Making this smoking area was a bit little like putting extra springs in the back end of a Chevy for rum running.  That was part of the fun.  The other amazing aspect about this commission was that it was a perfect opportunity to help bring people into nature; whether they were smokers or not.  

It may not look like much, it is a bit scraggy even as it needs a trimming, but it does fulfill everything asked of it.  In fact I call it a commission as it makes it sound more like a work of art I feel it is.  Proposal and quote do not reflect the same thing.

I show you here pictures of the finished product.  It has taken some years for the space and the atmosphere to mature to what it is today.  When doing art work with plants the canvas takes some time to dry and for the mood to set.

In the attached pictures there are some things to note that were designed into this project.

  • it is not square.  It was designed to fit the space
  • the cedar windbreaks work against the prevailing winds (except opinions)
  • the simplicity of the design lasted and has aged well.
  • It does not smell of smoke like some tin shed or bus shelter.
  • the spaciousness of it
  • the shade
  • the hiding spots

Note the hidden bench and the “Buttercup” Ashtrays.  It does need some pruning but the “long drapes” made it cool and private.


On this visit to the project I ventured in. I parted the Mulberry and found the sweetest world you can imagine.  It is a gem and it is a pity non smokers have not discovered it and scheduled themselves for a quiet time in this sanctuary instead of having to sit in full sun on concrete.

The cedar shrubs are almost ready for their first pruning. As they age they will cover the back completely.

You should note the easy to maintain “buttercup” ash trays we installed.  A smoker can remove it and have it beside them while they imbibe.  (yes we still have some in stock)

Please note.  The commission was to make a smoking area to fit this space.  It would be the same if we designed a reading area or a “let’s discuss this outside” board room.  

Please note.  Budget was important.  

Please note the bike parking area that got thrown in for no charge.

Please note.  I am bragging.  Sometimes I am that good.  


Sometimes husbands and wives find faults with little things.  These teeny foibles are both tough to find in my wife and tough to talk about with her.  Occasionally there is a lovely blush of spring in her cheeks and an “oops a daisy” in the end.  This is my favourite look of hers.

Last spring among the cute baby plants from the nursery was a “Jack O Lantern”.  ”Do not put that in my bed” I say in my best still in control deep bass voice.  

I expect her to trust and listen to me; to care about how I feel.  This did not happen.  She already knows I feel nothing and have no idea what goes on in either my head or heart and that my voice is cracking.  In they go.  

There is no revenge taken. I ignore for the season and move on. The best I manage to express myself is a stupid haiku.  

toe nails                                                                                         and coarse bone meal                                                                    in her bed


So.  Anyway.  It is next spring now.  I had to strip this bed and clean things up.  Let me quantify without feelings or judgements, as if you were a customer who needed a quote.  It took 2 plus hours to ferret out the roots.  One cedar shrub was infected.  The roots needed to be burned at 1300 degrees. (kiddimg about the fire)  This is only the first round.  A new shrub will have to be picked up, delivered and installed.  It will likely not match the existing one.

Nothing can grow there while I wait a couple of weeks to certify there are no roots left. I had to dig deep besides so it will take that long for the soil to settle back down anyway.  The edge of the deck will need to be monitored closely.  Some boards may have to be lifted to get underneath if we find a little pumpkin patch hiding there.

I really liked the job.  (not kidding)  Often I wonder if my calling was not an archeologist.  This work is very soothing to me and even Sandra recognizes this.  “That’s why I did it.  You can thank me later”

lol.  “Thanks dear”

Seeds germinating in bag


If you are importing amendments or soil into your yard it is unreasonable to expect them to be weed free.  A wise gardener with an established bed of perennials will hold their breath for two weeks after they have top dressed a lawn or filled their garden. There would be a daily weed patrol, sometimes even at night with a miner’s helmet. This gardener will know to nick out any unwanted growth immediately.

This gardener will also know that even perfect diligence can miss one…there under the Hosta leaf is that bit of green gout that has now grown into the plant.  Now the poor guy will either have to pull the weed for the rest of his life or get rid of the Hosta. If he is a nice gardener he will not gift this plant to a friend.

