Gardens - Shade Gardens

Green peace: A shady oasis in Toronto

Kathleen Dore
Photography by
Stacey Brandford

An attentive gardener listens and learns the secrets of her space to create a bewitching urban garden

Improving the soil
Her first labour of love was to spend a year improving the soil. “It hadn’t been touched in 20 years,” she says. “I even took my neighbours’ leaves and buried them. I knew where the basic structures were going to be, so I improved the soil wherever there was going to be garden.”

Starting from scratch
The next spring she got rid of everything but the mature oaks and yews, then tended to the hard­scaping and pond installation, finally adding plants over two years, designing the space on her aesthetic principles: that even a woodland garden should relate to the architecture of a house; that layering is crucial; and that a garden’s “edges” are key.

“The forest edge is a really interesting place,” says Misha. “Things happen there that are really quite important. It’s protected, yet sunny, so that a larger variety of plants thrive. I create gardens, always, with a ton of edges.”

Softening the hard edges helps blur transitions in the garden, she adds. It’s why ivy climbs the wall that leads from the boxwood-bordered terrace near the house to the wilder woodland beyond. “I tried to bring the garden up and the terrace down.”

green-peace-handprint.jpgLayered planting
Layering plantings further softens boundaries and creates a naturalistic forest-like environment. Misha started by bringing in big elements: two huge serviceberries, three sizable hemlocks, beeches and more yews. Then in layer upon—or rather under—layer, she added smaller trees and shrubs like Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis and cvs.), Kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa and cvs.) and ‘Shasta’ doublefile viburnum (Viburnum plicatum forma tomentosum ‘Shasta’); under those are shade-loving perennials, including ligularia, Solomon’s seal, cimicifuga, hosta and Japanese forest grass. “It’s about layering and texture. I’m looking for different sizes, balance between soft- and hardscapes. It’s not about colour,” says Misha. “Colour is momentary; texture is forever through the season.”

That’s why this garden “goes quiet” in the summer. “Floral colour occurs mostly before the trees leaf out,” she says, when the light penetrates a woodland garden. Springtime bloomers, such as allium, mock orange and Misha’s precious 30-year-old azaleas given to her by her late mother, add showy splashes of purple and white to the palette. But in summer, the glorious green foliage settles an easy peace on the space, which Misha is happy to share. “Many neighbours will wander into the garden,” she says. “It’s an oasis for them, too.”

In this way, like the handprint she left in a cement block in the stone wall by the stairs, she’s made a mark on the neighbourhood. Even more, says Misha, “I put my handprint on the earth.”


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