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A Japanese Shade Garden in Toronto




Client Wanted:

Increased privacy. Client is a busy executive and typically enjoys the garden after 6pm weekdays and on the weekends. Increased privacy for downtime was a priority. 


Client wanted a much better use of space.  Right now, there is no incentive to explore the other end of the garden because it is clearly visible from the house. 


A nice view, out of the two primary windows that face the backyard:  the livingroom and the master bedroom directly above it. Currenly, the view is of the large tree, a Norway maple [considered an invasive species in Ontario because it produces vast amounts of seeds], followed by the garden shed at the far end. In the winter, the view is bleak. 


The client entertains in the summer and everyone congretates in the lower level, where the BBQ is located. More seating throughout the garden would be very welcome. 


In terms of garden style, client expressed affinity for both Japanese and French garden design. 

The Garden Design:


To improve the use of the long, narrow backyard, we divided the space into three  “garden rooms.” The three garden rooms introduce elements of mystery and surprise, encouraging the visitor to the garden to see what is around the next corner. 


Importantly, the first room is what you will see when you look out from the living room and the master bedroom upstairs. We started with hardscaping by way of an Asian-inspired "moon gate." The moon gate will also serve as a trellis, planted with porcelain vine, a shade-loving plant which is a distant cousin of grapes. Porcelain vine has tri-colour leaves (green, white and pale pink), burgundy stems, and white berries that ripen to blue—colour galore! And birds eat the berries in fall and winter.


On either side of the moon gate will be a globe cedar that will serve as visual interest in the winter, along with the red branches of a dogwood by the fence, looking left from the house.


In the middle room we created a very private, cozy enclave under the Norway maple. The middle room is very Japanese in feeling. We enlarged the bed under the Norway maple and planted it with Japanese fountain grass. Japanese fountain grass can be invasive, so one of the tricks to dealing with it is to enclose it in a confined space so it cannot spread further.


Around the other side of the Japanese fountain grass is a built-in, low seating area with large cushions. Think of it as a "tree house for adults"—but with no climbing involved.


On the opposite wall to the Japanese fountain grass planting is a trellis with variegated ivy. This trellis changes the axis of the garden and provides a horizontal view rather than a view all the way down the garden. There is a bird bath beside the trellisthe easiest way to introduce a low-maintenance water feature into your garden.

The planting scheme is predominantly green-and-white, to evoke a feeling of coolness typical of Japanese gardens. As well, white flowers are still visible late at night whereas other colours tend to disappear into the darkness. 


The last room is a conversational space with a table and benches where the client can have a glass of wine or a meal with friends. Importantly, this area is far away from the BBQ.


On the other side of the garden shed, we have created a planting with two types of ferns and a large rock. The area will be back-lit at night.


Looking back through the new garden, you can barely see the house at the opposite end. There is no wasted space in this new garden design. 


The Finished and Planted Garden:


The garden buildout took three weeks in May 2016. The client elected to not proceed with the moon gate and the low, Japanese seat around the Norway maple tree for this year. The client is pretty happy with the finished garden and can't wait to invite friends and family over, to show off the new garden.


Below are daytime and nightime photos of the garden.

Garden design and landscaping consulting in Oakville, Milton, Burlington, Mississauga, Etobicoke, and Toronto.

Design Challenges:


  • The existing garden is long and narrow. 

  • The fence is in poor shape and will be replaced, for privacy.

  • There is a 60-ft Norway maple positioned half-way down the garden. There is a honey locust tree at the far end of the garden. We elected to keep both these trees. 

  • The garden is paved with large concrete tiles, that the client wishes to have removed. 

  • The garden is on three grades. We elected to keep the grades.

  • There is a garden shed at the far end of the garden. The shed is not beautiful, but serves as useful storage in the off-season because the client has no garage.

  • Although the garden faces east, the townhouses on the opposite side of the backyard cast heavy shade on this garden. This, coupled with the large Norway maple, means that this is a shade garden. 

  • The planting plan had to incorporate plants that thrive (or tolerate) heat and drought, from time to time. The garden is next to a paved parking lot that retains heat during the summer.



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