If you do not think this is important than the point of this article is to get you to see.  In fairness you may not have had to deal with Bishop’s Weed, Mare’s Tail or Creeping Charlie before, your naivete is pardoned but be warned.  It is not even possible to rationalize the cost of an infestation, how long the sentence is in hours or the cost in plants.  

The ideal way to make using soil for top dressing and amending garden beds safe is to create a “soil nursery” garden or an annual bed. The logic of this is simple.  Monitor the soil for a year before using it in an established garden.  Use this garden for gifted plants like split Hostas and Irises etc. These gifts can prove very expensive if they have weeds growing in them.

Practicalities.  A bag of dirt (a yard) would create a garden 15’ by 3’ x 6” deep.  You could fill about 17 four foot window boxes. The following spring you can use this soil to top dress lawns or add to established gardens.  Get a new bag of dirt and replenish your “soil nursery”.  On small city lots this is hardly feasible but you could work through a half yard of soil and buy 10 smaller bags.  

Many people will buy baskets and at the end of the year throw them out with the dirt still in them.  Why not dump them on the lawn and rake it in. The soil has no best before date after all and every little bit helps.

Pause before reacting to your garden. Spring is crazy explosive and full of energy but you are the parent of that two year old, you do not have to have the same energy. Just enjoy it.  

Why exactly are you buying dirt and do you really need it?  I have been consulting for years and it amazes me how people in the spring do too much and do not understand garden techniques, think “helicopter parenting”. Garden tips are not difficult and by becoming gardener you ironically become more relaxed.


Some Useless Info


Bagged dirt is amended dirt. It is not magical. Consider amending your own. This could save time. If your dirt is clay sand is needed.

Bagged dirt is good dirt and is more consistent, it is not a “pig in a poke”.  If you order from another local supplier look into what he has to offer and talk with people.

Cheap top dirt?  You get what you pay for.

Part of the unseen costs of the large bags is it takes longer to shovel out.  It takes a solid hour to unpack a bag using muscles you never knew you had. (use a shorter spade) To unload a truck would take 20 minutes, to pick up from drive and clean up 35 minutes. (all using muscles that are practiced)

See point above. Price in a massage therapist if you do not shovel often.

Returning the bag to supplier takes time and makes a mess in your car.

Consider that about 17 bags (2 cu feet) has the same volume of soil.  Price out getting these delivered and do a cost comparison. (The large bags we unpack generally have more than a yard for those who are doing the math) (the same thinking about weeds is needed for any soil)

For some reason I think of Fanny Mae and how she changed recipes by defining a pinch and dash, changing them to teaspoons and cups.  Here are some conversions for you.

A bag will top dress a lawn 40’ by 20’

There are 11 wheelbarrow loads in a bag (4 cu ft barrow two thirds full)) (plus 3 shovel loads)

It takes 55 minutes to unpack and move 180’

the last three barrow loads are the most difficult on one’s back.  Consider throwing a child to the bottom with a bucket to niggle out corners.

…and yes I know how many spade fulls of dirt there are.  How many do you think?




I recently wrote an article about shade. That one too was a bit poetic and certainly not very technical. That is the way of it.  When you work with nature you cannot help working on the purposes and the joys behind it all. Since it is World Poetry Day I thought I would share some of that inspiration nature gives.  


under the dogwoods

I prune

the shade


This is a lone haiku written two years ago.  It is a favourite because of the different way that understanding can refract through these words.  The most beautiful spectrum was that it was not the Dogwoods being pruned but the shade.  The criteria was simply to divvy up the light fairly so the shrubs and other ground covers below could share the wealth.  When we prune that is one of the goals.  When you lead and take charge it should be one of our goals.

The next poem expands on the concepts of this haiku, drawing parallels that frankly are kinda cool….but shade is like that, kinda cool.  


Bonsai Yew


Shadows do not vie.

Without complaint they lay;

a covering for spilled blood.

They give up of their space,

move willing through time,

and always cede to light.


A shadow master

created a dark refuge.

In the center lay a crypt

made of granite so grey.

Inside on the ground,

a secret to it all.


At summer Solstice

the guests arrived

treading on shadows

that never had seen man.

Subdued in the darkness

there stoic they stood.


