garden near the waterfront

Planning garden from your travels

Whether your traveling has been real or virtual, you can still find inspiration for your Muskoka cottage garden

In a typical year, many of us will visit gardens when we travel. This year, a lot of us have been getting our fix by watching gardening programs instead, planting and planning vicariously with gardeners like Monty Don and Alan Titchmarsh. 

It’s easy to get jealous as you watch Gardeners’ World, or chat with your friends in the south, or remember garden tours you’ve enjoyed in the past. Everywhere you look you’re surrounded by gorgeous plants that just won’t grow in Muskoka.

We know because we often get photos from our clients, showing us gardens they’ve seen on their travels and asking if we can create something like that at the cottage. 

And we look at photos of beds lush with hibiscus and gardenias, with bloom-rich trees like mimosas and magnolias, and we say… “yes, we can, but we’ll need to make some adjustments.”

Zones matter

When people first start gardening at the cottage, they are often surprised to learn just how tough an environment Muskoka can be for plants. Depending on where in Muskoka you are, you may be gardening in an area that’s as much as three full zones away from Southern Ontario, never mind South Carolina or the south of England.

By way of background, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) developed a system that identifies a location by one of 36 numbered and lettered zones, based on the annual minimum temperature. The lower the number, the lower the temperature and the hardier plants need to be to survive there. (The Canadian Plant Hardiness Index is actually a much better system, because it takes into account things like snowfall, wind and rainfall, as well as the number of frost-free days, mean temperatures of the hottest and coldest months, and other factors that affect what plant grow where. But most people use the USDA system, so what can you do?)

Identify the key elements

So how do we respond when a cottage owner in zone 4 wants to recreate a garden they saw in Atlanta or southern Europe? We often start by looking at the elements of the garden, rather than the specific plants.

When you look closely at what makes a garden look wonderful, you’ll often find it has more to do with the layout and design than the particular plant selection. And a lot of those design elements can be replicated, even if the specific plants won’t grow in Muskoka:

  • The curvature of a garden bed can lead the eye toward the horizon, or suggest a path that continues around a bend.
  • Height selection can be dramatic or it can be subtle, with only minor variance between foreground plants and background.
  • A flower bed can be designed around a mass of blooming plants that creates a solid swath of a single colour, or works with just a few shades.
  • Other beds offer a well-balanced riot of different colours.
  • Some beds can be various shades of greens with almost no blooms at all.

Once you’ve identified what the elements are, then we can set about selecting plants that will recreate those elements in a Muskoka-friendly fashion.

White… Muskoka-style

For example, Sissinghurst Castle in Kent, England, is renowned as the home of a famously influential White Garden, designed by Vita Sackville-West more than 60 years ago. It’s a gorgeous spot filled with blooms in all shades of white and silver, and it’s influenced many gardeners and designers. And it’s a mecca for garden travels.

But gardeners in Kent usually only see a few months of winter at most, and they can count on the last frost by early March or even late February.  If you try to mimic the exact plant choice from Sissinghurst, you’ll be disappointed. Instead, we look for plants that give the same effect, and choose those.

In fact, we can often find hardy varietals of the same plants used in warm-climate gardens. There are white lilies, artemisia and irises that will grow in Muskoka, just as there are in Kent. Other plants that grow as perennials in a warm climate may be introduced here as annuals, giving the same effect.

You may not be yearning for a white garden. Perhaps you’re more enchanted by a dryland garden you saw in Arizona, or an aromatic scent garden you toured in Japan, or something you saw in Palm Beach that just spoke to you somehow, in a way you can’t quite describe.

No matter what it is that’s got your attention, bring it to us and let us give it a special Muskoka touch.

White Cosmos, sweet peas and Solanum in the White Garden at Sissinghurst Castle Garden, near Cranbrook, Kent.

For more great gardening tips for your Muskoka cottage, check out these articles:

Posted in Around Muskoka, In the Garden.