Must be spring!

real estate King City

cat and delphiniums

It’s FINALLY spring in Ontario, and I can tell by the undeserved spike in page views I’m getting on this blog as people google for gardening ideas. I say undeserved because I haven’t posted in AGES.  Why have I been so slack in my commitment to share my gardening, design and decor ideas with you?

As regular readers may know, I am a lawyer with a tendency to jump into all manner of construction, design and gardening projects.  My overall fixation with houses has led friends to encourage me to go into real estate as a career, and strangers to ask if they can list with me.  In truth, this made some sense and I am now a licensed realtor–one that will be only too happy to tell clients how to pretty up their houses for the market, as I’m sure you can imagine.

So now I have a website and blog to maintain for the purpose of my real estate business, and plenty else to keep me entertained.  However, I am not ready to give up this blog since I will always remain a passionate gardener–probably just a less verbose blogging gardener.

Please go check out my website and my real estate blog as well, and sign up for more of my thoughts on the real estate market, homes in general and the beautiful King City area.


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First Place Furniture

My daughter recently moved into a new place, and for the first time has been quite inspired to decorate and personalize it.  To help out, I dug through the basement and offered her some Craigslisted treasures that she could use her creative powers to transform and beautify.  Unfortunately, I do not have “before pictures” but trust me, they were aesthetically doomed!  (What am I doing with a basement full of random Craigslisted furniture?  Don’t ask!)

side table This little side table, above, was many decades-old, scratched-up, dowdy brown wood veneer. It did, however, have nice details and trim.

Since her new room is on the small side, and since she wants to paint her walls a colour (either grey or mauve), she settled on white paint.

For a successful paint job on old furniture:

1.     First wash thoroughly with TSP to increase adhesion.  Rinse.  Sand with approximately 100 grit sandpaper.  Wipe to remove grit from sanding.  Using painter’s tape, tape off brass hardware feet in this case, or any parts that should not have paint on them.

2.     Then, paint with an adhesive primer such as Benjamin Moore Fresh Start primer.  We are never without a pail of this product in the house!  (Note, I really am not paid by Benjamin Moore; I just suggest the products I know and trust!)  I recommend turning furniture upside down and starting with the hard-to-reach areas for all coats of paint.  That way, when you turn over the piece, you will smooth out any paint that is runny or drippy and the visible areas will get the last look.  Let dry according to primer instructions.

3.     Then, sand again lightly to smooth and remove any bumps.  After this, we used a special paint intended for harder-wearing areas such as cabinetry.  Urethane Acrylic “Cabinet Coat” is a Benjamin Moore owned line of paints which replaces oil-based paints which were formerly used for cabinetry and furniture but are now banned in Canada for health and environmental reasons.  For more information check here.

4.     For best results, let dry according to product instructions then repeat the previous sanding and painting, always starting under the piece and finishing on top.  For furniture with drawers, only paint the sides of the drawers, which aren’t visible when the  drawers are shut, with one coat of primer or paint.  This prevents the drawers from getting sticky and difficult to open.

applying map to furniture

6.     My daughter liked the recessed surface of the small table and it inspired her to personalize the piece further by adding a map of places she’d like to do more traveling.  National Geographic is a good resource for this sort of thing.  Apply a map like this with adhesive spray. available from craft stores.  Before spraying, tape off the painted areas that will not be covered by the map, using low-adhesive painter’s tape so that the spray does not ruin the finish of the adjacent paint.

7.     Let dry, remove painter’s tape and finally, apply several coats of clear resin over the map to protect it from the inevitable effects of coffee mugs, keychains and so on.  Voila!photo 4

This sweet little sideboard had a multitude of colours on it, reminiscent of the 80s (cream with forest green and red). It had lost its cupboard doors long before I met it.  Staying inspired by the eternal words of a legendary decor guru:

Elsie de Wolfe

the same paint techniques were applied to this piece.  Daughter dear intends to find baskets to put inside the door openings for a chic, modern look, but in the meantime it is a handy home for a voracious reader’s ever-expanding collection of books.

