{ Author Archive - Ellen Novack }

Low-maintenance Monday: The Callery pear

Mary Fisher’s urban backyard reflects clarity of vision, restraint and discipline, illustrating her expertise as a master gardener. Although simple in design, her garden gets its richness and interest from texture and the repetition of a small number of select plants. “It’s simple and uncluttered,” she says about her wonderful garden featured in Gardening from a Hammock, “and I am coming around to that in my whole life.”

What immediately captures your eye in her urban backyard is a silver-green screen at the back of her property. The screen is made of three graceful, pyramidal Callery pear trees whose delicate appearance belies their hardy nature. “Pear trees are so hardy that they prosper throughout the city of New York,” explains Mary. “In spring they have great white blossoms that look like clouds. They are ornamental with beautiful, shiny green leaves, and yellow colour in the fall. Since they are columnar, they are ideal for a small space.”

photo courtesy of Northscaping Inc.

The Chanticleer Callery pear is resistance to blight and limb breakage. The tree will not produce an edible fruit, it is only grown for ornamental reasons. It has attractive flowers, leaves and bark. Bark is at first smooth, light brown to reddish-brown then later turns grayish brown with shallow furrows. The abundant white spring flowers are fragrant, with masses of white blossoms with purple centres. Leaves are glossy dark green and turn yellow or reddish-purple in the fall.

This columnar tree grows 13 metres high and about five metres wide in zones 4 to 9. It makes a strong enough statement to be used as a specimen, an accent, as a screen or to line a walkway. These trees are recommended for small spaces and vertical gardening, as well.

Plant in full sun. Prune in winter or early spring. Because of its pyramidal shape and branching structure, the crown is less prone to break with heavy winter snow than the ‘Bradford’ pear tree. These trees can survive periods of drought, cold, and air pollution and even salty coastal winds.

Pyrus calleryana ‘Chanticleer’ is one of the star plants selected by 17 expert gardeners in Gardening from a Hammock by Ellen Novack and Dan Cooper. Gardening from a Hammock is an easy-to-use book describing how to create a fabulous, four-season garden using low-maintenance plants. It’s loaded with tips and has a botanical reference guide.

Low-maintenance Monday: Japanese painted fern

It is no accident that so many of the gardeners featured in Gardening from a Hammock included Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’) in their recommendations for an interesting, low-maintenance garden. It is one of the top ten plant picks.

This colourful fern is one of those plants that gets along with just about everyone, brightening a shady area and making almost every other plant around it look better. No wonder it is a must-have for the shade garden.

Japanese painted fern is compact, growing between 30 and 60 cm high and wide. It has deep burgundy leaf stems with olive-green arching fronds lit with silver. Each plant has its own unique colour and pattern. Although native to Japan, Korea, China and Taiwan, it does well in zones 4 to 9 here. Master gardener Merle Burston asks: “with this growing in the shade, who needs flowers?”

Although it can stand alone in the garden, Japanese painted fern is a favourite dance partner. Its upward reach and shape provides interesting contrast for plants with downward arching forms, such as Solomon’s seal.  It looks dramatic when set against any dark green background or with other plants that pick up its burgundy colour, such as red Japanese maple, maroon Heuchera, black-purple Cimicifuga simplex ‘Hillside Black Beauty’, or chocolate-purple Ligularia ‘Britt Marie Crawford.’ It lights up an area with its silvery shimmer. Consider it as an accent, a specimen, for edging or as a woodland plant. But by all means consider it for one of your prized shade plants.

Japanese painted fern is one of the star plants selected by 17 expert gardeners in Gardening from a Hammock by Ellen Novack and Dan Cooper. Gardening from a Hammock is an easy-to-use book describing how to create a fabulous, four-season garden using low-maintenance plants. It’s loaded with tips and has a botanical reference guide.

Low-maintenance Monday: Solomon’s seal

“Solomon’s seal is one of those spring plants that make your heart beat faster,” Aldona Satterthwaite says about the perennial plant whose arching leaf and white drooping flowers signal spring. A master gardener, Aldona is executive director of the Toronto Botanical Garden and knows of what she speaks.

