Island hopping, Toronto-style: Toronto Garden Bloggers Fling


Seventy garden bloggers boarded a ferry earlier this month and were transported from bustling downtown Toronto (pictured above) to the idyllic lanes of the Toronto Islands (below), a mere 15 minutes across Lake Ontario but seemingly a world away.


This was the last tour on our first day of the Toronto Garden Bloggers Fling, and we were treated to a preview visit of the islanders’ private gardens, which would be open for a public tour the following weekend (June 6-7).


First we were herded together for our official Fling portrait, with the spectacular Toronto skyline in the distance. Then, with maps in hand, we were set loose, free to wander at will between Ward’s and Algonquin Islands, which are connected by a footbridge.


The islands are said to be the largest urban car-free community in North America. Traffic-free lanes lead to densely built cottages, where bikes are parked beside every door.


Bicycles with trailers are the transport of choice for residents and visitors alike. I saw these on the ferry as well.


Of course one could always sail over from Toronto.


Ownership of one of the 262 homes on the islands is coveted and strictly limited. Due to a government settlement over a land dispute, homeownership on the islands really amounts to a 99-year lease on the property and ownership of the structure only, not the land. Those wanting to buy in must sign up on a waiting list of 500 names and be prepared to wait approximately 35 years for a spot to open.


Happily, anyone can visit the islands and stroll or bike around to see the charming cottages. Everything, even construction and landscaping materials, must be brought in on bike or non-motorized cart, we were told, and trash goes out the same way, so islanders tend to be creative recyclers in their garden decor.


Gardens that were open to us were marked on our map, but many others could be enjoyed from the lanes.


As we strolled around, friendly islanders working in their gardens sometimes invited us in, even if they weren’t officially on the preview tour. This rear garden was in full spring glory (even though it was June!) with golden chain tree and alliums.


More alliums — the official flower of the Toronto Fling, by the reckoning of head planner Helen Battersby. I’d have to agree. They were everywhere.


Dark purple tulips, nearly black, harmonized nicely.


Tulip and allium combo


This house was nearly swallowed up by vines.


But its twin, nearby, was stunning, with double orange poppies echoing the color of the front door.


This one looked like a fairy tale cottage in the woods.


Small lots mean creative gardening — and a lot of container gardening.


This one pulled off a secret garden vibe.


Variegated lilac blossom


I tried to guess what this arbor was made of. It looked like metal mesh baskets wired together.


Next to the harbor, yellow sail covers on the sailboats serendipitously matched yellow iris blooming around a massive old tree stump.


Lilacs and iris beckoned me into this garden.


It was lovely.


I admired these glass dragonflies buzzing around a chartreuse-leaved hosta.


Porch pots


Bucking the island’s cottage-garden trend, this back garden was formally designed and centered around a circular pool.


Rhododendrons and spirea were showy that week, appearing in many Toronto gardens we visited.


But only the islanders get to enjoy this view — and we lucky visitors.

Coming up next: A tour of But-a-Dream, the garden of Jeannie Parker on Algonquin Island. For a look back at Sarah Nixon’s urban farm and floral demonstration, click here.

All material © 2006-2015 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Geometric design creates modern garden for entertaining


I’ve been lucky to visit a number of new-to-me gardens this spring, and I have one more to show you: Jennifer Lingvai’s contemporary, designed-for-entertaining garden in Austin’s Hyde Park neighborhood. The talented B. Jane of B. Jane Gardens designed and installed it for Jennifer, who requested a low-maintenance, mostly green garden with plenty of room to entertain friends and family.


In front, a mosaic-style paver path set in Texas black gravel leads to the front porch through a no-lawn garden of low-water plants.


Block-style planting gives the garden a contemporary look.


Gulf muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris), softleaf yucca (Y. recurvifolia), and ‘Belinda’s Dream’ roses are each planted in two evenly spaced rows and underplanted with spreading silver ponyfoot (Dichondra argentea). A Hollywood driveway (visible at right), consisting of two concrete strips set in gravel, is a green solution that reduces impervious cover and helps the property absorb rainwater.


‘Belinda’s Dream’ roses look fussy but are tough and easy-care.