Expanding upon the European travel theme, she then clipped photos and created a collage inside of each of the small drawers on this unit.

furniture project

The collage is finished by using a couple of coats of a water-based, non-yellowing sealer like the one at step 7 in this post.

So, for anyone moving into a new home, student housing or otherwise trying to live elegantly and make ends meet at the same time, cast-off furniture can be beautifully transformed to create a look of chic comfort.  I am looking forward to seeing the finished room!

These pieces are nice enough to last for many years of enjoyment and could move to a cottage one day when your ship comes in!

Follow me by clicking on the follow button in the right margin, and on Twitter @patinaandcompan

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Not Your Mama’s Onions

Allium, flowering onion, comes in a variety of sizes, heights and versions of purple, as well as bloom times.  Allium Giganteum is very tall and large and blooms slightly later than the ones shown below.  Allium Christophii, Star of Persia, is shorter with a larger flower and is a show-stopper in more compact gardens.

Allium English garden

Allium in my May garden

Allium have a stunning architectural look to them and can be a focal point of a calm, serene, modern-style garden or they can be an early spark of excitement in a classic English-style garden like the one in front of my house.

Allium in May

Allium are sun-lovers but tolerate a bit of shade.  Plant them where, once they are done their show, other plants will grow up in front of their fading foliage and let them blend in, for example, behind a boxwood hedge or a mid- to late-summer blooming perennial.  In my garden I have them behind daylilies, speedwell and Artemesia “Silver King” which are all still relatively short at this point in the season and have their moments of glory later than the Allium.  If you get the bloom times of the varieties co-ordinated, they pair stunningly with Nepeta, Catmintand are great for keeping squirrels somewhat at bay.

I don’t like to have too many things blooming with the allium; however I do love the look of gold foliage with their purple flowers.  Above you can see them with Goldflame Spirea and elsewhere in this garden but not in the photos Tradescantia “Blue and Gold”, Spiderwort, captures the morning sun like a jewel.

When designing gardens that I know small children will be living with, I try to incorporate allium for their ball-like, unique shape which I think is engaging for children.  What child can’t benefit from being drawn into nature a little more these days?  If you have enough, they also make beautiful cut flowers.

Giant Flowering OnionAllium English garden

Are you looking for garden ideas to complement a typical North American subdivision home?  Look for my next post in which I show the transformation of one such lot with lush and colourful foliage.

Allium Toronto

I design gardens in the Greater Toronto area.  Check out a few examples above under “Garden” and follow me on Twitter @patinaandcompan

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Endless Winter

Two years ago spring came early to Southern Ontario, with me posting snowdrops and forsythia buds ready to force indoors in the earliest days of February.  This year, it seems that winter will never end.  The minus double-digit temperatures have been almost constant for the past two months and there is so much accumulated snow heaped up in front of the houses that I am not even prepared to venture outside to take pictures of it for you.  It makes last year’s deep freeze look like child’s play.

Christmas decorating is long gone, Amaryllis blooms have faded.  While we wait for signs of life ouside, we have to content ourselves with making a little indoor spring to pull us through.

indoor spring planter

Spring bulbs are compatible with the remnants of winter decorating.  I kept snow-tipped faux evergreens and berries in this pot, together with variegated annual ivy that I overwintered indoors, and just added budding tulips from the local grocery store.

overwintering plants indoors

My sunroom is overflowing with plants, many of which are overwintering indoors as well, which allows me to sit with my hot tea and kid myself a little about the barren situation outside!

It is, however, a great time to give your indoor plants a little TLC, something that would never happen in my world if spring came early enough to go outdoors.

Did you have an unusually severe winter this year?  Hang in there, spring has to come eventually!

