Paul Jung is a professional gardener and owns a small Toronto gardening services company that uses organic and ecological horticultural techniques. While this blog is apparently about gardening in Toronto, it is and it isn't.
Landscape Fabric: The Gift from Previous Landscapers that Keeps On Giving
Creating a little bit of beauty is hard enough for a gardener. You may have ideas about how a garden (maybe your own) can be improved visually and functionally but realities like the existing soil and light conditions, presence of mature trees and, more often than not, the condition of your finances can throw such ideas for a loop (or right out of the window.) Low on the list of limiting factors is and should be the presence of that gawdawful stuff known as weed or landscape fabric. But during this Toronto front garden makeover in "the Beach" area, that nasty black material reared its ugly head not once but twice.
Shari and Andrew, the clients, hired me to weed and re-design their small front garden that faces a very busy street. The site receives full sun until about noon with a medium-sized ornamental pear tree shading about half of the garden. Due to the garden's proximity to the lake (Ontario), there's usually a prevailing wind which brings in plenty of weed seeds. There was no mulch on the garden's soil so, of course, the weeds took full advantage as shown below:
(Keen eyes will notice the Colorado Blue Spruce to the left in the above picture. The root ball was planted on the neighbours' side of the property line by a few inches undoubtedly but trees have a bad habit of actually growing so this conifer that was likely planted as a cute "Christmas tree" is slowly but sure on its way to achieving a mature height and spread of, hmmm, say 50 feet (minimum) high by 20 feet wide. The clients aren't too happy with this, understandably.)
Here's the garden from other angles, "pre-makeover":
The weeding itself wasn't too bad for me since the garden isn't large. It's always interesting to note what weed species will dominate an area based on soil and light conditions. In this case, I yanked out mainly Petty Spurge and Toadflax and little else.
Shari wanted new perennials which had green or chartreuse foliage and white flowers only so we came up with a list including the "Holy Shade Garden Triumvirate" of Hostas, Heuchera, Hakonechloa in the shadier sections while a white flowering perennial sage (Salvia) and annual Alyssum were to be planted in the sunnier area near the fence.
Transplanting should be an exciting time, even if the soil isn't perfect loam and free of roots and construction waste. For this garden, however, it became a "challenge" when I quickly discovered that a previous gardener and likely the builder had installed not one but two thicklayers of landscape fabric under the first 3 inches of commercial topsoil. Of course, digging through these layers with a shovel is impossible so I had cut through and shape something resembling a circle to allow me to dig to the proper planting depth. Repeating this for a dozen 1 gallon sized perennials was maddening and I created some new expletives in my mind for the professionals who put this fabric down for me.
Why is this practice continued? As the "before" shots wonderfully show, the fabric does nothing to prevent wind-borne weed seeds from germinating on top or weeds travelling by underground rhizomes from moving below and occasionally up and through the fabric. I just marvelled at the idiocy of rolling out fabric and then putting down a 3 inch layer of topsoil without mulch.
Anyway, back to nicer topics like freshly-transplanted baby perennials:
Alyssum (a sweet scented annual for us) was planted at the front next to the path leading to the door. Behind there are Heuchera, Hostas and Salvia in keeping with the green and white colour scheme.
Originally I thought to plant the Alyssum along this sidewalk border shown above but the "soil" was mainly pea gravel so for the sake of simplicity and minimal maintenance, I placed some mulch on top instead.
All in all, this was a lovely makeover to plan and execute but I'd love to have the previous gardener explain his/her thought process about spreading down the landscape fabric under some fresh topsoil you added afterwards.
I was half-expecting being contacted by Alex, the client in this post, to weed his rental property's front garden this spring. And why wouldn't I? I installed his new garden last May as profiled in my blog post mundanely titled "Mid Toronto new front garden installation: Another Toronto Front Garden Makeover" and have seen how the new transplanted perennials have coped with wave after wave of weeds germinating and thriving in the garden bed over the past year.
