A GARDENER FOR ALL SEASONS
Spring garden is a profusion of colour and heights and shapes, looking very natural
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.