Toronto Garden of Ron Savoy and Michael McHugh

A woodland tames tough city terrain

Ron and Michael had their wedding in their garden.

The long, skinny garden is a layout many city gardeners contend with. Some cope by packing plants in at the sides, leaving a clear centre strip. Ron Savoy and Michael McHugh took a different path—literally—when they planted their garden in Toronto’s Beach district.

They put deep perennial borders along the sides, then filled the centre space with a mixed bed of small trees, shrubs and underplantings.

The result: a dense, private mini-forest threaded with a looping path that makes the surrounding city seem worlds away.

“The feeling we were looking for was of being on a quiet, fresh and cool woodland trail,” says Ron. “We entertain a lot and in the summer the patio is the ideal place to sit and relax. The hustle and bustle of the city feels a long way off.”

As happens often in city gardens, Ron and Michael didn’t have much to work with when they first picked up their shovels in the 20-by-70-foot space. The sloping scraggly lawn with a cracked and crumbling concrete pad near the house wasn’t very promising. A huge weeping mulberry tree hung over the space “like a big tent,” Ron recalls.

Alliums are beautiful at every stage. Here, a white one midway between bloom and seed.

Some might have rushed in and started planting things anyway. These two, however, started off right—from the ground up.

Out went the ratty grass, in went a low retaining wall to divide the space into an upper and a lower garden. Out went wheelbarrow-loads of cinders and rubble found near the house and in went truckloads of triple mix to enrich both upper and lower garden. And up came the crumbling concrete and in went a gorgeous, herringbone-patterned brick patio.

Then came the fun part: choosing and planting the plants. They’d barely started when the brooding mulberry came down in a lightning storm, leaving more scope to add sun-lovers to their existing plans for shade plants.

The front garden is sunny, providing opportunities for riotous colour.

Neither had tackled an outdoor garden before, but they spent winters reading catalogues and books. And they found they had complementary strengths: Michael is practical and good at building things; Ron is creative and can visualize how things will look before they’re in place.

Except for the basic idea of the looping path, the garden’s design “came about as we put things in the ground,” Ron says. To capture the woodland feeling, they knew they wanted plants of varying heights throughout the garden. It was a wise choice, paradoxically making the limited space seem much larger than it is.

Clematis stretching skyward.

Fences are draped with euonymous, English ivy, a ‘New Dawn’ rose and a climbing hydrangea that boasts 12-inch blooms. The lower, still shady, garden gains height from a ‘Diabolo’ ninebark, ‘Annabelle’ hydrangea, ‘Ardens’ rose of Sharon and goatsbeard. The bulkier plants are underplanted with hostas, tiarellas and a rainbow of heucheras. A ‘Sunburst’ locust provides dappled shade.

The higher, sunnier level is home to roses, clematis, peonies, iris and three different lilacs: a dark, red-purple ‘Charles Joly’, a pink-and-purple ‘Sensation’, and a fragrant pink Korean lilac standard. Where sun and shade meet are foxgloves, blue perennial geranium and Japanese anemones.

Climbing roses reach for the light at the top of the arbour.

Also on higher ground, at the start of the loop, is the pergola-covered patio, shaded by clematis, climbing roses, a ‘Mandarin’ honeysuckle and a kiwi vine. (The fruit isn’t large, but it’s tasty, Ron says.) A faux twig chandelier holding votive candles creates an intimate nighttime atmosphere, not disturbing at all the baby raccoons that sometimes sleep in a nearby apple tree.

Throughout the garden unusual “found” objects catch the eye and lead you on. Wonderfully weathered pictures blend with the wood fence. A giant freeform concrete mushroom sprouts among the shrubs. Antique metal candy kettles find a new life as aboveground water features.

In winter, Michael and Ron enjoy their little wilderness from inside the new sunroom overlooking the garden. Even then, they’re still surrounded by plants: Michael’s collection of potted succulents and tropicals that follow them indoors when frost arrives.

Subscribe now to your Local Gardener magazine. Dismiss