Thursday, March 25, 2021

A Work in Progress

A few years ago, we experienced a winter ice storm that sent huge tree limbs crashing to the ground. Two mature trees were so badly damaged they had to be removed. 

While the loss of the huge tree in the back corner of our property was dramatic, the loss I felt the most keenly was the small tree just inside the back gate. 

Before the tree came down, the little courtyard at the side of the house was always one of my favourite parts of the garden. This had nothing to do with the way it looked and everything to do with how the courtyard made me feel. The leafy tree canopy always made this spot wonderfully cool on a hot summer's day. The moment you entered the back gate, the contrast in temperatures between the full sun front yard and the comfort of the shaded backyard always elicited a sigh of relief and appreciation. When it's really hot, the sun can be oppressive. The shade, especially when combined with a light breeze, is so welcome.

The Pathway

Once the tree was gone the courtyard changed completely. My hostas fried and turned brown. Goldenrod, Creeping Thistle and other weeds quickly transformed the gravelled pathways into a weedy mess. A replacement tree died during its first winter. My once peaceful courtyard became a source of stress and frustration.

There are gravel pathways in a number of places in the back garden. This is the view from the back door late in the summer. I hand-pull the weeds in the gravel and it's a ton of work!!

One of the reasons the weeds got out of hand was my hesitation about a suitable replacement for the gravel pathway around the base of the tree. My overall experience with gravel pathways has been a troubled one. If you lay down a foundation of landscape fabric and cover it with gravel it looks good for the first few years. Eventually, tiny pinholes develop in the cloth and weeds take advantage of any opening. Even if you rake the gravel routinely, leaf litter and other debris falls onto the surface and breaks down into a fertile medium ideal for more weeds. Your choice becomes hand pulling the weeds or spraying them.

I recently watched an interview with head gardener Asa Gregers-Warg about Beth Chatto's renowned gravel garden in Essex, England (Note: though the gravel in my garden is only in the pathways, the general principals at work are pretty similar). While this section of Beth's garden is famously drought-tolerant, Asa says it's also the most labour intensive parts of Chatto's garden as a whole. I can believe it! The free-draining gravel makes it an ideal place for weeds to thrive. 

The video interview by Alexandra of the Middle-sized Garden Youtube channel and blog.

Here's what I have learned through trial and error. The best way to keep weeds at bay is to deprive seedlings of light. And the best way to deprive them of light and make it hard for them to sprout is by making the surface they must penetrate hard and compact. It's impossible to compact pea gravel. 

The pathways at the Halifax Public Garden. Limestone screening is crushed limestone chips (1/4") mixed with limestone dust.

The pathways at the Halifax Public Garden

Eventually, I want to try working with something finer than gravel. Lime screenings, which are often used for pathways in public gardens, are something I want to experiment with in the future. For now, I have switched to natural cedar mulch to make my circular pathway around the central tree. 

Piper taking a break on the mulched path that encircles the Magnolia tree and the garden at its feet.

To create the path, I simply laid down a thick layer of natural cedar mulch. Next, I compacted the mulch with the flat side of an old-fashion garden rake. If the mulch breaks down or gets disturbed by the dogs, I can always add a fresh layer and repeat the compaction. So far, I am fairly pleased with the results. The compacted cedar mulch has kept the weeds at bay nicely (I pulled no more than a couple of weeds last summer). 

The one drawback is the aesthetic. There is also something about the neutral look of gravel that is so pleasing. Mulch may be soft to walk on, but it looks rustic and woodsy. Gravel makes a pleasant crunch underfoot. 

For now, I am sticking with the mulch for the pathway around the central tree. I plan to experiment with limestone screening in a small area. If it works out, I may remove the mulch and replace it with the crushed limestone.

Additional Privacy

I know there is a commandment that we should love our neighbours, but depending on the people next door, that can sometimes be a bit of a challenge. Adding a degree of separation between properties, a fence or a privacy screen can ease the strain of maintaining a good relationship with the folks next door.

