Harbingers of Hope

A small clump of daffodils is nestled in the corner beside my front steps. I planted the bulbs there soon after we moved into the house – that is to say, at least 20 years ago. They’ve never amounted to much, unfortunately residing in an area of the garden that’s in constant flux. Despite their roots being dug into and disturbed year after year, spring snow storms knocking them down in the height of bloom every year, and foliage cut down prematurely every year, they always come back – in fact the clump gets a wee bit bigger each year.

In this warm sheltered corner, the daffodils emerge from the ground in early February; a heartening assurance that winter won’t last forever. They seem to remain in stasis then, until late March when the warming sun persuades the cheery blooms to open.  While nature provides many subtle indications that spring is approaching, the lemon-hued daffodil announces spring with a flamboyant burst of colour. Indeed daffodils are the inaugural appearance of colour in my garden each spring – a true herald of winter’s end and the coming growing season.

Hope embodied.

Today they’ve begun to bloom – though a tad shorter than usual (likely due to yet another blast of snow and cold), still they speak of hope. Hello spring.

Photo: Pat Gaviller

Photo: Pat Gaviller

Much lore surrounds the daffodil: the origin of its name, its once-believed medicinal properties and even its cultural symbolism – it has been said to represent vanity, misfortune, and death. Conversely, it is also considered a symbol of rebirth, hope, joy and love. I prefer the latter.

Photo: Pat Gaviller

In the year 2000, the Canadian Cancer Society adopted the daffodil as its official emblem – the quintessential sign of hope.

Few among us can say we haven’t been touched in some way by the ‘C’ word – it has taken from us our dearest family members, our best friends and our beloved pets. For those who’ve survived its ravages, it has scarred or disfigured, taken our dignity, our youthful energy and our trust in life. But it can never take away hope – hope for a cure, hope for another day. As long as there is hope there can be joy – this is what the daffodil represents for many.

Shortly before the birth of my first child, my sister Pat was diagnosed with Stage 4 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma – a grave diagnosis requiring many months of chemo. During her intermittent hospital stays, there was always a vase of daffodils by her bedside. One such night, lying there anxious and alone, a vase of yet-to-open daffies on her nightstand, she asked God for strength, for healing, or merely for acceptance of whatever He willed. Shortly thereafter, she heard a barely audible ‘pop’………then a puff of sweet fragrance. Turning to the daffodils she saw that the first of the bunch had just opened. Then pop, pop, pop – several more opened right before her eyes, each one accompanied by the same sweet scent. I believe, as does she, that this was a moment with the Divine, an otherworldly gift – a sign of hope. My sister knew then, that regardless of the outcome, everything was going to be okay.

The month of April is Daffodil month in Canada, the Cancer Society’s spring fundraising campaign of door-to-door daffodil sales. Daffodils can also be purchased at numerous venues around your city, as well as online.

April at Hatley Park, Victoria, B.C. Photo: Jane Reksten

April at Hatley Park, Victoria, B.C. Photo: Jane Reksten

Let’s all set a vase of these bright beacons of hope, the lovely Narcissus, on our tables – it will brighten our days, and give hope to others.

“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow”  ~  Albert Einstein  ~

Yours in good health

© Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog 2012.

Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Form of Things to Come – Part Four

Top o’ the mornin’ to all ye lads and lasses. Today is St. Patrick’s Day – a good day to celebrate all things green don’t ya think?  Not so green ’round here though is it?

Well soon enough my friends, soon enough. Spring will come – in the meantime we still have a ways to go in our study of plant form, texture and colour. I’ll try to have you ready in time for the frenetic plant-shopping sprees that will begin in the next month or so.

Continuing our exploration of plant form then…. next up are grafted standards and topiary forms.

Grafted Standards

A grafted standard is essentially a shrub grafted onto a stem or “standard” – also called a top-graft, the overall effect is that of a stick with a ball on top. If that sounds disparaging, it isn’t intended to – they’re actually very attractive additions to the landscape. Many different shrubs can be grafted this way, but the ones that work best are those that are smallish with a naturally round(ish) growth habit – this means minimal pruning will be required. Dwarf Korean lilac, globe spruce and globe Caragana are all commonly used and available in grafted form at most nurseries.

Depending on the particular shrub used, the height of the standard, and how it is pruned, this form can have several landscape or garden applications. They work well as linear plantings to emphasize a design line – both curving and straight design lines can be planted this way.

