Retro-Fit Garden Rooms

Retro-Fit Garden Rooms

“The way you view a garden is basically the route your eyes take as you look at it. If you try to take in the whole garden with one glance, chances are it’s going to be quite boring. Ideally, you want to be able to go from one point of interest to another and experience an interesting visual journey.” Successful Garden Design–Rachel Matthews

I’m a plant lover.

My garden is an un-designed melange of plants often planted singly, and located according to the plant’s needs, not the design’s needs. Now in some ways that’s a good thing–locate a plant according to its needs, and you get a happy plant, often a self-propagating plant, and a plant that requires a minimum of extra care. But a lot of healthy, cool, colourful or bold looking plants doesn’t necessarily make for a great looking garden.

Block of Colour

One of the principles of garden design is using enough of the same plant to create a block of colour or texture. For example, a wave of feather grass, or a patch of Blue Salvia. This allows the eye to settle in one spot before moving on the the next, giving a sense of smooth movement to the garden bed(s). But the plant-lover/acquirer doesn’t have room for many of the same thing–after all, there are so many wonderful plants that would be happy in my garden, why have just the Blue Salvia or just the feather grass, when in the same space I could have the salvia and feather grass, and echinacea, and peonies, and delphinium, and, and, and…

Separate Sections

So for the person who has to (addictively) buy beg or otherwise acquire more and more plants, one design tactic you could employ is separating sections with something large enough to hide what is behind, creating a bit of a “secret garden” effect. Might be a shrub or tree, or several to create a hedge.


This espaliered apple tree could be a garden “wall divider”. In my non-designed yard it’s a “lawn divider”.

Could be an arbour, or wall, with or without plants trailing up or down. Maybe art work. These all have the added bonus of drawing the eye upwards instead of always being on the same plane.

Even if you find yourself with a jam-packed garden bed and no room left for anything, you can look around for a suitable spot where you could divide the garden bed.


These teepees are for peas to climb. But they could easily be for clematis. Or they could be more substantial structures/obelisks that would sustain more vigorous climbers.

You’ll have to dig up something in order to plant/position your divider, but then odds are you can replant whatever came up.

This Sambucus (Black Elderberry) 'Black Beauty' forms a dense shrub with light pink flowers later in spring. Can be small tree-height.

This Sambucus (Black Elderberry) ‘Black Beauty’ forms a dense shrub with light pink flowers later in spring. Can be small tree-height. It can also be hard-pruned to keep it small.


Try to think of your garden in terms of areas/sections/rooms, and then create them with these wall dividers. Your jumble of colours and textures will take on a different character as the garden is “retro-designed” to create transition and flow.

As always, would love to hear your comments and questions.




A How-To on Pergolas and Arbours (or Arbors)

A How-To on Pergolas and Arbours (or Arbors)

I’ve been trying to get the definitive answer to “What’s the difference between a arbour and a pergola?”

There is no definitive answer. The moment you think you’ve found one, some other word-police will dispute it.

So here’s MY definition: an arbour is a small archway supporting some kind of vining or rambling plant. It may or may not be over a path (mine isn’t), or an entrance to a garden room (mine sort of is), and it may or may not have enough space to fit a seat for one or two (mine doesn’t).

you can't actually walk through this arbour, it's got a Westerland rose growing underneath. But it gives a sense of definition to the garden bed, and there's a path now on the other side.

You can’t actually walk through this arbour, it’s got a Westerland climbing rose growing underneath. But it gives a sense of definition to the garden bed, and there’s a path now on the other side.

A pergola is larger garden structure, more for the sake of people underneath it, providing some degree of shade either along a walkway, or over a patio/seating/entertaining area.

Why have one?

There are a lot of reasons to have a tall man-made element in the garden. First of all, just its very presence draws the eye upward, increasing the dimensions of the space. It also gives a sense of “ceiling” to your garden “room”–even if you’re not sitting underneath it. Trees do that as well, usually on a much larger scale, so the arbor/pergola will lend a layered look. It can give definition to the edges of the garden, or a direction to move to or through. These are design features. There are of course also practical features: some degree of shade, a structure to facilitate vining plants, a place to locate a bench.

Front yard, back yard

Depends on what you want your structure to do. Here’s a house that I think would look really cool with a pergola across the front, above the retaining wall (won’t discuss the gravel “hellstrip” beneath):

Pergola across the front above the retaining wall??

Pergola across the front above the retaining wall??

There are a lot of houses in my neighbourhood with this kind of format, some with higher retaining walls, some with lower. I live in the “South Slope”, so kind of goes with the territory. And I’d love to suggest some ideas to this owner–except there isn’t an owner yet.

This wouldn’t necessarily be a seating area, but if instead of the little sad boxwoods (and what’s with the solitary Thuja occidentalis in the corner?) there were tallish ornamental grasses along the edge, a small patio with facing benches and a fire pit would work, taking advantage of the view downhill toward the river. Semi-private while still featuring the view, mostly open “ceiling”, so the upper balcony wouldn’t be looking down on a roof.

