Urban garden fix-up
When I bought my tiny semi in downtown Toronto, I fell in love with the quiet street and was charmed by the hardwood floors. I saw the "potential" of the place and couldn't ignore the rightness of the price, either. I did, however, pretend not to see the backyard.
It wasn't horrifying – there were no dismantled trucks out there, for example. It's just a typical urban yard: A long skinny space (12 feet by 50 feet), with rocky soil, eclipsed by an enormous maple tree and featuring sparse grass between patches of dirt. And it's a jungle out there – raccoons, squirrels, cats and skunks killed my early attempts at growing edibles.
So for a few years the sad plot of land sat untended while I looked inward, taking down walls, replacing wiring and windows, installing pot lights and studying paint chips. Sometimes I'd stare outside and dream about what it could be. Nothing fancy, I just want something pretty and low-maintenance, a small private corner to sit and read, or drink myself silly.
Since I've got energy to spare and I take direction well, I'm ready for some DIY action. So I called Rene Trim, owner of Ottawa-based Trim Garden Design. His five-year -old company does both residential and commercial landscaping; if he can create gardens for condominiums and retirement homes, I knew he could answer my question: What can an urban homeowner easily do to make her outdoor space beautiful?
Break up the straight lines
"If you can overlook your entire garden in one fell swoop, then you are on the wrong track," Rene says. Why? "Straight lines are uncompromising. They automatically draw the eye to the back of the garden, making the space seem shorter," says Rene. "By introducing a feature halfway down the garden, the eye will be kept inside the garden itself rather than wandering off to the boundaries."
Create focal points
"Plant something dead smack in the middle of your long narrow garden," says Rene, "create something that you have to walk into to see what's there." If you don't want a large shrub or a small tree in the middle of your yard, put in a flower-bed. "And create vertical height and depth in the garden by planting at different heights," adds Rene.
Raise your flower-beds
"This way you can add compost, fertilizer or anything that will improve the quality of the soil," says Rene. Besides compensating for the poor soil quality in my space – that large maple sucks up most of the water and nutrients, starving off all other plants near by – raised beds also help keep the neighbour's dog out. "Pile up stones or build a wooden platform to create an elevation – 12 to 15 inches is fine, 18 at most," says Rene.
Embrace angles and curves
"Tapering paths creates the illusion of more depth," says Rene.
Use small stones for paths "Interlocking brick should be placed diagonally or at an angle to create the illusion of a wider path," says Rene.
Create vertical visual impact
Plant big, shade-loving beauties – Rene recommends Goatsbeard (Aruncus Dioicus in Latin), which grows to about 3 feet, or Ligularia (Ligularia Przewalski is the full name) that gets a foot higher. "Among the best plants for creating vertical visual impact are the taller ornamental grasses, like Feather Reed Grass (or Calamagrostis)," he adds, "they are low-maintenance, disease resistant and thrive in relatively poor soil."