ISSUE 29  |  The Simple Life

Garden Visit: At Home With Canada’s Favorite Garden Writer

July 21, 2015 10:00 AM

BY Marjorie Harris

Gardening is not in my family or in my blood. But one fine morning nearly 30 years ago, the sun slanted seductively into my Toronto backyard and my garden suddenly seemed the most glorious place on earth. I knew that I could do something interesting here and–ho, ho–I would have complete control. In very short order, I moved from being a daily gardener to an all-day gardener.

My garden measured 19 by 136 feet, and I decided to divide the space into three sections (back then I didn’t know they were called garden rooms). Each one would be dedicated to plants that thrive under different conditions: morning sun, shade at noon, and afternoon sun. For me, that was a major revelation: Different plants need different light conditions.

Then, without even contemplating what a cataclysmic change it would make to my life, I switched from general journalism to only writing about my garden. Eventually that turned into 15 garden books for Canadians and one for everyone, Botanica North America (published in 2003, it’s out of print but used copies are available, from $8.66 on Amazon).

Photography by Andreas Trauttmansdorff for Gardenista.

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Above: The view from my dining room, looking toward the back fence.

My three garden rooms are the House Garden, where Japanese maples and evergreens abound; the Woodland Garden, home to massive hostas, hellebores, and arums; and Le Jardin de Refusé, which houses a small “hospital” for clients’ plants that need to be nursed back to health.

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Above: Le Jardin de Refusé started out as a place to put stuff I couldn’t deal with in other parts of the garden. It now has Japanese maples, Liquidambar “˜Slender Silhouette,’ and, opposite each other, a Liriodendron tulipifera “˜Fastigiata’ and Cercidiphyllym japonicum, a native and an exotic tree that look as if they belong together.

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Above: My Berberis thunbergii “˜Helmond Pillar,’ a great plant that no one seems to propagate any more.

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Above: In the Woodland Garden, I went though a collect-every-hosta-possible phase. Now I live with this choice: The hostas get massive, I forget to divide them in spring, and then I can’t bear to whack at them later on. Despite their size, the hostas are in scale with everything else that lopes along.

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Above: The view from the House Garden, with my house in the background. In the foreground is my first Japanese maple, an Acer palmatum “˜Dissectum Atropurpureum,’ which I bought 25 years ago for $20. It would cost thousands now. It needs constant haircuts and is pretty much perfect.

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Above: Closeup of my Chiononanthus virginicus, or fringe tree.

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Above: A Sciadopitys verticillata grows against the fence.

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Above: A ginkgo tree (L) beneath the Japanese maples, and (R) a closeup of the ginkgo’s leaves.

As I changed, so did my garden. Now I know how to layer plants, what grows where, and when things will bloom. Back then I only knew how to love the plants. But my eye had been honed by years of working in an art gallery: Scale, harmony, and planes were things I understood. So why not apply them to gardening? This was like collecting and displaying sculpture. Gradually, I learned that succession is everything in garden design.

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Above: A variegated dogwood lends pattern and texture to the garden.

Over the years I’ve become more interested in foliage, patterns, and small moments rather than swathes of blooming color. I have a passion for trees–especially gingkoes, Japanese maples, dogwoods, anything native to the Carolinian forest. It’s impossible to have too many of these in a garden. I indulge my love of perennials when I design other people’s gardens: Let them do the deadheading. I just want to watch my living sculptures grow old with me.

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Above: Variegated hostas (R) and Hakonechloa (L) against a background of foliage.

I’ll buy any plant designated for any zone (I’m in US growing zone 5) and try to make it comfortable. But I’m fighting the impossible: I live on a flood plain once held in check by hundreds of trees. Most of these have long since been replaced by parking pads and patios. The flood happens annually and we’re perpetually devising new ways to deal with it. I am Queen of the Sump Pumps. Then the water drifts away and we have dry shade the rest of the year. If a plant survives in my garden, it will survive anywhere.

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Above: Pergolas designed by Toronto-based Earth Inc. support shade-tolerant Clematis “˜Betty Corning’ and C. fargesiodes.

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Above: And then there’s my front garden . . .

Everyone lives cheek by jowl here in downtown Toronto, and we respect each other. Except for the guy who ripped out his garden and put in plastic grass. Him we don’t speak to.

For other Canadian gardens, see Earth Inc. in Toronto: A River Runs Through It and Steal This Look: An Airy Outdoor Shower.  And read more about Marjorie’s garden at Marjorie Harris.