Fellow master gardener Belinda Gallagher of Hooked on Horticulture, agrees. “Solomon’s seal is my favourite plant of all times–today,” she says. “It takes dry shade, and is very elegant and graceful. I love the flowers, but particularly the arching shape of the stems. They emerge like sea serpents from the ground in the spring.” The native Solomon’s seal grows 60 to 70 cm both in height and width and grows well in a dry, shady spot from zones 3 to 9.

Solomon's seal adds grace to the garden. It can be featured as an accent or woodland plant, or used as a cut flower.

Delicate, white bell-like flowers hang from gracefully arching stems in late spring. The small flowers are self-cleaning and will drop off naturally. The foliage remains attractive all season, so the plant is virtually maintenance free. The stems even disconnect from the rhizomes on their own after a frost. But before that, the foliage turns a golden yellow.

Belinda explains that Solomon’s seal is usually misnamed in garden centres. The native and non-native (mainly from Asia) are often mixed together. “I like them all,” she says. “The variegated ones are wonderful, but take a longer time to mature and bulk up so people may be disappointed.”

To me that is a good thing, since that means they are less invasive in the garden. The variegated Solomon’s seal is my favourite, since its arching stems of green leaves are edged in white, brightening the shade. They are scented, which is an additional gift.

Note: The other recommended varieties of polygonatum in Gardening from a Hammock may not grow as quickly as the native species, but are valuable additions to any shade garden. Check out Giant Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum commutatum), which makes a statement in any garden as it grows from 90 to 120 cm high.

Solomon’s seal is one of the star plants selected by 17 expert gardeners in Gardening from a Hammock by Ellen Novack and Dan Cooper. Gardening from a Hammock is an easy-to-use book describing how to create a fabulous, four-season garden using low-maintenance plants. It’s loaded with tips and has a botanical reference guide.

Low-maintenance Monday: Allium ‘Schubertii’

The next long weekend may be in July, but the best fireworks this year come from the Allium ‘Schubertii’ in the garden. The purple flowers of this ornamental onion are showstoppers. Every gardener, blogger and writer eventually stumbles across the description of the large, globe-like flowers that are 15 cm in diameter. Visualize star-shaped, lilac-pink flowers that shoot out of the centre stem; a spherical shape comprised of hundreds of tiny flowers. Imagine a giant sparkler of a flower head caught in mid-bang with as many as 200 individual pink florets or a whimsical giant onion creating a spidery ball in bloom.

A Globemaster allium towers over the garden.

Many will agree that when it’s in bloom, any allium commands attention as it towers over the other plants in the garden. This particular allium will climb 60 cm on spindly stems and spread an amazing 30 cm. They make even more of a statement if grouped in clumps of three or more. And, they remind Sonia Leslie, one of the master gardeners featured in Gardening from a Hammock, of the stars and planets. She recommends these plus any and all alliums for a low-maintenance garden.

“These are members of the onion family, unappealing to squirrels or deer,” she says. Sonia assures us that you can’t go wrong with any allium as they last a long time in the garden and then the seed heads provide interest when they fade and dry. Allium bulbs are planted in the fall, bloom throughout spring and summer (depending on the variety), and then provide architectural interest throughout the fall and into the winter.

There are hundreds of varieties of alliums, from small to huge. Sonia recommends three varieties in particular to provide low, medium and tall heights and that provide blooms from spring until midsummer. They are: golden garlic allium (Allium moly ‘Golden Garlic’), giant allium (Allium giganteum), and, of course, our dramatic Schubertii allium (Allium ‘Schubertii’).

Allium ‘Schubertii’ is one of the star plants selected by 17 expert gardeners in Gardening from a Hammock by Ellen Novack and Dan Cooper. Gardening from a Hammock is an easy-to-use book describing how to create a fabulous, four-season garden using low-maintenance plants. It’s loaded with tips and has a botanical reference guide.

Low-maintenance Monday: Crocosmia

Have you ever been to a party where a beauty in red catches every eye in the room? In your garden, that beauty would be crocosmia. Devilishly beautiful, this perennial is aptly called ‘Lucifer’, familiarly known as crocosmia or montbretia.