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Fall Garden Inspiration

This is the perfect time of year to get inspired about your fall garden.  Ontario and the East will soon be brilliant with fall colour and our gardens will be aglow in this vibrant backdrop.  In other parts of North America, however, the maples and other trees do not turn the same intense oranges and reds, so gardeners have to be more imaginative about getting fall colour into their gardens.

fall garden

Japanese Maples, blue foliage and grasses create dramatic contrasts

Last year, my mother sent me photos of her (always) new and improved garden in its fall glory, and I have saved them until now to share with you.  Frequent readers will have seen this garden before in my blog.

fall colour in the garden

Looking at this photo last week caused me to rush out and buy Japanese Blood Grass (foreground, centre). A terra-cotta pot containing one of the new, peachy heucheras and orange daisies (not visible) add more layers of personality and interest

Throughout her garden, I am struck by the way the blue-grey foliage is a dramatic accent to the fall colours–blue spruce varieties, blue oat grass and similar accents.

japanese anemone

Honorine Jobert Japanese Anemone, centre, one of relatively few flowering plants in this nonetheless very colourful fall garden

Japanese Anemones are wonderful fall flowers, for their delicate form and tough cold-hardiness.  They will wave their pretty blooms until a hard frost, unlike few other flowers with such a delicate look!

fall planter

Coleus, canna and friends with the visual softness of terra cotta

fall japanese garden

Small and large evergreens mixed in with fall foliage. Gravel and rocks add still more texture to this lush mix.

Grasses and Japanese maples are some of the major players in this display.  Notice that her backdrop is essentially composed of evergreens!

For more fall garden ideas, see this post and this one.

Who inspires you?  Do you have favourite plants to dramatize your fall landscape?  Please share below and click on the “follow” button, top right, to get my next landscaping or decor idea right in your inbox.

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Artsy Peonies

As if peonies aren’t stunning enough, my daughter has subjected her latest peony photos to  some artful tweaking, so I thought I would share these with you.

photoshopped peonies

Peonies bloomed for an unusually long time in Southern Ontario this year, due to the cooler-that-usual, overcast weather.  That’s good, though, as other dramatic summer flowers are late this year.

 coloured peonies

Don’t they look surreal?  Which version of the peonies do you prefer?

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Delphiniums are Mid-Summer Beauty Queens

For a dramatic, classic showpiece for the back of your summer garden, there are few plants more perfect than traditional delphiniums.

delphinium season

Delphiniums, centre, with Aruncus Sylvestris, Goatsbeard, at right

These beauties are in season right now. For a classic look, I like the “Black Knight” and “Pacific Giants” varieties, in a range of blues to purples.

With Daylily and Artemesia ``Silver King``

With Daylily and Artemesia “Silver King”

Although their main bloom season is June-July, cut them back and fertilize after their first bloom, and you will likely see a late, but less exhuberant show in September.

Irises, delphiniums, hardy geranium and Hemerocallis “Happy Returns”, Daylily

They pair well with all of the classic English Garden plants, but especially with white Campanula, Nepeta, Catmint and the spiky, bluish leaves of Irises that will have finished blooming.

What’s your favourite mid-summer garden show-stopper?

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Practical Spring Gardening Tips You May or May Not Have Heard

There are spring gardening tips and lists out there in books and in the blogosphere, as well as everywhere else.  If you need to know what to do next, go ahead and refer to any of those many sources.  Or check out my posts, like this one, on the same sorts of topics.

Spring flowers

This is my list of other tips: practical things I’ve learned that may or may not be standard advice, but that I think are worth considering.  I had intended to publish this post earlier in the Spring, but better late than never . . . .

1.     Spring comes on suddenly in much of Canada (Victoria readers skip to number three 🙂 ), and your back and knees have been relaxing and losing strength and tone all winter–three to six months’ worth!  So take it easy.  Like a marathon runner, gymnast or weight lifter, pace yourself by beginning your garden work in small doses so as not to end up hurt and forced to watch the weeds grow from indoors.

2.   For the same reasons, take care of your skin.  Cancers have been on the rise since people had easy access to flights and could go from no sun exposure in a Canadian winter to  full day, all-out U.V. exposure in three or four hours.  Gradual exposure again is the word here.  Gardening is a great way to get a little colour and Vitamin D, but an easy way to get a terrible burn, especially the first few times you go out sleeveless.  (What did I do on the weekend?  Not telling.)

divide bulbs3.  Now down to the garden stuff!  Everyone tells you to divide your bulbs in the fall.  I am good at following directions.  The only problem is that year after year I would never get the job done because how would I ever know which patches of bulbs were which height and colour, or even where they were after three months of gardening and the disappearance of the decayed leaves?  So I decided to rebel:  I divide mine soon after they are out of bloom whenever possible.  That way I still remember what colour each patch was,where I need to locate the extras and which patches were larger.  Do they still come up?  They sure do!

prune shrubs4.   If you’re going to prune forsythia, hydrangeas, spirea or any other leafy shrub for that matter, note that you can really only see the stalks properly, and where they are too crowded, weak, crossing or badly formed, before the leaves are all on.  So run, run, run and take your heavy loppers out there before everything grows in and you can no longer see the form of the shrub!