The fence that skirts the perimeter of our backyard is a standard height of 6 feet. Unfortunately, there is still a clear view of the house next to ours. To add an additional degree of privacy, we decided to add a tall screen topped with an arbour. The overall layout of the structure was intentionally designed to fall entirely on our side of the shared fence.

Two verticle posts, set in concrete at the base, form the upright support for famed panels of wooden lattice. At the top, there is an arbour with a wooden ladder that runs along the top (2 x 2" boards cut on the front-facing end at a 45-degree angle). 

A square lattice is also an option.

The lattice comes in 4'x8' sheets that can be cut down to suit.  Depending on the retailer, the weave of the lattice may vary from a more open crosshatch or a more dense "privacy" crosshatch. As well as a diagonal lattice, there is a square option as well. 

We chose to use a diagonal privacy weave because it reflected the top section of the backyard fence. Hopefully, the arbour will be covered with a climbing vine one day soon. 

The Plantings–A Restricted Color Palette

We ended up replacing the tree that had been lost with a star magnolia. I always wanted a pink magnolia and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally plant one. 

Sadly, the new tree will take years to reach the size of its predecessor. So I started to wonder if there was a way to recreate the old feeling of privacy and comfort without relying on a tree.  It struck me that a quiet color palette can also feel soothing. So rather than planting my usual mix of colors, I decided to limit the palette. Much like the shade that had characterized the courtyard previously, the color white always feels fresh.

The big decisions made, I thought long and hard about what I wanted to do in terms of perennials and shrubs. Most of the old shade-loving hostas found new homes elsewhere in the garden. Only two were left right at the base of the new tree (small as the tree was, it still provided a little shade).  The vast majority of new plants would have to be sun-lovers (at least until the new tree matured). 

Salvia nemorosa 'Lyrical White' forms a compact clump of bright green leaves and has white flower spikes in early summer. Removing faded flowers encourages good reblooming. Fairly drought tolerant once established. Adaptable to a range of soil and moisture conditions. Divide every 3 to 4 years in spring. Full sun. Height: 50-60 cm (21-23 inches), Spread: 50-60 cm (21-23 inches). USDA Zones: 4-9.

Two old-fashioned annuals: Dusty Miller and Alyssum.

Tiny White Scilla

Plantings by Season (Full sun unless indicated otherwise)

Spring Flowering Bulbs:

Thalia daffodils
Scilla (white)
Species Tulips (white with a yellow throat)
White Crocus

Left to Right: Solomon Seal, Polygonatum, Dublin Patio Peony and Dicentra spectabilis 'Alba'.

Spring Flowering Perennials and Shrubs:

Double White Lilac (unknown variety)
Frilly White Peony, Paeonia 'Duchesse de Nemours' 
Dublin Patio Peony (dwarf single white peony)
Solomon Seal, Polygonatum (in part to full shade)
Dicentra spectabilis 'Alba', White Bleeding Heart (part-shade)
Service Berry tree, Amelanchier Arborea
Catmint, Nepeta 
Climbing Rose (only the rootstock took so this needs to be replaced)
Moss or Creeping Phlox

Summer Flowering

White Drift® Rose 'Meizorland'
White Cranesbill Geranium, Geranium x cantabrigiense 'Biokovo'
Salvia nemorosa 'Lyrical White'
Veronica 'Magic Show White Wands'
Meadow Rue, Thalictrum aquilegifolium 'Nimbus White' (part-sun)
Chinese Meadow Rue, Thalictrum delavayi (part-sun)

Hydrangea paniculata 'Bobo'

Late Summer/Fall Flowering

Hydrangea 'Bobo' (in part-sun)
Hydrangea paniculata 'Bombshell' (in part-sun)
White Echinacea purpurea 'PowWow White' 
Rose of Sharon, Hibiscus syriacus 'Diana'

Flowering Lamb's Ears, Stachys byzantine and Alyssum

Foliage Plants:

Assorted Hosta (part-sun to shade)
Lamium 'White Nancy'
Non-flowering Lamb's Ears, Stachys byzantina 'Silver Carpet' 
Flowering Lamb's Ears, Stachys byzantina
Ostrich Ferns (shade)
Japanese Fern (part-sun)

The face pot is concrete but never seems to crack even though I leave it in place during the winter. I got it at the now-defunct Humber Nursery.

