A shady retreat in Toronto

A narrow urban garden evokes the feel of quiet countryside.

David McDonald
HOME-INSPIRED: Dianne Dietrich’s 14-year-old Toronto garden features unusual items such as a kitchen chair, pedestal sink, reflective mirror, and lace curtains, top, to create a space that looks and feels like home.
Miriam Heinz
Casual feeling: Dianne Dietrich wants her garden to feel as though its been in existence for umpteen years.

Downtown Toronto grew up and around Dianne Dietrich’s little neighborhood, but her garden remains defiantly in denial about becoming part of the city.

Visit her narrow backyard and you would think you were promenading in the boonies – some far-off countryside with tall trees and leafy understory, a verdant expanse, a quiet respite.

Or you might think that you were interloping in someone’s bathroom. Look, right there, over by the vine-entwined fence: a pedestal sink and reflective mirror. Why, you might be tempted to shave out there.

“It looks exactly like that,” Ms. Dietrich says with a laugh. “I have a casual feeling to my garden – kind of a wild feeling to it that I’ve deliberately cultivated with some very old things I found in an antique barn. I brought them in to make it look like the garden’s been here 150 years.

She also strives to create  the same feeling in her house.

“I like to blur the line between house and garden,” she says. “That’s why I have lace curtains out there [in the garden]. It feels like a living room and invokes the feelings of intimacy, of home. It’s a fanciful living area. And that sink and mirror – that’s a little boudoir over to one side.”

Not that there is much “side” to Dietrich’s garden. It may be 300 feet long, but it’s only 25 feet wide. What keeps it from feeling restrictive is the way neighbors here allow their gardens to flow from one to the other, and the fact that their backyards all terminate in a seemingly endless green space.

“There are no real fences between me and 10 properties,” she says. “It’s a very modest neighborhood, but it’s a little enclave of gardeners. It feels like one big happy family – which it is. The fact that my yard is narrow is lost in the shuffle.”

The properties all descend to a path or corridor that connects to another corridor that connects to ...

“It’s like going into an urban forest,” Dietrich says. “I can walk anywhere in Toronto.”

Dietrich’s garden is 14 years old, and by now has become a bit of a fixture in the neighborhood.

She always leaves the side gate open so folks in the neighborhood can take a closer look at it, maybe sit a spell, or just take a shortcut to the interconnecting pathways.
Dietrich isn’t one of those gardeners who prefers privacy. “I love having people feel that they can come into my garden,” she says.

Because of the mature trees, especially one monstrous Manitoba maple, hers is mostly a shade garden.

“Gardening in the shade is serene, comfortable,” she says. “I love the plants I can grow. The very large-leaved ones, like butterbur (Petasites). That’s the plant that gets the most attention in my garden. It’s just so out of scale. People call out from the ravine: ‘What is that?’ It’s almost prehistoric. I love that feeling.”

Her other favorites?
• Hellebores. All of them. “They’re just such a joy.”
• Ferns. Ditto. “I’m extremely in love with every kind of fern.”
• And the Gold Heart hybrid of bleeding heart, with its yellow leaves, especially paired with Persicaria. “I’m very pleased with that.”

Because Dietrich conserves water, she rarely irrigates her garden. To accommodate moisture-loving shade plants – such as the large but fussy ligularia – she makes her own nearly-always-soggy areas.

“I’ve created these bogs,” she explains. “I dig 1-1/2 feet down and lay down a liner, poke some holes in it, put down some small stones, and backfill with cocoa fiber and loam.

“It’s a great idea, very simple. I saw it in a gardening book and I’ve been building bogs ever since. I have 12 of them now.”

Because Dietrich is retired from Toronto’s housing policy agency, she is able to devote whatever time she likes to her garden.

“The actual experience of gardening is so surprisingly satisfying to me,” she says. “These plants are my children. I find that it’s an important part of my life, working in the garden.

“I almost instantly loved it. It must have been built into me..... It is,” she says almost wistfully, “like a love affair.”

Editor's note: We invite you to click here to visit the Monitor's gardening site, which offers articles, essays, and blog posts on a variety of gardening topics.

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