5.  If you know me at all, you know that I love mulch!  I have mulched at almost times of the year, for sure.  However, the best time is right now!  I’m sorry to keep contradicting numbers one and two, but if you do this job now, you will be able to see where all your plants are because they have just come up.  Still, they are small enough that you can work around them and right up close to them, covering all the bare ground that you may not be able to reach when everything is fully out.

remove dandelions 6.    Dedicate the time you need to dandilions the minute they pop their intense little flowers.  Spring is the easiest time to get them; time spent when they first come up will reward you.  They are easier to pull now, before the ground dries out and they grow deeper roots.  They will quickly seed, and we don’t want each one to turn into a hundred more!  I love the Fiskars Stand-Up Weed Remover for lawns, an eco-friendly way to get those little monsters out whole.

7.    Get rid of your spent indoor bulbs by putting them in the garden while you still remember what colour they were.  For daffodils and crocuses, you can put them under the lawn if you like (put some bone meal in with them), so you’ll have a little interest next spring, before it turns green and needs mowing.  Why waste?

divide hostas and goatsbeard

Hostas and Aruncus, Goatsbeard, divide best before they are fully leafed out. Use bloodmeal to keep rabbits and squirrels from feasting on tulips.

8.   We put blood meal on our gardens in fall to scare away pests that like bulbs.  But in spring, it can be lucky if anything comes up–winter has washed the horrors of blood meal away, and bunnies have made a salad of your tulips, while squirrels simply dig them right out and toss them on top of the soil so that they die.  Unless you have a starving outdoor cat, you need to put blood meal on your garden again in spring, as soon as you see growth from your tulips!  Re-apply after rain.

9.   Looking ahead a little at things that happen every year:  it gets hot!  Really, really hot in the Toronto area, actually.   Who wants to be out there slaving in a hot garden in July?  July is the time to loll around your garden with an iced tea admiring your handiwork, so get on top of the heavy work (weeding, mulching, transplanting, etc.) between now and the end of the school year so that you can relax a little during the inevitable summer heat.

But if you don’t, then remember to drink lots of water.

divide solomon's seal early in spring

Solomon’s Seal will tip over if transplanted too late

10.   Seed, transplant and take cuttings now.  This includes any re-seeding of your lawn.  It is far easier to keep new growth and cuttings alive in the cooler part of the growing season than it is when it becomes very hot.  Then, hopefully by the time it gets hot,  they will have rooted and established themselves sufficiently to survive the harsher weather.  Little known fact:  it’s a LOT easier to grow new shrubs from  cuttings in a humid climate like Toronto’s than it is where summers are dry, like they are on Vancouver Island.  So look:  we do have something to be thankful to our climate for when it comes to gardening!

Note that you have a short window of time to divide or move taller perennials if you want them to stand up on their own.  If you do it when they have just come up and aren’t too tall yet, they will grow in nicely in their new homes; if you wait until they are more or less completely grown in, you’ll find they tip over and will require  more staking.

By the time I have this published, you will be in full-out garden mode, running to keep up with planting annuals and making things look nice.  Take care of these details “ASAP” in spring to make this summer’s gardening easier and more fun.

spring garden chores

Lots to do in this garden: dandilions, hostas to divide, bulbs to protect–before you can relax like my cat.

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Famous Flowers!

This is just a shortie post to encourage you all to run out and purchase the June issue of Gardens Central Magazine.  Not that I want you to go out in the SNOW FLURRIES!

gardening magazine


Because, in addition to the fantastic gardening advice tailored to our climate, this magazine features the summer gardens of yours truly in a beautifully-photographed article!

snow in summer

What snow in summer is supposed to look like!