An apron of gravel doubles the perceived size of the front porch and creates openness at the entry. No claustrophobia-inducing, overgrown shrubs here. An airy Anacacho orchid tree (Bauhinia lunarioides) adds height to a bed of irises at right.


As you enter the back yard via the driveway, you see a beautifully designed contemporary carport that draws your eye across a neat, rectangular lawn to the back of the garden. Additional concrete strips appear in the gravel driveway here, creating a sort of patio that aligns with a small patio with built-in seating directly across the lawn. Immediately to your left is a low, open deck — a holding space, Jennifer told me, for a future house expansion.


A closer look at the built-in seating area reveals two L-shaped seat walls with two blocky planters in the middle. A grid of concrete pavers floors the space and melds with a paver path that runs along the lawn between the deck and the carport.


The strikingly modern carport, which was designed by architect Eva Schone, doubles as a covered party space that protects guests from sun or rain. Misters built into the exposed rafters emit a light, cooling spray in summer, and a fan keeps the air moving. The enclosed section, which is clad in horizontal steel planks, with a ribbon of semi-translucent glass or plastic running along the top, contains a bathroom and storage.


An upward-swooping roof protects front-porch seating. The blue poufs were being kept dry on the chairs during my late-April visit but would normally function as ottomans or extra seating.


I love the plank-like steel siding.


Along the carport, a metal-mesh screen with built-in planters and a bench (extra seating) offers a sense of enclosure and also distracts the eye from the neighbor’s garage.


Fig ivy (Ficus pumila) climbs the metal screen and will soon create the effect of a green wall. Foxtail fern (Asparagus meyeri) adds soft texture below.


At back of the carport, a generously proportioned potting bench with a built-in sink is a delightful surprise. It doubles, Jennifer told me, as a catering station during parties.


Ivy on the back fence creates a wall of greenery.


As you come around the other side of the carport, a paver path leads you toward the deck. At right, an old clothesline was preserved for outdoor drying, with gravel neatly paving the space. Just beyond, steel planter boxes contain citrus trees.


This summer (the garden was installed last fall) Jennifer plans to hang a screen on the front wall of the carport and host outdoor-movie nights for her friends. The lawn offers space to spread out a blanket and settle in with a bowl of popcorn.


The deck provides space for additional seating and dining, at least until Jennifer decides to bump out an extension on the house. Currently the garden is accessed via a back door along the driveway side of the house, but no doubt Jennifer plans to add direct access when she remodels.


Contemporary planters on the deck hold an agave, variegated flax lily (Dianella tasmanica ‘Variegata’), and a rose.


Additional metal-mesh screening and built-in steel planters give privacy to the deck seating. Easy-care, low-water foxtail fern is massed for effect.

There are so many great ideas here. My thanks to Jennifer for allowing me to share her lovely and highly functional garden with you, and to B. Jane for the introduction!

All material © 2006-2015 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Before and after: 6 years making a garden


Bluesy garden: our upper patio, just off the living room and master bedroom

It’s always eye-opening to see how much a garden has evolved by comparing before and after images. We moved into our current home in October 2008, and I started tinkering with a few beds right away, planting old favorites dug up from my former garden, and simply observing other areas to see what I had. As anyone knows who’s made a garden, it’s a process that takes years, especially if you frequently revise plantings, as I do.

I didn’t draw out a plan for this garden, even though I recommend it and did one for my former garden. Instead I worked on one area at a time, tackling whatever demanded my immediate attention and saving up for bigger projects along the way. The garden is and always will be a work in progress, but 6-1/2 years is long enough to see changes taking shape and plants maturing.

Just a few days after moving in, I wrote an introductory post about our new home. I’m reposting those “before” pictures here, followed by “after” pics I took yesterday morning from the same perspective. I offer the contrast not to show “improvements” but simply to illustrate the process of making it my own. After all, taste is subjective, and the serene, green, easy-care “before” garden not only enticed us to buy this house but may be preferable to many people over my densely planted, spiky style. I’m grateful for the garden we inherited and am enjoying putting my own stamp on it for as long as we’re its caretakers.