Anyway, an idea for a front pergola; here’s another: Photo CreditHCRBL210_house-front-yard-after_s4x3_lg

Vines Overhead or Not

If you are going to be sitting underneath this structure, I would highly recommend you confine any plant material to non-messy, restrained growers. Grape vines? VERY messy. Hops? Kiwi?  Anything that doesn’t get harvested will fall and make a mess, which also includes whatever the raccoons have a go at. Or wind: last year I lost half my ready-to-pick grape harvest to what I thought were racoons, then realized the night before there was a howling gale. Then the racoons got at them.

Then there are the really vigorous vines that need to be frequently pruned, or they attempt to strangle you as you’re sitting there. Campsis (trumpet vine), honeysuckle, some rambling roses. If it grows REALLY fast in one season, it’s not the best choice for your overhead structure (under which you are sitting). Ditto for wisteria; lovely, but unless your structure is made of steel, Wisteria japonica (the commonest one) will eat it for lunch.

Campsis radicans

Campsis radicans

Heavy-duty or Lightweight

This has to do with aesthetics and whatever may or may not be growing on the structure.

A small house, or one with fine features or a modern vibe, will be better complimented with a structure that is lightweight, not bulky, not rustic. Your home’s personality (which hopefully will also be your own personality) should be reflected in most of your garden design. If your home has big features, bulky pillars, dramatic angles, giant trees, your pergola/arbour should do likewise.

There are lots more decisions to be made about your overhead structure–freestanding or attached? vinyl, wood, steel? big or little? open or enclosed? You get the idea. Have a look at pictures–Google images has a lot of options, and my Houzz Ideabook might spark your creativity. There are lots of kits available, construction information for the DIY-er on Youtube,  or you might prefer to actually hire a professional for that custom look.

If you like the idea, get started now thinking, planning, locating, designing. And let me/us all  know what you think and what you’re planning and designing. And of course, click the “Follow” button.

Pocket Gardens, or How to Garden in Even the Tiniest Outdoor Space

It could be a Juliet balcony, an urban front yard, the narrow space between houses, a boulevard you’d like to take under your wing, or any other tiny spot. You want it to be beautiful and functional. You already know how to make a nice container, but you also know there’s lots more you could do if only you knew what that was.

A Few Suggestions:

1. If you’re going to sit and relax in your Tiny Outdoor Space, make it feel like a sitting, relaxing room. You can provide a sense of intimacy by planting walls and ceiling. A large shrub–such as smokebush (Cotinus coryggia) or lilac (Syringa sp)– or small tree–maybe a Japanese maple (Acer palmatum ‘Atropupurem’ for example) or Witch Hazel (Hamamelis mollis)

Hamamelis x intermedia 'Jelena'–can serve as overhead screening, giving a “sense of ceiling” without it actually enclosing the space. A pergola, with or without climbers, can do the same. Lattice covered with clematis or passion flower or honeysuckle (just make sure you’re OK with the power of the scent) can be your walls. Maybe not all four walls…

Finally, there are lots of weather-tolerant rugs out there. (Some concrete patios really need to be covered.) Voila, an outdoor room!

2. Repetition.

The smaller the space, the more you need to control the number and variety of your plants. Sticking to one colour palette or even one plant can deliver up a dramatic statement.

3. Planting beds, or patio?

I’m a real plant person. I just can’t have enough– propagating, dividing, even buying if I can’t resist. So I’ve tended to think a “garden” with mostly hard surfaces just doesn’t qualify as a “garden”. OK, I’m changing my mind. Beautiful stone hardscaping, even concrete or gravel or hardwood, interspersed with small spaces for planting, can be just the thing to highlight a bed of sedum or creeping thyme, Red-baron-Imperata-cylindrica-SADNICA_slika_XL_3062736Japanese Blood Grass (Imperata cylindrica) glowing in late afternoon sun, or a weeping Spruce (Picea abies ‘Pendula’) or Hinoki Cypress.

4. The Narrow Side Yard


Not mine, but this is the idea.

I currently have a 4 ft wide space between the house to the west and a fence to the east. It’s in almost full shade, covered in river rock, a haven for weeds, deciduous ferns and generic foxglove, and is completely wasted space. Alternating small planting beds (3-4′ long and less than 2′ deep) will break up the “bowling alley” look, and placing pavers or flagstones in among the river rock improves the practicality of the space.What has always been a chore could become a more convenient and attractive route along the east of the house.

5. And Finally…

…The Balcony. Make it comfy. If the chairs are uncomfortable chances are you’ll just look at them instead of sitting in them. Make it walkable–don’t put so many things at floor level that you have to look where you’re placing your feet all the time. Much as I love container gardens, too many is just too many. Frame the view.

You wouldn't want to obscure this view for the sake of privacy

You wouldn’t want to obscure this view for the sake of privacy!

You’ll have to choose how to balance between privacy and view, but choosing tall-ish items (bamboo or small tree) on either side of the best part of the view will highlight it more than leaving it fully open, while still giving a little privacy. Have a surface for your coffee cup. It doesn’t have to be a table, and remember that circles take up more space than squares or rectangles.

There are SO MANY possibilities for that small space that you don’t know what to do with. If none of the above ignites the creative in you, why not post a picture here and see what our readers (or I) can offer.

As always, post comments, questions, Pin, or Like on Facebook. And play with that Tiny Outdoor Space. One great thing about a Tiny Outdoor Space–it costs a lot less to experiment!