I designed this fence/wall combo to prevent weed encroachment from a neighbouring property onto my client’s property. It nicely showcases these three top-graft globe spruce. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Rhythmic repetition of grafted Syringa meyeri standards reinforce movement along this uniquely curving fence. Photo: Sue Gaviller

A row of grafted Syringa meyeri standards accentuates a curving fence line. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Euonymus fortunei standard

This oddly shaped Euonymus fortunei standard makes a unique feature tree. Photo: Pat Gaviller

If they’re tallish and not too wide, two top-grafted standards on either side of an entryway, can make an attractive frame – not so much, if they’re short and stout though; these are best used as single specimens.

I find this form to be especially useful when designing certain theme gardens, most notably Mediterranean, Colonial and English Landscape Style.

Mediterranean Theme

Left – Top-graft Syringa meyeri is underplanted with Lavandula angustifolia ‘Hidcote’ in a client’s Mediterranean-inspired back yard. Photo: Pat Gaviller
Right – Two potted standards gracefully frame an arched entryway for a Tuscan wedding reception. Photo: Cathy Gaviller

As a general rule grafted standards don’t work in groups (unless planted in a row along a design line), but there are of course exceptions to every rule – see below.

3 Syringa meyeri

Planting standards in a triad isn’t usually recommended, but in this scenario they are all different heights and widths – the end result is therefore quite pleasing. I suspect this was purposeful – very clever in fact.
Photo: Pat Gaviller 


Topiary is the practice of shearing woody plant material into… well, just about any shape you can imagine. My intention here isn’t to instruct you in the art of plant sculpture (my attempt at topiary would likely result in something akin to Richard Dreyfuss’s infamous mashed potato mountain), but rather to instruct you in their appropriate use. Of course a shrub can be sculpted into a mouse, a monkey, or a monster but the most common forms you’ll find at a nursery are standards, pompoms, poodle tiers and spirals.


These are created by pruning a large shrub, which is naturally multi-stemmed, into a single-stem, tree-like form with a ball-shaped top.  They look pretty much the same as a grafted standard – in fact now that I think of it, a couple of the photos in this post were of standards I just assumed were grafted, but they could well have been shrubs that had been pruned to a single trunk, rather than grafted. No matter, their application is exactly the same.


Pom-pom topiary is formed from a shrub that is pruned into several main stems with a “ball” of foliage at the end of each. This is a very unique form and  should be used as a lone specimen – this means only one in your entire composition. No grouping, repeating, planting in a row, or framing – they’re the wrong shape for any of these applications.

Topiary Pine

Pom-pom topiary has such distinctive form that it must stand alone, like this lovely pine, which has been situated beautifully. Photo: Pat Gaviller

Topiary pine and Syringa standards

This landscape is one I’ve featured before – I love its clean lines and minimalistic style. While I don’t as a rule choose to critique another’s work on this blog, for the sake of a teaching moment, I will suggest that the pom-pom pine might have greater effect without the Syringa meyeri standards to compete with.
Photo: Sue Gaviller

Pom-poms, especially pines, can lend an Asian feel to a garden composition because they, like bonsai, are part of the Japanese aesthetic. Topiary and bonsai are used to create Reduced Scale, an important Japanese design principle which refers to the reproduction in miniature, of scenes in nature – bonsai and topiary are used to fashion “trees”, but in much-reduced scale. For this reason, it is acceptable to use more than one of these forms in a Japanese garden composition.

Japanese Topiary

A modified form of pom-pom topiary, cloud pruning is used to create the impression of aged and weathered trees. Photo: Pat Gaviller, Butchart Gardens Victoria, B.C.

Poodle Tiers

Bay Laurel Topiary

A potted two-tier poodle topiary makes a pretty statement. Photo: Deborah Silver, Dirt Simple

This form is a single trunk with two or more individual balls of foliage along its length. Poodle tiers are fairly upright specimens, which makes them an appropriate choice for framing views and entryways. They also make excellent single features. Like topiary standards and grafted standards, poodle tiers are especially suited to Mediterranean style gardens, formal Colonial style gardens and English Landscape gardens.

tiered topiary 2

Left: This Spanish Mediterranean-style home is suitably landscaped, except for the two pom-pom topiaries. While the goal may have been to frame the entrance, their form doesn’t effectively serve this purpose.
Photo: Patti Cartier
Right: A graphic depiction of the more appropriate 3-tiered poodle topiary providing the desired frame.


Spiral topiary is an upright form that has been pruned into a spiral or corkscrew shape. These forms have the same application as poodle tiers and standards – they’re elegant as single specimens, or repeated sequentially along a design line, are suitable for framing, and are fine additions to theme gardens like Colonial, Mediterranean or English Landscape.