“Crocosmia is the reddest of the reds,” says Frank Kershaw, horticultural teacher and one of the expert gardeners featured in Gardening from a Hammock. Frank uses this tall, dramatic plant as an accent against a green cedar background in his garden. The plant is 90 to120 cm high and spreads 30 to 60 cm.

Crocosmia can be used as an accent, border, or specimen plant. It also makes an outstanding cut flower. ~ Image courtesy of Marilyn Cornwell

Crocosmia forms clumps of deep-green, sword-shaped leaves with wiry, gracefully arched stems holding up spikes of brilliant flame-red flowers. Frank and his wife enjoy watching the hummingbirds that are attracted to the flame-red flowers in late summer and fall. These plants are most dramatic when planted in clumps.

Master Gardener Sonia Leslie also recommends crocosmia for the sunny garden, but a different variety: (Crocosmia x crocosmiflora). This crocosmia is very hardy with long, pale-green strap-like leaves, and branching stems that grow in a zigzag fashion.

Its showy orange and yellow flowers spread to make sturdy clumps of colour in late August and September. Each flower is about 5 cm across and the nodding cluster can be several centimetres long. Crocosmia dies back to the ground in winter in zones six to nine, only to regrow from its circular, flattened corms in spring. This variety of crocosmia is a little smaller, 50 to 60 cm, with paler green leaves and showy orange or yellow nodding flowers on slender, arching, zigzag spikes in late summer.

Crocosmia is one of the star plants selected by 17 expert gardeners in Gardening from a Hammock by Ellen Novack and Dan Cooper. Gardening from a Hammock is an easy-to-use book describing how to create a fabulous, four-season garden using low-maintenance plants. It’s loaded with tips and has a botanical reference guide.

Low-maintenance Monday: Epimedium

The Rodney Dangerfield of plants, Epimedium, commonly called barrenwort or bishop’s hat, doesn’t get the respect it deserves. This underused plant is a superhero in the shady garden, providing colour and texture where few plants dare to go. Eight of the 17 expert gardeners interviewed in Gardening from a Hammock selected various forms of barrenwort for the shade garden. Although this perennial looks delicate, it is “tough as nails” says one.

It is a dependable, no-nonsense groundcover says garden lecturer Frank Kershaw. “It takes sun in the rockery and shade in the woodland and keeps its leaves into winter.” He adds that it is tough and flexible enough to flourish in dry shade. Depending on the variety, white, pink or yellow flowers appear from May to June while the heart-shaped leaves emerge bright green with a slight tinge of pink or red and later run a deeper green; by autumn they take on yellow, bronze or red tones.

Not only does this perennial form a lovely carpet of interesting leaves, but the flowers can work with many themes.

Epimedium comes in three colours: red (rubrum), yellow (sulphureum) and white (niveum). Aldona Satterthwaite, executive director of Toronto Botanical Garden, teams the yellow Epimedium with ghost fern, Bowles golden sedge and golden Japanese forest grass for a spectacular combination of colour, texture and interest in the shady garden.

Barrenwort is a lazy gardener’s treasure because it will grow under just about anything, including maple trees. Dugald Cameron, of gardenimport.com, recommends the variety ‘Frohnleiten’ because while the regular species has blossoms that hide under its leaves, this one holds its butter-yellow blossoms above the heart-shaped leaves. The glossy leaves are a bonus as they turn deep red in autumn.

Chalk Lake Nursery owner and teacher Martin Galloway adds that the old foliage of barrenwort crumples and covers the ground in winter through spring, at which time the new leaves rise above the old in company with the flowers. “It is slow growing but consistent, will live forever and is drought tolerant and tough,” he says.

All varieties of barrenwort are hardy, bloom in the shade and are an excellent groundcover or edging. They can brighten up a woodland garden in full or part-shade. Typically barrenwort grows 20-25 cm high with a 15-30 cm spread in zones 4-9.