Before: The front entry of our 1971 ranch right after we moved in 6-1/2 years ago


After: We added architectural interest to the facade and the low, steeply pitched roof with a gabled porch roof addition. Poured-concrete slabs in an offset pattern replaced the narrow, down-sloping, tiled front walk, eliminating a step in the process. The lawn and foundation shrubs at left are gone, switched out for a water-thrifty gravel garden. The old aluminum windows are refreshed with new, efficient double panes, and we took down the shutters for a more contemporary look. New paint and updated porch lights complete the refresh. The aging roof, which was patched when the porch roof was altered, is next on our list.


Before: Pretty but traditional-style landscaping and a lawn showing signs of drought stress


After: My containerized spikefest, with ‘Alphonse Karr’ bamboo replacing a redbud in the back corner


Before: A species Japanese maple, which I immediately fell in love with but worried would need too much water


After: Not to worry — the Japanese maple has thrived in the shade on the north side of the house, and all I’ve had to do is prune it for shape. A dry stream channeling water away from the foundation runs between the maple and the native river ferns in the foreground. I also had the back fence moved toward the front corner of the house.


Before: The island bed in the center of the circular drive was cloaked in creeping jasmine and purple lantana.


After: Today a xeric garden of yuccas, euphorbias, grasses, and other drought-tolerant plants grows there. A stepping-stone path runs across the berm (hidden by plants in this view) for access.


Before: In back, the swimming pool and private, tree-shaded lot was one of the selling points of the house for us, as our children were the perfect ages to enjoy it.


After: The large gum bumelia tree behind the pool died in the drought, opening up the area to more sun. I added painted stucco walls last fall for structure and color.


Before: Limestone retaining walls near the pool offered gardening space off the back of the house. I was eyeing this bed from day one for the ‘Whale’s Tongue’ agave I’d brought from my former garden.


After: Today Moby is happily growing in that spot and at least twice as big as he was when I moved him. I added terracing to the bed and removed the grass below it to expand the garden. The ocotillo bottle tree replaced a more stylized version last summer.


Before: A cluster of live oaks at the bottom of the garden was set off with edging of casually stacked limestone.


After: Today Mexican honeysuckle grows under the trees, and one of the new stucco walls adds structure in front.


Before: Looking up-slope along the west side of the property. A red-tip photinia hedge along a chain-link fence screened the neighbor’s pool from ours.


After: For more privacy, we had a fence constructed in front of the hedge. I removed the lawn on this side of the yard and replaced it with garden beds and a terraced, gravel path (like this path, which I laid on the other side of the yard).


Before: Behind the pool, slabs of exposed limestone make a natural floor. A shaggy bed of liriope and purple heart edged the back of the pool.


After: The limestone hasn’t changed a bit, although I have to beat back the purple heart, which wants to take over. (The standing water is from the previous night’s heavy rain.) The stucco walls and stacked-stone retaining wall behind the pool are new. I’ve planted ‘Blonde Ambition’ grama and Texas sedge in place of the liriope, which died away during the drought.


Before: I was pleased to discover a Mexican buckeye in the garden. Cast-iron plant was welcome too.


After: The buckeye has continued to mature, and my main job is pruning once a year for shape. The cast-iron plant is still there as well, behind a large, potted Texas nolina parked on one of the limestone slabs as a focal point along the lower-garden path. Dwarf Barbados cherries make a low hedge at right.


Before: Looking across the swimming pool toward the back of the house, where terraced limestone walls hold narrow garden beds. At first I worried that I’d have to remove the large Texas persimmon, which was encroaching on the house.


After: Regular pruning has allowed the persimmon to remain, and I enjoy its white-gray bark and graceful, leaning form. Aside from the persimmon and a crepe myrtle (at right), every single plant here has been replaced. From this angle it doesn’t seem like a significant bed. But it’s crucial to the experience of exploring the garden because the main path runs between this wall and the pool.


Before: A lengthwise view along the terraced bed shows a ‘Dortmund’ rose on a cedar-post support, which was nice.


After: But the rose bloomed only for a short time, and the rest of the year it was not very attractive. So I removed it and planted up the area with bold, variegated foliage plants, like ‘Alphonse Karr’ bamboo, ‘Bright Edge’ yucca, and ‘Color Guard’ yucca. A stock-tank planter that was a small container pond in my former garden was turned into a planter for height here. Two blue pots bring extra height and color.


Before: I liked the large, fuchsia-flowering crepe myrtle near the back deck. The white-trunked Texas persimmon is just behind it.