Two spiral junipers frame the entrance to a lavish outdoor ‘sitting room’.
Photo: Deborah Silver, Dirt Simple

In our climate most garden topiary is Juniperus chinensis, Juniperus scopulorum or Juniperus virginiana, as well as several Pinus species. In warmer climes, Boxwood, Yew, False Cypress, Rosemary and Bay Laurel are used. These are often available as potted annuals for us Northern gardeners, and given a sunny window, they might overwinter indoors.

Topiary and grafted standards present very strong form in the landscape – suitably sited, they will bring style and sophistication to your garden.

Happy St. Pat’s Day – just think green.

The Form of Things to Come, Part 3 – Weeping Form

Until a day or two ago, it was feeling quite springy around here – longer days, mild daytime temperatures, and I’d begun the flurry of client interviews and site assessments that typify my spring schedule. Then BAM – old man winter returns with a big dump of the white stuff.  Lucky for you, this means a short reprieve from aforementioned activities, and I can work on this post. Next in the plant form series is weeping form.

Weeping Form

Weeping plants can be huge trees like Betula pendula ‘Laciniata’, or small grafted specimens like Betula pendula ‘Youngii’. The large weeping trees have less distinct form because there are countless branches, each with delicate drape – the resultant outline of form is therefore somewhat amorphous, though still quite elegant.

Weeping Birch

Large weeping trees like this weeping birch don’t exhibit a distinct outline – the weeping habit of their branches creates more textural interest, than well-defined form. Photo: Pat Gaviller

To me, they bring a sense of quiet luxuriance to a landscape, perhaps because I associate this form with the giant weeping willows that reside near still waters – the picture of both opulence and serenity.

Although these big weepers lack definitive form, their lacy texture makes them lovely feature trees – if scale and proportion allow. They are especially lovely as waterside accents and make elegant shade trees – again if the size of your house and/or property allows.

Small weeping trees offer much stronger architectural form than their larger counterparts– their arched weeping branches create an umbrella-like form. Many of the weeping specimens available at nurseries are actually low-growing creeping shrubs that have been grafted onto a standard, for example Young’s weeping birch, Walker’s weeping Caragana or Rosy Glo weeping crabapple.

This form draws the eye up … and back down again. It is strongly dominant so should always be used as a single specimen – I can’t stress this enough. Don’t try to group them in threes, or use two to frame an entry, or plant several in linear fashion – it just doesn’t work. I made the mistake of planting two in my front yard several years ago – you can read about it in my post from last year around this time: Form, Colour and Texture in the Winter Garden. The bottom line is, any more than one and they’ll just compete for dominance and create visual unrest. So one is enough – got it?

Malus Rosy Glo 3

Malus ‘Rosy Glo’ makes a beautiful specimen tree as it looks spectacular any time of year – here I’ve underplanted with Juniperus sabina ‘Moor Dense’ which stages her nicely. Photos: Sue Gaviller

C. arborescens ‘Walker’s Weeping’

A weeping form makes a nice centrepiece for a symmetrical composition. Left – Caragana arborescens ‘Walker’s Weeping’ in a client’s raised planter. Right – another of those pretty scenes I periodically drive by, C. arborescens ‘Walker’s Weeping’ in winter still has strong form. Photos: Sue Gaviller

Weeping Caragana

Walker’s weeping Caragana: simple repetition of line makes this tidy scene one I often stop to admire. Photo: Sue Gaviller

These small weeping trees are useful for highlighting architectural details, like arched doorways or windows – the arching form of the branches mimic the architectural line, thus bringing attention to it, and creating unity (by repetition).

Fountains too, can be ‘echoed’ in this way with the placement of a weeping tree nearby.

As well, a weeping form looks very appealing at the top of, or near a slope – the weeping branches reiterate the sloping line of the hillside.

And don’t plant one of these feature trees in the middle of an expanse of lawn where it will appear lonely and insignificant – it’s much more effective when staged and supported by the presence of other plant material.

Weeping Norway Spruce

A fine-looking specimen, Picea abies ‘Pendula’ looks splendid in this sloped front yard garden in charming Elora, Ontario. Photo: Sue Gaviller

I’ve had several clients tell me they don’t like the shape of weeping trees because it makes them feel sad (maybe it’s the name – y’know power of suggestion and all). I don’t get this. To me weeping forms are graceful and very pleasing to the eye. Indeed their appropriate use demonstrates a mature design sensibility. I guess it’s a humble reminder for me, and all you aspiring designers, that there is a degree of subjectivity in design that must be acknowledged and respected. And with that little piece of wisdom my friends, I shall bid you adieu.

More “Fun with Forms” in my next post – see ya then.

Humbly yours,

© Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog 2012.

Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.