And yes:  Just north of Toronto there were snow flurries this morning.  Our annuals are sitting inside our houses and there could be frost again tonight.  It does not warn you of this in the gardening books.

Have a lovely weekend, and stay warm inside with a good magazine.  Unless, of course, you  feel compelled to go out in your garden, and then I will completely understand.

Click the “follow” button in the right margin to get my tips and posts by email, or “contact us” above to reach me for garden design.

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Thriving on Neglect: Easy Plants for Beginning Gardeners

white crocuses

A small white crocus

Many gardeners are beginners.  I see this from the number of gardening bloggers who say so, and from my experience living in and about a large city where people work constantly and are afraid to plunge into having much of a garden, because they don’t know how to put one together or how to look after a garden once they have it.

People constantly say that they don’t want to be tied to the maintenance of a garden–they work, they are away in the summer–and that is why they give up the joy of having their own personal piece of paradise.

One easy way to have a garden look after itself is to know what the conditions of the various areas of your property are and to plant only plants that love to be in those conditions.  An experienced garden designer would never do otherwise!

Another is to choose mainly perennials:  these plants grow back every year and do not need to be replanted annually.

Having said that, the following is my list of top plants for the beginning gardener.  These are plants that are visually rewarding to grow, seldom if ever susceptible to pests or disease and thrive with little or no care.

muscari grape hyacinth Grape Hyacinth  Tiny but tough, this one will multiply very prolifically and can get carried away.  However, it looks best in masses and is easy to pull out if necessary.  Extras may be thrown into your spring planters as well.

easy care crocus

Carefree crocuses illuminate earliest spring

Crocus  The easiest to care for of all the spring bulbs.  While tulips and other beauties may weaken over time, crocuses will multiply (politely, though: not so as to become a nuisance).  You can plant them in gardens or under your lawn for spring drifts of flowers before lawn mowing season begins.

lily of the valley

Highly fragrant Lily of the Valley

Lily of the Valley  The heavenly scent of this shade-loving classic will have you looking forward to their nodding, white bells every spring.  They are charming and fragrant if cut for indoors, but keep children away from them, as they are toxic if ingested.

lilac with bleeding heart

Lilac underplanted with various bleeding hearts
Photo from Fine Gardening Magazine

Lilac  Plant lots of varieties for their beautiful and aromatic blossoms in May and June.  Your children will forever associate their presence with the coming end of the school year.  Once your plants are large enough you will look fondly forward to cutting them to bring their scent indoors each spring–and cutting flowers simply encourages more blooms next year!  (However lilacs don’t generally require pruning to bloom.)

white bleeding heart

White bleeding heart, Dicentra Spectabilis “Alba” begins its reliable show in a shady spot

Bleeding Heart  Lush and lilting by May or June, with a long period of bloom, these classic beauties look delicate but belie their carefree nature.  You can clip them for arrangements alone or as a complement to dramatic flowers like peonies or lilacs.  They are extremely winter-hardy, thrive in shady spots and their languid leaves provide contrast to other foliage after the main bloom period eventually ends.  As long as they don’t completely dry out, the only care they will need is to have their dead stalks cut back for tidiness after they turn yellow in autumn.  Bonus: they are also easy to divide once their root systems become large.

Peony  If you don’t have these large-flowered stunners in your garden, you don’t know what you are missing.  Cut them and bring them indoors for drama and scent.  You will be in love for life.  Deadhead them after blooming, but if you don’t, they don’t care!  You will still get huge, fragrant blooms again next year.  Various pinks, red or white, you will want to cut off their spent stalks in fall, just to tidy.

white peony

Huge, fragrant white peony

Peonies are incredibly long-lived and the number of old farmhouses in Ontario with hundred-year-old peony beds blossoming away are a testament to how easy these perennials are to maintain.

snow-in-summerSnow-in-Summer  The reason I love this Ontario favourite is that its tiny, fuzzy silver-green leaves are a foil or complement to all the taller plants, and it fills in the edge of a garden beautifully.  It will not seed all over your garden but creep vigorously in the area you plant it.  Covered with a mass of brilliant, white, tiny flowers in June it s low-growing but still dramatic at a distance.  Virtually no care is required, but you may have to pull it out around the edges if it creeps too far into other plants.