I last visited this garden in October 2017 for a fall cleanup so for the past eight months, nothing has been done in terms of weeding, watering and other garden maintenance tasks. (As a reminder, the tenants in this rental property naturally don't get involved and the owner lives off-site.) Last autumn, I asked Alex to provide me with more mulch as the existing layer was very thin and patchy; consequently, weeds would easily gain a foothold (roothold?) again. He didn't drop any mulch off so the garden has been like a lab experiment: it will have shown what weeds have germinated, their growth rate and how the new perennials have responded to such competition for sunlight, water and nutrients.
Alex did contact me after all and we scheduled an appointment. When I finally arrived several days ago, I wondered what the state of garden was and then saw this...
Midtown Toronto Front Garden Cleanup Before
Midtown Toronto Summer Front Garden Cleanup Before
Toronto Midtown Summer Front Garden Cleanup Before
Toronto Midtown Front Garden Cleanup Before
Avenue Road Midtown Toronto Summer Front Garden Cleanup Before
Midtown Avenue Road Summer Front Garden Cleanup Before
A Toronto Midtown Summer Front Garden Cleanup Before
Quite a weed patch, no? To be perfectly honest, I wasn't shocked. I knew the conditions were very good for weeds to flourish here. The garden is in a very exposed and windy site so weed seeds travel very easily here. There is a layer of mulch but it is quite thin (only about one inch in depth) as it has decomposed slowly over time. The garden, also receives full sun from the morning right until late afternoon. And, lastly, two downspouts drain into the garden so there's plenty of moisture accumulating after every shower or thunderstorm.
Still, I was surprised to see how well the weeds have grown in relation to the perennials planted last year.
I started to pull out the weeds, roots and all, and quickly entered my zen-like "weeding state of flow." Seriously, I just think about what's for dinner, the clients I have to see the next day, and my achy knees.
Here are some weed "all-stars" I yanked out which made the list:
Perennial Sow-thistle (Sonchus arvensis)
Wood Sorrel (Oxalis stricta)
Canada Thistle (Cirsium arvense)
Common Groundsel (Senecio vulgaris)
Petty Spurge (Euphorbia peplus)
and more than few run of the mill dandelions and broad-leaved plantains.
More than a few hours later...
Midtown Toronto Front Garden Cleanup After
Midtown Toronto Summer Front Garden Cleanup After
Toronto Midtown Summer Front Garden Cleanup After
Toronto Midtown Front Garden Cleanup After
Avenue Road Midtown Toronto Summer Front Garden Cleanup After
Midtown Avenue Road Summer Front Garden Cleanup After
A Toronto Midtown Summer Front Garden Cleanup After
After cleaning out the bed, I spread a good 3" layer of cedar mulch over as much of the bare and exposed soil as possible and away from the crowns of the perennials. While the mulch will greatly reduce the quantity of weeds germinating, it won't automatically result in a "no-maintenance" garden, at least in this location.
I evaluated the growth progress of the perennials I planted last May and the results were mixed. One Fountain Grass (Pennisetum) died surprisingly, the Tickseed (Coreopsis) didn't grow a lot, maybe due to being smothered by weeds, the Echinacea, Little Blue Stemgrasses and butterfly weed (Asclepias) grew very well while the Blazing Star (Liatris) was so-so.
The adage that perennials "sleep, creep and leap" in the first, second and third years after transplanting seems to be true! Or it's just a random thing.
I still like how it rhymes though.
Bonus cleanup in the backyard
The tenants at this property also have the ability to use the backyard patio to rest, relax and have a few drinks and nibbles.
Toronto Midtown Summer Backyard Garden Cleanup Before
But apparently the invitation was never accepted. I wonder why? Hmmmm...
Toronto Midtown Summer Backyard Garden Cleanup After
I tried to make it a little more cozy back here by weeding in between the pavers, cutting back the wild grape, weed tree saplings and rambunctious Euonymus (winter creeper) and just sweeping up. Now the space doesn't look like raccoons have been squatting there.