Spring gar­den is a pro­fu­sion of colour and heights and shapes, look­ing very nat­u­ral

The Hamilton Spectator - - GO - Rob Howard lives and gar­dens in Hamilton. Find him on Face­book at Rob Howard: Gar­den writer, or email him at gar­den­writer@bell.net

It was Joan Wal­lace’s idea for me to come by her gar­den to see the daf­fodils in bloom.

But her email hinted at more than just those glo­ri­ous har­bin­gers of spring, and I was in­trigued.

I was blown away by the lovely, mostly nat­u­ral­ized gar­den that she and part­ner Phil Davis have made on the large cor­ner lot around their Burling­ton home. There are mul­ti­ple parts, some of which will come into their best in the weeks ahead.

But the ex­pan­sive wood­land gar­den at one side of the prop­erty and the hill­side gar­den of mixed bulbs and ground cover is, as I write this, jaw-drop­pingly pretty. In the late af­ter­noon, when the sun back­lights the gar­den, it be­comes spec­tac­u­lar.

Joan is a plant lover, self-taught in the ways of gar­den­ing and botany, and tosses off botanical (Latin) names of plants with aban­don. (She says it’s a habit from her years of mem­ber­ship in the Rock Gar­den So­ci­ety, where botanical names are used be­cause com­mon names vary so much across the in­ter­na­tional mem­ber­ship.)

She’s hugely en­thu­si­as­tic about plants, an ex­u­ber­ant host and guide to her gar­den and, to coin a phrase, an ex-ex­pa­tri­ate (raised in Montreal’s NDG neigh­bour­hood, spent a cou­ple of decades in up­state New York, and re­turned to Canada, to Burling­ton, 19 years ago). It’s a cliché to sug­gest Joan has a Mon­trealer’s joie de vivre and sense of style but she is, re­ally, a to­tal charmer.

Her gar­den is full of in­trigu­ing plants, shrubs and trees, as well as more com­mon­place ones used in clever ways. For the hill­side gar­den, she has bought used bulbs from the Royal Botanical Gar­dens and ev­ery year haunts gar­den cen­tres for end-of-sea­son sales. She plants the bulbs at vir­tual ran­dom, not car­ing much about what colour or height goes where. The stakes she placed the pre­vi­ous spring mark empty spots that need bulbs.

The re­sult in spring is a pro­fu­sion of colour and heights and shapes, look­ing very nat­u­ral and all tied to­gether by vast swaths of deep sky blue grape hy­acinths and a car­pet of three kinds of vinca (peri­win­kle), which at the mo­ment is push­ing up its own lovely vi­o­let flow­ers.

There are as many va­ri­eties of daf­fodils, I would guess, as there are colours of tulips.

Joan likes plants that nat­u­ral­ize, al­though she gives them a hand.

“I spread the grape hyacinth around when it sends up leaves in the fall, but it also self-seeds,” she says.

The wood­land gar­den has, at this time of year, many bulbs but also a wider va­ri­ety of plants: helle­bore (which Joan calls “pro­mis­cu­ous” for their ease in cross­breed­ing to pro­duce new colours); prim­u­las, a.k.a. prim­roses; brun­nera with its tiny for­get-me-not blue flow­ers; celandine, a peren­nial wild­flower cov­ered with but­ter­cup-yel­low flow­ers now that spreads eas­ily but dis­ap­pears into the ground af­ter its bloom pe­riod.

There are pe­onies, both herba­ceous (grow­ing fresh from the ground each spring) and tree pe­onies with their woody stems and shrub­like form. There’s arum with ar­row­head leaves and lily-like flow­ers to come; ly­ch­nis or rose cam­pion; clema­tis vines clam­ber­ing through the smaller trees; and a thriv­ing wis­te­ria vine, thick with flower buds, cov­er­ing a per­gola over a rear cor­ner deck over­look­ing the wood­land gar­den.

Ferns and Solomon’s seal, wild gin­ger and thick-leafed but­ter­bur (pet­a­sites), be­go­nia and anemones all grow in healthy pro­fu­sion.

The “ar­chi­tec­ture” of a gar­den (and most of its win­ter in­ter­est) is pro­vided by its trees and shrubs, and Joan’s gar­den has an ar­ray of those. The largest tree, which pro­vides shade in sum­mer to the wood­land gar­den, is an ash. It’s been in­oc­u­lated against the re­lent­lessly de­struc­tive ash bor­ers and is com­ing well into leaf now, but Joan fears it is a los­ing bat­tle and that the tree has not many years left. There’s a catalpa that’s also show­ing its age.

The good news, though, is a tri­colour beech (one of my favourite trees) that’s about to burst into leaf; a labur­num (golden chain tree) that Joan thought she’d lost but is now send­ing up healthy new growth: flow­ers buds, from the roots; and a Per­sian iron­wood tree (par­ro­tia per­sica) with an in­ter­est­ing shape that is best loved for its mul­ti­coloured leaves in the au­tumn. She has also planted dog­woods (cor­nus kousa), Ja­panese maples, burn­ing bush and an acer gre­sium (pa­per­bark maple) with per­haps the loveli­est peel­ing bark you’ll find any­where in this area.

The other notable gar­den space in front of the house is a care­fully thought-out bor­der that shows the range of colours, tex­tures, shapes and sizes of land­scape conifers. The bor­der is brack­eted by a few small de­cid­u­ous trees and the ef­fect, with­out a sin­gle flower in sight, is stun­ning. It’s proof that fo­liage alone can make a gar­den.

There’s so much more. I’ve barely men­tioned the back gar­den, where Joan dug out a large, nat­u­ral­ized pond af­ter reread­ing saved ar­ti­cles on water gar­dens. It’s em­braced by a rock wall/gar­den she built; she has also planted dozens of trees, shrubs and more peren­ni­als.

Then there’s a small area for wall art and a ham­mock. And “The Ed­i­fice” — a lat­ticed and mir­rored home to roses and clema­tis, vinca and day lilies. It re­placed a shed that Joan dis­misses as too ugly to stay.

And the sculp­ture — no proper name — that Phil Davis welded to­gether. It’s bright blue, con­sists of a but­ter­fly and flo­ral shapes, stands more than three me­tres tall and was built to give some­thing in­ter­est­ing to the view out the liv­ing room win­dow. They got the idea on a visit to West Palm Beach in Florida, al­though the strik­ing blue (I love it) is uniquely theirs.

“I try to get some­thing for ev­ery sea­son,” she says, “from the be­gin­ning of spring to late Oc­to­ber.”

I’m go­ing back to see Joan’s gar­den in sum­mer and I’m hope­ful she will al­low oth­ers to see it dur­ing Hamilton Spectator Open Gar­den Week.

Stay tuned for that. This is a gar­den worth visiting.


Joan Wal­lace in her beau­ti­ful Burling­ton gar­den.


Above: The rough, flaky bark of a pa­per­bark maple. Top: Daf­fodils and tulips abound in the front yard.

Above: The sculp­ture that Phil Davis welded to­gether is bright blue, con­sists of a but­ter­fly and flo­ral shapes, stands more than three me­tres tall and was built to give some­thing in­ter­est­ing to the view out the liv­ing room win­dow.

Above left: Joan Wal­lace dug out a large, nat­u­ral­ized pond in her back gar­den that’s em­braced by a rock wall/gar­den she built. She has planted dozens of trees, shrubs and more peren­ni­als there. Bot­tom left: The back­yard pa­tio area.

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