Creeping Phlox   Similar to Snow-in-Summer but with greener leavescreeping phlox, this is a ground-hugging mass of white, mauve or pink blossoms in late spring to early summer.  It typically re-blooms without provocation with a less intense show of flowers later in the summer.  Use them to edge a perennial border or mass various colours on a slope, always in a sunny area.

hardy Iris

Irises are hardy, stunning and easy to grow

traditional blue iris

These enormous blue irises tower about four feet tall but other varieties are as small as eight inches tall.

Iris  Another “wow” flower in your garden.  There are so very many colours, heights and varieties of iris that they cover a multitude of uses in the garden, and they are also beautful cut (if short-lived).  They grow from a thick rhizome and multiply slowly.  Divide them every few years for more, and to keep them healthy.  Graceful Siberian Irises are a tough and resilient top choice.

Day Lilies  These casual favourites look great in clumps beside hostas or other complementary plants, or in large, undulating drifts for great drama.  There are many cultivars available now for bloom at almost any point in the summer, with plain or ruffly leaves and in many, many day lily

Ruffled day lilies

Day Lilies come in many colours and leaf shapes

colours, so try a few.  You can mix them together for a longer show in one area, and their straplike, arching leaves look great beside many other plants even when they are out of bloom.

day lilies in gardens

Pale day lilies bloom in gardens on either side of this pathway

Hosta cultivars  Plant them in shade.  Older varieties are typically most reliable but it is hard to go wrong, and the range of sizes (from plants you could lose your pets under like “Sum and Substance” or “Titanic”, to tiny, rounded or pointy-leaved varieties), colours and leaf patterns is truly staggering!  Want more?  Simply drive your shovel through the middle of your larger plants and re-plant new sections (subject to patents of new varieties).  They look especially lovely under a row of hydrangeas!

Tip:  plant hostas near grape hyacinths, tulips and other bulbs and their leaves will grow up and cover the leftover, dying debris when the bulbs finish blooming!

solomon's seal in bloom

“Cool and Green and Shady”, large, arching Solomon’s Seal in bloom forms and backdrop to Hosta, “Big Mama” and Hosta Undulata “Variegata”

Solomon’s Seal  This could be may all-time favourite plant, although saying that is a bit like choosing a favourite child.  If you want your garden to look lush, as though you have the greenest thumb in town, then start with one or two of these.  Each year, they double neatly in the number of stems, but never reach out of their spot to compete with neighbouring plants.  I have grown them in sun or shade, and even under the evil, toxic black walnut tree next door.  Arching like a fern, yet more lush and drought-resistant, they complement any other plant you want to put next to them.

sedum autumn joy

Sedum, Autumn Joy blooms with grasses in this late summer garden. For more on this garden, click here.

Sedum “Autumn Joy”   Regular readers will probably roll their eyes:  I show you this plant in every season:  cute, fleshy clumps of leaves in spring; fresh, green

sedum autumn joy in august

Sedum “Autumn Joy” shows a hint of pink with butterfly bush and Pink Diamond Hydrangea in August

flower heads forming in summer and pink flower heads darkening to a burgundy-brown throughout late summer and fall, followed by their substantial, brown heads holding up pretty formations of snow throughout the winter!  How could I not?

Need more?  Pull off any leaf or piece of plant, put it in soil and water it!  Full sun to light shade, this plant is a performer!  Cut back in late winter or early spring to let new growth show.

sedum autumn joy cut flower

Sedum “Autumn Joy”–very dark in October–cut for indoor use


So, those are the plants.  Of course, start your garden with a good bed of quality topsoil for best results.  You will need to weed but if you mulch bare soil you can minimize weeding.

Avoid fussing, staking, heavy fertilizing and losing blossoms next year if you neglect to deadhead this year:  Start your garden with these plants and you will enjoy your success and your free time.

What are your favourite easy-care plants?  If you have special favourites to recommend, please share below.

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