Marjorie's eLetter for SPring 2011

Spring 2011 E-Letter
By Marjorie Harris


I apologize for the length of time it's taken for me to get to you, but it's been a hellish winter winding down into my husband's heart surgery on April 13th. I'm thrilled to say he's at home now and though not terribly frisky. But like gardeners, we live in hope.

I know it's spring, not by temperature but by the number of birds ripping the exfoliating bark off the Heptacodium miconoides which grows outside my office window. The place is full of birds darting about each taking a turn to gather material for their new nests.

The garden as she is now. This is what I think of a serious burgeoning time. It might look sparse but I'm not seeing a lot of deaths this year which is very different from last.

Front garden: I ripped things out last year and this is its first stage.  Much more planting to go on later in the season.

Front garden: I ripped things out last year and this is its first stage. Much more planting to go on later in the season.

















Back garden:  I like to take this picture in each season just to give an idea of the extraordinary growth plants have in a given year.

Back garden: I like to take this picture in each season just to give an idea of the extraordinary growth plants have in a given year.















The endless, endless sense of winter leads us to dream magnificent dreams about new plans for the garden. Spring rains are already here. But remember that the soil is still cool and you must make sure it's warmed up enough before plunking plants into the ground. Wait until you can sit on the soil with your bare bottom as the old farmers used to recommend (use an arm).


This is a situation which all city gardeners have to cope with. No getting away from it. But shade is what we relish in the middle of a long hot summer. So if you feel you have a shade area, or have a shady garden, here's what to do:

First: hire a really good arbourist. If you live around Toronto I can recommend Derek Welsh of Authentic Tree Care. Have a look at the work your arbourist has done. They are expensive but I think the cost is more than worthwhile. Here's what should happen:

An arbourist should come and evaluate what you can do to limb up (cut out limbs that are too low and light grabbing); clean out trees and shrubs to improve light conditions both in and around the plants.

He'll do this without using clamps which can damage the tree. Good arbourists are so agile, it's thrilling to watch. And it's astonishing how much this simple act of cleaning out will change things. Even dappled light will expand your repertoire of plants beyond the usual hostas.

Second: put a huge lashing of compost, manure or combination of same around the shady areas. Most shade plants need lots of humus and that's the organic stuff in the top four to six inches of soil. It's where feeder roots will get their nourishment.

Third: make sure the drainage is good. If not, it's best to dig things up and start all over again. Add lots and lots of organic matter to the soil to lighten it up. Plant a little higher than the soil level and pack lots of compost around each plant. If you feel the soil is too heavy, add a few bags of horticultural sand. It will change the texture of the soil though won't make a lot of difference to the drainage.

Then plant up with some of the most gorgeous plants there are. I really get impatient when people think that shade is boring. It's not. There are so many subtle hues in the blooms, small moments, great foliage.

This is a starter list for a city shade garden:


Calycanthus floridus  is a native shrub with a magenta flower.

Calycanthus floridus is a native shrub with a magenta flower.

There was a cultivar called 'Venus' around last year ( and I bought every one he had left over. (So I'll be eager to see how they fared).

You can find them at Lost Horizons for extremely reasonable prices.










Almost any dogwood does well in part shade and every garden needs several dogwoods. Fothergilla gardenii 'Blue Mist' lovely little shrub with white bottlebrush spring blooms. Clethra alnifolia make sure you've got some acidic soil to plunk this one in. If not it doesn't thrive. The same for Rhododendrons and Azaleas: give them the right soil and they'll look great most of the year. And protect them from blistering March sun. Viburnums do really well in part shade: have a look at the blog for a shot of the Viburnum bodnantense in bloom. Boxwoods and yews are striking shade plants and give a strong year-round formn. Keep them well-laced with compost.


Amsomia tabermontaena

Chelone glabra has a brilliant pink bloom.C. obliqua 'Alba' put white blooms. These turtleheads do have a resemblance to the common namesake and there are now new cultivars.

Mertensia virginicus with its bright blue spring flowers is a beauty which will spread however slowly.

Pulmonarias of all colours, dots and variegations My favourite is 'Majeste'

Tiarella spp is a magnificent species and you can find a ton of them at lost horizons; he has the best collection I've seen.

Brunnera 'Jack Frost' is still one of the finest perennial shade plants you can find. It has soft silver tones and a gorgeous blue spring flowers.

Tricyrtis hirta is probably one of the best autumnal plants there is. You can't have too many of various species.

If you want to try a challenge or two get yourselves hooked on native plants. Native orchids (Cyprepedium spp) are fantastic as are all of the trilliums. But they are tricky devils. They set up a symbiotic relationship with the mycchorizae in the soil and until that's happening (add lots of organic matter) they don't do anything much at all. It's worthwhile researching this phenomenon. The magic of nature never fails to amaze me, and discovering this symbiotic relationship between plant roots and the soil is significant.

Look also at for alpine plants that do well in the shade. And be sure to see the video of Harvey and Esther's 6-year-old grandson making a rock garden. It is funny and enchanting and very educational. You can order plants from them. Great stuff. And his catalogue is a knockout.

The other really good site especially if you live far from good nurseries if Dugald also has a lovely plant newsletter.


I've had many queries about creating a black border. Here are some suggestions for plants which work well, are hardy and really lovely. This list is based on the Black Border of Tom Deacon who has one of the finest gardens in the country and who's done this so well. A black border can give you respite in a hyperactive garden, be a truly dramatic contrast with everything. Even having small area with a group of black foliage plants makes an intensely fascinating shadow in the over all design of a garden.

Structural Plants:

The middle storey:

Lower storey

Don't get too anxious about planting early. Woody plants can go in any time, but perennials really do need some warmth in the soil; and annuals like real warmth. Wait until it's 10C on a regular basis.

I'm going to be doing the Globe Plant of the Week column again this year; and I have a planting guide coming up in the Life section. But mostly I'm here at home or making new gardens for people. And I promise to get more material on my web site as soon as things settle down.


If you need my services:  email me.

Yours Marjorie



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