Sedum spurium ‘John Creech’ is one of the star plants selected by 17 expert gardeners in Gardening from a Hammock by Ellen Novack and Dan Cooper. Gardening from a Hammock is an easy-to-use book describing how to create a fabulous, four-season garden using low-maintenance plants. It’s loaded with tips and has a botanical reference guide.

Low-maintenance Monday: Sedum ‘John Creech’

I don’t like all the work in maintaining a perfect lawn—mowing, re-seeding, weeding—and watering the lawn just seems wasteful. Our dog also does not help the cause.

In Gardening from a Hammock, the book I wrote with Dan Cooper, we were advised by several gardeners to “ditch the grass.” Teacher, biologist and nursery owner Martin Galloway suggested a sedum lawn instead; using a variety of sedums that would provide colour and texture with little need to water or weed. Although we may not all want to replace our lawns, sedums are most welcome anywhere in the garden. And if we were to choose a favourite, it would be Sedum spurium ‘John Creech.’

Commonly called stonecrop, this plant was named after plant explorer John Creech, a retired horticulturist from the US National Arboretum. On his travels to Siberia, he discovered this plant and obtained the original from the Central Siberian Botanic Garden in 1971. ~ Image courtesy of Northscaping Inc.

Like many sedums, ‘John Creech’ is low growing—only about five to 10 cm—and is a fast-growing groundcover, spreading 25 to 30 cm. It provides a green carpet of tiny, rounded, deep-green leaves with small clusters of pink, star-like flowers in late spring through early summer.

It is a favourite low-maintenance plant because, once established, you can simply forget about it. ‘John Creech’ is a workhorse in all kinds of soil from zones 2 to 9.  Although it is most commonly used as a hardy groundcover, it can be so much more. This modest plant needs a publicist to shout out its attributes. It can be used:

  • As a groundcover that works well on both flat and sloped areas
  • For edging
  • As an accent in a rock garden
  • In containers where it will cascade over the sides.

As well, it is non-invasive, keeps its colour in full sun, is deer resistant, drought tolerant and attracts butterflies. If that is not enough, here is the best part: the leaves are so dense that they choke out the weeds.

Sedum spurium ‘John Creech’ is one of the star plants selected by 17 expert gardeners in Gardening from a Hammock by Ellen Novack and Dan Cooper. Gardening from a Hammock is an easy-to-use book describing how to create a fabulous, four-season garden using low-maintenance plants. It’s loaded with tips and has a botanical reference guide.

Low-maintenance Monday: Paperbark maples

No matter how fast the pace on my morning walk, I always make a dead stop in front of one house–the one that has three paperbark maples on the front lawn. No matter what the season, there is always something special on these small trees: the bark in winter, the flowers in spring, the shape in the summer and the blazing leaf colour in the fall. 


Acer griseum, or paperbark maple, is a real showstopper. It can be the ornamental focal point of a garden and it provides interest year-round.

This paperbark image was taken at the Toronto Botanical Garden.

Most striking–and most obvious–is its dramatic, exfoliating bark. It has shades of cinnamon red and brown throughout the year, peels in thin sheets and also looks smoothly polished in other places. This alone would be enough in a plant to make it a star, but there is much more.

In early spring, small yellow flowers appear. The foliage is green in spring and summer, but then it explodes into brilliant orange and red in the autumn, providing dramatic colour in the garden.

That is still not all that makes it a favourite tree. It is a small maple, so it’s ideal for city lots or as an understory tree. It is slow growing, climbing to seven metres (23 feet), but that could take 20 to 50 years. In the meantime, the paperbark maple requires little pruning and is insect resistant. It also has an upright oval shape, which provides a stately architectural detail. Best of all, it can be planted in full sun to part shade. That makes it ideal for a woodland garden. It also makes an excellent specimen plant, focal point or accent in a garden.

Acer griseum is one of the star plants selected by 17 expert gardeners in Gardening from a Hammock by Ellen Novack and Dan Cooper. Gardening from a Hammock is an easy-to-use book describing how to create a fabulous, four-season garden using low-maintenance plants. It’s loaded with tips and has a botanical reference guide.

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