Containers in a Cold Climate ? Anatomy of a Border ? Sources

Jackie Dean was born with an eye for colour. Whether she?s organizing a giant vase of freshly cut flowers, decorating her house or planning the garden, colour comes first. Her involvement is so complete that it?s possible to drift in and out of her house without any sense of passing from one to another. The garden reflects this passion and when you think of being blind-sided by beauty, then you have Jackie Dean?s brilliant border.

The Deans, Jackie and Don, live in Calgary. She started gardening in Toronto more than twenty years ago where it?s too easy, says Jackie. To really know about the problems of gardening, try Calgary. Given the altitude (3500 feet above sea level), temperatures in winter can be 40? below one week, a Chinook hits, and warms up to 2?C (35F); in summer it can be 20?C during the day and drop to 4?C or 6?C at night. ?We never put away our winter clothes,? she laughs.

Though the house is in the middle of the city, it is set far enough back from the road to have the feeling of country seclusion. A sense of privacy was pretty much complete when the construction was finished and she had to bring in only two trees to balance the landscape design she had in mind. The rest was mature evergreens plus ten flowering crab apples that make it a vision in spring. ?One week in May? she muses ?our ground floor bathroom is bathed in pink, reflecting all this colour.?

In spite of climatic difficulties she has a herbaceous border that?s the perfect match to her English cottage-inspired house with deeply-hipped cedar roof emulating the look of thatch. The diamond-paned bow windows speak of elegant afternoon teas. She designed the house herself and knew that she wanted to capitalize on the natural slope of the land. The swimming pool was fitted into a dip and the pool house which echoes the main house makes an attractive focal point from the patio.

She landscaped the year after construction and made one major mistake. The area around the pool was cut back to form an amphitheatre of soil around one end creating an imposing rock garden. Every rock was chosen from local fields to be on the same contour as the rise. Then they hired a cherry picker to place each one in the perfect site. The design pleases her and it?s a graceful way to enhance the pool area. The error was in not replacing the terrible soil and it?s been one long struggle to ever since to keep things growing up to her lofty weed-free standards.

When she started the long border in 1988, she didn?t make any mistakes. And just as well since it is viewed from every room on the north side of the house. She began this cutting border because she wanted forty buckets of flowers to give to friends and to have bouquets in every room.

?When I decorated the house,? she says ?I found I like things large such as big vases filled with delphiniums and lilies. So I knew that?s what I?d like in my garden.? Three years later she realized that the colours in her borders were the same colours she used to decorate the house and became intensely aware of how well this works inside and out.

The long border was created on graph paper with a plan of the exterior of the house sketched in. She then sorted out the shape and length of the border needed for the proper scale with the house. Days were spent on a chart of tall, medium and short plants, the colours and the season of bloom for each one. ?I believe you must have a plan. I was an experienced enough gardener having done it for about 20 years,? she says ?but I learned doing it this way.? That autumn, they hired a bobcat to dig down two feet and added a good topsoil and compost mix. In spring she added bone meal and started planting.

She refers to poring over books illustrating English borders and found they included everything she loved. Any garden evolves, this one is no exception. She had pots and pots of much adored bright red geraniums and began to find them garish. Along with anything orange, they were banished from the garden. Strong colours like these no longer worked for her.

Jackie Dean has a strong belief in planting the right plants. Peonies work well in this climate, as do lilies. In fact if she could have only one plant, it would be a collection of lilies. She has some late-blooming daylilies and a few roses with R. ?Adelaide Hoodless? being her prize.

?It?s such a large garden and colour is so important that alpines wouldn?t do here at all. I don?t get excited by one-of-a-kind special plants. I go with the more common plants,? she says ?. I like drifts of them, and any little tiny plants would look ridiculous. I try two or three different ones each year along the classic lines. A lot of people don?t like petunias and geraniums because they are too common. But the prime motive for me in gardening is colour. If I didn?t have petunias and geraniums I wouldn?t have started gardening here.?

Since the garden is in a hail corridor, everything is staked with peony grid rings or bamboo poles lashed together. She doesn?t baby anything except perhaps the roses which she fertilizes and gives some winter protection. Since all of the plants are herbaceous, she cuts them back to about 6 inches from the ground in autumn. Once they are covered with snow, the whole area blends in like a pristine lawn. What she doesn?t want to see in a climate like this with approximately 9 months of winter, is stuff all bundled up and looking dreary.

She has a good memory made better by the shoe box. Every year she collects the labels from every plant she buys and puts them in an envelope which is then filed in a shoe box. She also keeps a journal in a looseleaf binder with pictures of the border in each season accompanied by notes on what works and what doesn?t.

Jackie Dean doesn?t moan about gardening in a cold climate. For her, the short season is ideal. ?I have another life besides the garden.? she asserts ?By the time the season is over, I?ve had it. I want to be off doing other things.? Like thinking up new colour schemes for next year.

Containers in a Cold Climate

Jackie Dean has groupings of Martha Washington geraniums edging the driveway and the swimming pool. Here are some of her suggestions for preserving containers in cold climates.

  1. Do everything on as large a scale as possible. Instead of one pot, do six. She buys her from Chinatown for $30 and never bothers to bring them indoors.
  2. To preserve pots, she lines them with the plastic 6-pack containers annuals come in from the nursery (filled with annuals); about 10 will do for a large container up to 18 inches across. A couple on the bottom and the rest around the sides. This will create an air pocket and make room for water to expand when it freezes.
  3. Fill with soil and then plant. Every year take off the top 6 inches of soil and replace it; and every three years dump the whole thing out and refresh it. Annuals don?t need much soil and they have about a foot in each of these.
  4. By September she eases up on watering and at the end of the months the plants are finished.
  5. Fertilize pots and roses with RX30.

Anatomy of a Border

The principles for a colourful border:

  1. It must relate to and be in scale with the house.
  2. Make a planting plant with all three seasons in mind; work on height first, then colour, then bloom time.
  3. Know your soil and get more. Add compost.
  4. Choose plants keeping in mind how much time you?ll be able to spend.
  5. Allow one end to mirror the other in the plantings.


  • Vale?s Greenhouses in Black Diamond, AB
  • Lilydale Lilies, Box 54, Stony Plain AB, T0E 2S0