Container Plantings

There isn't a whole lot of space available for plants in this tiny area, but it is the first thing you see when you open the back gate, so it's nice to have flowers throughout the season. Container plantings seemed like the perfect way to add a little color.

The beige urns (with the white geraniums) are fibreglass pots I got years ago at Canadian Tire. They are wonderfully lightweight. I leave them out all winter and they have never cracked. 

Ornamental Kale, Round-leaved Oregano or Kirigami (Origanum rotundifolium), a decorative pepper and trailing Swedish Ivy (Plectranthus verticillatus).

The metal plant stand I've owned for years.  To give it a new lease on life, I applied a fresh coat of white spray paint.

I got the brown ceramic pots in a 30% off sale. I chose a neutral color because it fits with my goal to keep the area quiet. 

The Fountain

The focal point of our new privacy screen is an old cast-iron fountain. It developed a crack that couldn't be repaired, so I've turned it into a planter. Perhaps at some point, it would be nice to have the splash of a working fountain, but for now, this old lion will do. 

Rust-oleum Multicolor Textured spray paint in the color "Desert Bisque" 

After hanging on the fence for years, the paint on the cast iron lion was peeling. I cleaned, sanded and primed it. Then I sprayed it with textured paint. This took a bit of work but I was really happy with the result.

What I'd Still Like to Change

As with anything that is worthwhile, a garden takes time. At some future point, I'd like to replace the mulched path around the tree with something a little more formal. The rocks that edge the flowerbeds were free. While you can't argue with that, I feel it's a bit too cottagey for the look I was trying to achieve.

At the moment, the Magnolia tree blocks the view of the new privacy screen but at least that doesn't require a change– just time and patience for the tree to grow. Eventually, it will dominate the space casting what is now full sun back into the shade. Eventually, the plantings will have to change to suit the lower light levels. Like housework, a garden is never done!


  1. A beautiful garden, calm and peaceful. I have always wanted a white garden but lack the discipline. Might get there yet. Thank you for sharing.

    1. I love color, so I always thought I lacked the restraint to plant with just one flower color.
      What helped me stick to my plan was the challenge involved. It was fun to try to work within a restricted color palette (and still be happy with the result!)
      It also helped that this is just one small section of my overall garden. I can still express my creativity with color elsewhere in the backyard.

  2. What an enchanting garden area!

  3. Beautiful Jennifer, everything you do is in such good taste! I love the idea of a white garden but I'm sure it's hard to pull off, and you need a focal point like your trellis and lion planter. Look forward to seeing it again as it develops!

  4. Love it. I kept geraniums over the winter but the only ones that survived are white, I thought white would be boring but seeing your white garden has given me some ideas. Thanks.

    P.S. I just came across your blog a few weeks ago and I am enjoying reading the articles and the pictures are beautiful.

    1. Welcome Anne. I am so happy to hear that you are enjoying my blog.

  5. Its always so sad to lose something that you have nutured and enjoyed for years, But now you will be able to watch its replacement grow. I love the idea of the privacy fence. I may steal your idea on that. Your white flower choices are something I'm going to look for. Thank you for a wonderful read.

    1. Thank You Miss dar! I hope you will find a use for some of the ideas here.

  6. Beautiful garden! Really boosted my spirits looking at the lovely photos.

    1. With Ontario heading into yet another lockdown, I think we could all use a boost in spirits Stephanie. Hope you are well. I am really going to miss the Canadian Cancer Society Garden Tour this spring!!


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