After: I widened the bed around the crepe myrtle and installed a disappearing fountain with a shallow basin to entice birds.


Before: We inherited a nice deck off the back of the house, with lattice screening at the base.


After: I soon widened the planting bed at its base. At first it was a trial spot for various plants, but over time I simplified and massed the plants for impact. We also restained the deck and lattice screening dark gray.


Before: I loved the limestone slabs jutting from the lawn here and there, although I worried that it meant the garden would be rocky and hard to dig.


After: Happily, the soil is fairly deep except right around the boulders, so digging hasn’t been a problem. I made a garden around these boulders and incorporated the flatter stones on the left into a terraced timber-and-gravel path. We pushed back the fence, visible at top-left in the “before” photo, to the front of the house to get more privacy and gardening space in back.


Before: Another boulder, shaped like a turtle head, jutted out of the concrete pool patio. A stepping-stone path led from the pool to the deck steps.


After: Here’s a wider view of the same area. The turtle-head rock is in the foreground. I laid a flagstone path in place of the stepping stones. And at right, in one of the earliest parts of the garden, I installed an 8-foot diameter stock-tank pond and laid a sawn-stone path in a sunburst shape around it. This is one of my favorite parts of the garden, and the circular pond and surrounding sunburst path look especially nice from the elevated deck.


Before: I admired the coyote fence along the back property line. Shaggy cedar posts were wired to an old chain-link fence for privacy and a woodsy look that harmonized with the greenbelt beyond the fence.


After: A few of the cedar posts have rotted, but most are hanging in there. We’ll definitely replace them as needed to retain this look. Other noticeable changes include the stucco walls and the loss of the gum bumelia tree.


Before: I liked the wide, decomposed-granite path in the lower garden.


After: But under all those trees it quickly grew overgrown with oak sprouts and ligustrum seedlings and was buried in leaf litter. So I mulched over the path for a more natural look and ran a stepping-stone path instead. I also removed the pineapple guavas that were planted along the back fence. They suffered in the drought and also from lack of sunlight. Various plants have taken their place.


Before: Looking up toward the pool patio from the lower garden path. A rock-strewn, narrow, grassy slope provided trip-hazard access to the lower garden.


After: Initially I used found rocks in the garden to build steps between the lower garden and the pool. But last fall I was able to redo the steps with large boulders while having the stucco walls built.


Before: Another limestone expanse between the lawn and the lower garden


After: The limestone’s still there (at right), but the lawn is long gone.

There were other parts of the move-in garden I didn’t show in that introductory 2008 post because they weren’t particularly interesting — just large areas of lawn. But I worked on those too over the years and today enjoy gardens where there used to be just grass. Here’s a quick run-through.


This is one of the more recent parts of the garden: the east side path and garden. I started out with a decomposed-granite path and garden beds for grassy, deer-resistant plants. More recently I had the lattice fence built for a sense of enclosure.


Earlier this spring I made mirrored trellises to add depth to the long, blank wall of the garage, staining them to match the new-stained fence.


Looking lengthwise across the front yard, the dominant feature is a Berkeley sedge lawn. A giant hesperaloe anchors one end near a cluster of live oaks. A broad, curving path of decomposed granite leads through the front garden.


The same view in reverse, from the driveway looking toward the lattice fence. The meadowy sedge lawn at right needs much less water than a traditional lawn and mowing only once or twice a year.


Closer to the house, I had a limestone retaining wall built to tame a slippery slope on a natural berm alongside the driveway and foundation. It gave the house room to breathe and opened up space for additional pathways through the garden.


On the west side of the garden, I took out all but one small, semicircular patch of lawn and planted a deer-resistant garden of irises, grasses, dyckia, sotol, and yucca.


Finally, as you enter the back garden on the west side, you pass through a work/storage space and then come to the upper patio, along one edge of which I built this cinderblock wall planter filled with succulents.

I’m kind of tired now as I think back through all these garden projects, and my wallet feels a lot lighter. But it’s more rewarding than buying clothes, jewelry, or a car, so what can I say? I love to make gardens! I hope you’ve enjoyed the retrospective. As you busily make your own garden, remember to take photos and document the process so you can look back and see all you’ve accomplished.

All material © 2006-2015 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Follow