Gardens - Small Gardens

Plant a dramatic small space garden

William Gilpin
Photography by
Roger Yip

Handy do-it-yourselfers transform a petite plot into an urban oasis

For some homeowners, a barren lot is a daunting scene. Not so for Richard Prevost and Kevin Goodman, who created an elegant, French-inspired masterpiece of gardening-in-miniature on their property. And they did it all themselves.

joie-de-vivre2.jpgIf you squint a little, you’ll appreciate that this terrace garden is a clever bit of sleight of hand. Instead of being in a new suburban Scarborough, Ontario, townhouse development, it might just as easily be on a condominium rooftop perched atop a California hillside or (as Richard might like) appended to a French chateau. Its design principles are eminently transferable but, above all, exquisitely executed.

How did these ambitious amateurs succeed? First of all, they knew what they wanted, and they were realistic about both their talents and limitations. Kevin and Richard also began with meticulous planning and problem solving. They were convinced that creating a formal outdoor living room and garden retreat on an utterly barren, unfenced and diminutive suburban site was doable—though hugely challenging.

Mindful of budget, the garden was built over two seasons. In year one, the summer of 2005, a fence and raised beds were constructed. The former was built to safely contain their two dogs and gain privacy. Richard was the designer and builder; Kevin’s job was a little more laid-back: “I critiqued it,” says Kevin. “It had to be beautiful.”

joie-de-vivre3.jpgThe raised beds have been built to last; demolishing them might just require dynamite. Their borders are made of pressure-treated 4x4s clad in ¼-inch plywood with latticework. The interiors are lined with 2.5-centimetre-thick Styrofoam panels and heavy sheet plastic, which minimizes the potential for rot and keeps plant roots well insulated. The growing medium is roughly half sand and half composted manure topped off with three to five centimetres of garden soil, guaranteeing excellent drainage and fertility—it took 350 large bags of this mix to fill the boxes.

Bold foliage drapes luxuriantly over the planter boxes and gives a tropical feel to the space. While everyday hostas may predominate, high glamour is supplied by umbrella plants (Darmera peltata), purple angelica (Angelica gigas) and variegated Japanese umbrella plant (Petasites japonicus ‘Variegatus’). Without doubt, though, the horticultural star in this garden is the giant rhubarb (Gunnera manicata)—a ferocious-looking, water-guzzling foliage plant that requires overwintering in the garage, bundled in plastic bubble wrap and landscaping cloth. Among the reliable hardy standbys are ‘Emerald Gaiety’ euonymus (Euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald Gaiety’), ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) and ‘The President’ clematis.

The garden’s muted palette of green and violet tones is soothing to the eye; too much white or a bold colour would upset the tranquil mood of the place, says Kevin. Subtle lavender shades are supplied by various annuals, such as Million Bells calibrachoa and fan flower (Scaevola spp.).

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