The path makes the garden. Consider Karen Lynch's Kingston, Ont., backyard. A wide path curves in an S-shape up a gentle slope behind the house. The path splits in two around a tree, rejoins, then ends at a wooden screen on the hilltop. The path has offshoots leading to a swing, large rocks and garden benches. The path and its branches define the beds, protect the plantings from foot traffic and lead visitors to places to rest or observe.
The path wanders through what could be called a woodland garden (there are about 40 trees). It could just as easily be called a stroll garden. In Naturalistic Gardening (Sasquatch, 1998), Ann Lovejoy defines a stroll garden as a meditative retreat with gently winding paths, Japanese-style screens and natural objects positioned to capture the eye and intrigue the viewer. That description perfectly fits this garden, but Lynch calls it a garden park because of its size (almost 400 square metres) and because its wide gravel paths are reminiscent of those in public parks. There's also enough seating for 22 people, she discovered during a Mother's Day garden tour.
Lynch started her park in 1992. “I'd thought about what I wanted for a long time but I didn't know anything about gardening,” she remembers. What she had going for her was a talent for visualizing possibilities. “One day I went out and I knew exactly where things were going to go — the benches, the swing. People asked me, ‘Don't you use any books?' I said, ‘No, it's in my head.'”
Lynch used a pruning saw to cut down saplings, then pulled out weeds and shrubs. After the cleared brush was trucked away, she contracted a backhoe operator to help. She spray-painted the outlines of her planned pathways, which the contractor blanketed with landscape cloth (a porous, weed-smothering fabric available at nurseries). Then he applied a 15-centimetre layer of limestone dust, a locally abundant gravel (17 tonnes cover the more than 83.5 square metres). The poured gravel was wetted, then packed with a heavy, handheld plate vibrator. The contractor also positioned the boulders.
With the path in place, Lynch planted hundreds of the spring bulbs she loves but lost most of them within a year — too little soil and sunlight. Her education as a gardener had begun. After turning to books and gardening friends for advice, she spread purchased topsoil 15 centimetres deep over the beds. She also had the trees thinned to admit more light. “That made a huge difference in appearance and flower growth,” she says. Now she grows many common hardy spring bulbs and some shade-tolerant perennials. For summer colour, she hangs baskets of annuals from the trees. To keep weeds down and soil fertility up, Lynch mulches with cedar bark and “billions” of fallen leaves raked from the paths. “Now I'm beginning to be something of a gardener,” she says.
Her unique backyard is praised by visitors as peaceful and beautiful — from spring, when the bulbs are in full bloom, through summer, when it's a shady, serene retreat, through fall, when the overhead canopy turns colour, till winter, when the paths still beckon strollers. As Lovejoy writes of her own West Coast garden, a similar hillside populated with native trees, it is “colorful and attractive in every season.”
To order Naturalistic Gardening (#4975) for $31.95, call 1-800-461-2942.
Page 1 of 2 - for more tips and tricks, read page 2
Flowers and foliage
In a woodland garden, plants need to be shade-tolerant. These plants may be no-fuss native species (the better suited your plants are to their environment, the less work it is to keep them thriving). Decide if you want your garden to look “natural” or bright and showy; remember that its appearance will vary with the season and plan accordingly. You may choose to grow natives for spring colour and exotics in baskets for summer. Some native ephemerals, such as bloodroot and trout lily, bloom before the tree canopy fills in, then fall dormant and quickly disappear (when buying native plants, look for the label Nursery Propagated to ensure that they have not been taken from the wild). Foliage plants such as ferns, hostas and leafy perennials provide interest all season. Keep invasive plants out or confine them to containers.
A path can be as simple as a trampled meander through a bed of native ground covers, a band of lawn between flower borders, a mowed curve through meadow grasses or a line of stone pavers through a woodland. For this, you may not need a contractor. On the other hand, you may want something more complicated such as a herringbone design of bricks or a mosaic of small stones pressed into concrete. Design the path for a single walker or for two or more side by side. In a stroll garden, a curving path offers changing perspectives and tempts the stroller to slow down, stop or even stay awhile.
Live with and look at the existing trees and undergrowth for at least a year, as gardener Karen Lynch did, to determine what you have and what you wish to preserve. A healthy woodland includes trees of various species and all ages, so save some saplings. Smaller trees, shrubs and wildflowers can be dug out of proposed pathways or beds and transplanted. Proceed cautiously; cutting and trimming trees is both art and science. It can be dangerous to you, the plant, the landscape and even the neighbourhood, and in some municipalities, you may need a permit. When in doubt, hire a professional recommended by someone you trust or look in the Yellow Pages under landscape or tree service. Quality can vary; ask for references.