Watch for this article in the summer-fall edition of Dockside Magazine, being delivered to docks in Muskoka this month.
The sunlight gently filters through the tall pines and hemlocks on the point as a gentle breeze ruffles the blooms and leaves of the plants growing below.
It’s an idyllic scene, but it’s also one that capture so many of the features Muskoka gardeners must cope with, says Meagan Swan, lead designer at Water’s Edge Landscaping.
The property is large – just over three acres on a point jutting out into Lake Muskoka. From a real estate standpoint, it has a bit of everything: exposure on three sides, sandy beach on one side and rocky shore on the other, and plenty of mature trees.
From a landscaping perspective, that variability also poses some challenges.
That open exposure, for example, brings gentle breezes, but also strong winds – particularly in winter – that are tough on plants.
The mature trees look great, but they also create shade as well as acidic soil caused by an accumulation of needles. And the transition from sand to rock means that plants that thrive on one side of the point are not suitable on the other.
“There really are two distinct microclimates on this property,” says the owner. “The north wind and different soil on one side of the point make it quite different from the other side.”
But when asked if there were any particular challenges with this property, Meagan pauses for a moment and shrugs. “Not really,” she says. It’ s just gardening in Muskoka.
Planning and execution
The owners had this house built four years ago. To a large extent, Karen Tolton, owner of Water’s Edge Landscaping, and her team were working with a blank slate.
Any slate needs preparation, of course, and this site was no exception, with many loads of topsoil brought in to supplement those areas where nature had not provided enough.
They also had some specific requests from the cottage owners. “We really like the English country garden look,” one of the owners says. “Dense plantings, lots of blooms to give colour all season, and plenty of different textures.” Country gardens also put an emphasis on charm rather than formality.
That can certainly be achieved in Muskoka, says Karen, but with certain caveats. “There is a somewhat limited palate of plants that will thrive in Muskoka,” she explains. “You have to respect that.”
Fortunately, many of those plants come in an astonishing range of varieties. Take astilbe, for example. There are cultivars of this hardy, long-blooming perennial that grow six inches high, and others that stretch to five feet. The blooms might be two inches long, or six. The leaves range from pale yellow to a green so deep it’s almost black, and the blooms come in every colour you can imagine: hot pink, pale mauve, deep crimson, ivory white, dark red, and on and on. Blooming season begins in early spring and extends through to the fall, depending on which cultivars are planted.
“We can have colour all season long with just astilbe,” says Meagan. And because it loves the shade, those tall, light-dappling conifers are not a problem.
Hostas are another go-to flower for shade gardens, and here again the range of cultivars is immense. There are thousands of types of hostas, from tiny to immense, with leaves that are solid colours, variegated greens and yellows, or even red.
Variety of varietals
There are a lot of astilbes and hostas on this property. But that’s certainly not all.
The rocks that are a constant in Muskoka gardening can be a problem or they can be a resource, depending on how you approach them. “The rocks are a fabulous textural backdrop for Creeping Jenny,” says Meagan, gesturing to a low ground cover that festoons a rocky garden edge. The leaves are a bright lemony green, providing a splash of colour at ground level. “It’s really tough and durable – great for winter survival,” she notes.
Shrubs like Ninebark and Pagoda Dogwood as well as ornamental grasses provide different textures and height. Flowering crabs bring hot pink blooms in spring and structure year-round. The globe-like flowers of hydrangeas thrive in the sunny patches.
To complete the look, Megan has created dozens of containers, ranging from flower boxes to hanging baskets, which are dotted all around the property. Tall mandevillas and weigelas reach upward from some; the trumpet-like blooms of hibiscus shine from others.
Most are self-watering, an essential component in a cottage container garden.
Some of the plants are annuals, but others are tropical perennials. “The hibiscus and the mandevilla can be brought indoors for the winter,” Karen explains. The owners of this cottage take them to their home in the city; at other cottages, the sensitive plants are stored at Water’s Edge through the winter.
“We do whatever it takes to create and maintain these gorgeous places,” says Karen.