Gardens - Shade Gardens

A European-style courtyard in the city

Liz Primeau
Photography by
Laura Arsie

A gardener with a painterly eye transforms a shady urban garden

european-style-inset1.jpgGardener at a glance
Gardener: Denise Ireland
Occupation: painter husband Harry Underwood, lawyer
Children: two teenage sons, Hugh and Phil
How long in house: nine years
How long she’s gardened: 
30 years, in various conditions of sun and shade

In a small garden, a really big shade tree can make it impossible to grow almost anything you might dream of, such as roses and lavender. This was Denise Ireland’s challenge nine years ago when she and her husband, Harry Underwood, moved into their handsome Victorian-era home in Toronto with their two sons, Hugh and Phil, now teenagers.

Denise tried pale pink roses and lavender, a combination she’d admired on a long-ago trip to what was then France’s Provence region. But they were rather a failure in her shady back garden, even though she had dug out an area in the centre for them, where a patch of sun fell between the shade cast by several trees. It just wasn’t enough. Most of the sun shone on the deck, a lovely sitting spot running across the back of the house, which the family wouldn’t consider doing without. The garden itself—an intimate lower space where today every perfectly placed bloom has presence and importance—is mostly in dense shade thanks to the huge, fast-growing maple in the southeast corner of the lot.

“I swear its canopy has expanded four or five feet since I last looked,” Denise complains, albeit mildly, since she’s now accommodated her garden quite nicely to its conditions.

The garden—which Denise prefers to call a courtyard—was a pretty enough space when her family moved in, with narrow beds around the perimeter of a large, paved sitting area, three ornamental pear trees growing down one side, a good-looking fence and a rear garage that had been embellished with classical details such as columns, mouldings and lattice. The previous owners had painted the fence and garage bright white. “They were trying for a sunny, south-of-France feel,” she explains, “but nature provided shade.”

Denise is an artist who paints large canvasses of gorgeous colour- and sun-filled gardens—quite unlike her own. “I approach garden-making in a painterly way, looking at the shapes. There always have to be verticals to break up the horizontals, and the colours have to be right. Bright colours look awful in shade,” she says.

So the stark white garage, fences and deck were toned down to a stormy blue-grey, and a small lion’s head fountain was added to the garage’s facade as a focal point. As the beds bordering the paved sitting area were too linear for Denise’s eye, she started cutting them wider and wider, and curving them deeply inward from each corner. Soon she had reduced the paved area to a cross-like shape, with a small sitting area in the centre and arms that stretch out to the deck, the garage and to each side of the garden.

Two curved metal arbours were added for vertical presence: one leads to the deck from the entry point at the side of the house and is luxuriant with silver lace vine (Fallopia baldschuanica), ‘Sarcoxie’ euonymus and Baltic ivy (Hedera helix var. baltica). Another arbour is angled at the rear of the garden, on which two clematis with different blooming times twine romantically: Clematis macropetala ‘Blue Bird’, with pendulous blue flowers and fluffy seedheads blooms early in the season, while the mauve petals of ‘Richard Pennell’ show up later in the summer.

Flanked by box railings that double as seating benches, a third arbour, this one latticed, its classical proportions blending with the other structures, encloses the steps from the deck and creates a dramatic entranceway to the courtyard. Over it mingle five-leaf akebia (Akebia quinata), euonymus and, in late spring, a crowning mass of pale periwinkle blue ‘Betty Corning’ clematis, which reaches for the sun.

Top photo: ‘Annabelle’ hydrangeas planted en masse, and several containers of sky-blue plumbago prettily frame a shady nook that’s a perfect spot for breakfast on a hot summer’s day.

Photo inset: Denise Ireland compensates for her maple tree’s hungry and thirsty roots and the clay soil by adding sand and copious amounts of compost produced by the City of Toronto. “But the clay is so hard to dig, I confess I haven’t added quite as much sand as I might have,” she says with a smile. Denise also uses cedar bark mulch to protect plants and retain soil moisture, and removes some, but not all, of the pine needles that fall in her garden so the soil doesn’t become overly acidic.

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