joy. It's impossible for the average person to control what goes on in the environment as a whole, but we can have a big impact on our own little part of it. Hopefully more and more people will see the merits of having a garden that has diverse plantings and is friendly to beneficial to insects and wildlife.

  7. Thanks everyone for your comments. It always helps to know readers enjoyed my posts.


Apologies, comments are disabled at this time.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.