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Start Your Garden with a Little Visualization


Special to the Star

Thu., March 24, 2011

For one brief shining moment this past week, it seemed that spring might be here. That few days of warm weather is just enough of a tantalizing promise to whet the appetite for summer. With images of al fresco dining, margaritas on the deck, and the sound of cicadas dancing through one’s head, it’s easy to start thinking about doing something with the backyard.

You hear often enough that success — on anything — starts with a plan. But landscape architect Al Regehr, whose four decade career has created an impressive client roster, doesn’t necessarily espouse that theory. He suggests starting with an image instead: “You don’t really need a plan when you have an internal vision.”

Hmmm, ok. Let’s experiment with that thought on my backyard. A huge moisture sucking maple tree straddles the lot line. Not much grows except for hostas and ivy, whose tentacle vines now reach everywhere. Even if grass could grow, the two dogs would make short order of it. Last year, in a gesture of defeat, I put down several bags of cedar mulch to keep the mud to a dull roar.

But a funny thing happened — when the sun filtered through the maple tree canopy, it dappled the reddish cedar mulch like a forest floor. It had a cool and calming effect. There was my image.

Regehr says it’s a good image and as good a place to start with the garden as any. “One of the beauties of being in a forest,” he says, “isn’t only the visual, but also the acoustic — peace, quiet, and some rustling. So plant something that rustles in the wind and also something that would look like a forest in winter, red dogwood, say. Consider a water feature that makes a soothing sound, splashing down over a stone.”

But realistically, how long will it take to create this forest in an urban backyard? Or for that matter, how long would it take for an English or French country garden? A formal parterre?

Regehr answers somewhat cryptically: a garden is never finished. By way of illustration, he tells me he’s been working on two gardens in Muskoka for the past 15 years, and a garden in Italy since 1986. “Unless you’re fixing the garden just for resale, take the time to make the garden you want. To some people a garden is their dream, to others it’s to enhance the value of their property, and there’s a full range in between.”

Which begs the questions: Even before coming up with the mental and emotional picture, why am I doing this? What do I want to achieve? What is the dream?

“Once you figure out what you want and why, be realistic with the means you have to achieve it,” he adds. That means being realistic about what you can afford, what kind of soil and light you have in the yard, and how you really use the space.

If you love entertaining, then maybe a really large deck is what you need. If gardening for therapeutic reasons — to calm down — then it’s a putting place. If you have children, an English parterre might not be the best solution.

And as Peter Guinane of Oriole Landscaping ( points out, your garden’s size and shape affect what’s possible: “The smaller the space, the less likely a natural Muskoka look will be possible.”

In some tight urban situations, he’s had to bring materials through the house, so the size of rocks or plants are affected as well. A formal or contemporary look is usually easier to achieve in a small space, he says.

If you’re starting from scratch and you intend to do a major overhaul of the garden, Guinane swears by a plan. “If you don’t start with the end goal in mind, you will waste a lot of time and effort.”

That doesn’t mean you have to complete the garden this year — you can “phase the work.” In those circumstances, the first step is the big stuff: digging, soil prep, trees, rocks. The soil is rarely perfect for a new garden, Guinane says, “and always benefits from amendment if not complete replacement. The current trend is toward native plant material which reduces both soil prep and water requirements.”

If your plan includes a patio, deck, pond, pergola or other structure, Guinane says it’s a good idea to get them done early on, because once in, you can adjust the planting according to how the yard is coming together — shrubs, flowers and accents can be planted any time and in almost any order.

When the budget isn’t large and the garden is completed over time, Regehr suggests treating yourself right away to something that gives you great pleasure. “It’s the first step to realize the dream and will be the inspiration and reward to keep you going while you spend the time creating that vision.”

To implement the vision:

• If you have something in mind, but can’t draw it, Regehr suggests collecting clippings from books, magazines, or the Internet. Spread them on the dining room table and sort until you have a collection that works together.

• Understand your constraints, shade or sun and soil type. Make use of all the available resources, online, in books, at nurseries and garden centres, to compile a list of plants that do well in your light and soil conditions.

• Go to the garden centre during the week. Although staff has expertise they’re willing to share, their time is limited on weekends. Bring pictures of your garden from a variety of angles (as well as pictures of what you’re trying to achieve) and ask a lot of questions. They will help with determining the soil you need, as well. Some nurseries will even provide a design, as long as you purchase their plants.

• Outdoor rooms: Think of your backyard like you do the inside: a place for dining, a place for sitting with the morning paper and coffee, an area for play. In limited spaces, a burbling water fountain might be enough to give you some peace and quiet.

• Water features: Regehr says DIY is possible for a passive water features such as a small pool that comes in a kit (make sure it’s deep enough for fish to hide when the raccoons come). But active water features, with a pump, waterfall, jets, or fountain, are better done by professionals.

• Spend good money on the garden’s infrastructure — good water supply, drainage, lighting and the things you’ll use for a long time, such as the deck and a good quality dining table. Avoid impulse buys unless it fits the vision, or the reality of your garden’s soil and light conditions.


• Mirrors: Placed at the back wall of the garden expands the sense of space.

• Sample garden plans: The Better Homes and Gardens website has garden plans to browse through (

• Statuary, fountains, bird baths: These are wonderful focal points for small, intimate spots, or can entice one further down a meandering path.

• Furniture: Create several seating areas, whether it’s dining table and chairs, a bench on a path, a cushion on a low brick wall, a pair of loungers, or a hammock in the sun at the back of the garden.

• Lighting: To use the deck or garden into the evening, add a back door lamp, candelabras suspended from a pergola over the table, Japanese lanterns strung through the trees, or solar lights along a winding path.

• Structures: Use bamboo for a privacy fence (bamboo poles stuck in the ground in a row), a wood trellis, pergolas or arches for a garden entry. Flagstone creates a nice walkway at the side of the house, especially with thyme growing between the stones and a lush green perennial edge.

• Containers: Filled with herbs or bright annuals, and in groups of three, five or seven in staggered sizes and heights, these add bright spots of colour and can be moved from place to place.

• Where to get it: Ikea, Loblaws, Fresh, yard sales, building stores (Rona, Home Depot, Canadian Tire, Lowe’s), DOT.

Contacts: Email Al Regehr at or call 416-690-1742; Contact Peter Guinane through his website,

Alex Newman writes a weekly column for on design and decor. You can contact her through her website

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