The beam as promised

did spread across dark

highlighting words

long ago set down.

The crowd together leaned

a dark shadow on spot.


Me and the master alone,

for I had not moved,

the shadow master smiled

and whispered so quiet

in voice of deepest shade

light words at solstice.


“Do not covet the light,

golden though it be,

Study other’s fractals

and grow towards their holes.

Become the lee for their winds

and a touch of dappled shade”


Yew and me

wind and light






Composting is not always an option in this busy world even though it is easy. We help people do it. The difficulty in doing this is that it is a process of changing mindsets and habits. We have found that to properly serve people through all the seasons of a garden we have in fact had to become lifestyle coaches. It is an unavoidable part of gardening.

In Guelph they have started to charge a $5.00 flat fee for residents’ yard waste and there was a bit of an uproar. They had to take the measure of hiring a security guard to help deal with rude customers. If I was to get anything across in this post it is to educate people on several key points. Where I start is to point out that yard “waste” is in fact not waste. It is valuable. (I may draw a few metaphors as I do this) The only other point is that compost is not hard but, because it seems easy, it is easy to mess up. If you start your first one chance are you will mess it up. You will forget to feed it, you will throw the wrong things in it or miss out on an important step in proper maintenance and any of the above can stop the process of the pile.

The first difficulty as I have said is that we view materials from the garden as waste. It is not waste, it is an important part of the garden process. The irony is that when we view it as waste we are not understanding. The stories from our past, or our ancestors and community, are not a waste. They are an essential part of the process of learning. A story in a way is like a compost. It is the past feeding the future. It is odd but when you really think about it everything becomes in the end a tale. The moment it takes place, whether it is exciting, sad or full of regrets, is not really as exciting as watching it transform from memory to story and on to legend. Our lives compost, our gardens compost and learning the process in the physical realm of your yard will help you make better stories. Teaching your children will do wonders.

I watched a lady make Broccoli soup. What I saw was a woman who knew about life, who had felt in her compost pile in the past that gross wasted stump of Broccoli that was too large to easily process, that would not go away. She had learned to process hard things immediately and so as I watched I was not surprised that before discarding the stump in the “green” she chopped it up into smaller pieces. Now she would not need to mull over it every year in her pile. The stumps and the stories were chewed on and broken down as they happened and then were added to the pile. When emptying out the bin from last year’s memories and putting them on the garden for this year’s flowers and fruits she did not have any large baggage to hinder her.

My job of course is not to draw parallels to your personal life but I do need to guide you to stop viewing garden trimmings and kitchen cuttings as waste. There needs to be spots in your yard for different things and certain processes should be introduced. One needs to see the irony of shipping off the yard waste that has so much worth to the city and paying them to take it. One needs to see that feeding your very own compost in your back yard takes no more time than putting it in a city bin.

Compost should not include just waste from your garden. These tend to be dry materials such as leaves, spent flowers and twigs and these items do not break down well with out the proper proportion of nitrogen that a good pile needs. They do not fully break down fast enough on their own to make this worthwhile for the home owner without some planning. It is possible to do and there are techniques that can be employed to make this work but it is important when doing them that there is a clear understanding of what to expect and how much space should be used.

The latter dry pile though is a great place to start. It does not create an odor (or is WAY less likely to) and it needs very little maintenance. The trick with this is learning very simple techniques and making sure your yard can accommodate it.  All stages of designing a “dry” carbon based compost are inexpensive and if properly done there is no distraction to your yard. The other bonus is that you now have a ready supply of material to add to your more valuable compost when needed.

If you start with managing the dry and stockier material you now can more easily manage the gross nitrogen that a good pile needs. Nitrogen includes vegetables from your kitchen and lawn clippings. (just two examples) These do create odors if not managed properly. (One rule of thumb is 60% carbon (dry) and 40% nitrogen (green)) The greatest flaw with a compost pile is supply and demand; the seasons. If you do not want to turn your pile continuously it is important to keep up an inventory of supply of carbon to add to the nitrogen to help keep the pile working at its optimum and to eliminate odors. In the fall if you have a place to store leaves over winter and have them available in the spring and summer to mix in with the lawn clippings and kitchen scrap you will be better able to support a balance.

I on purpose do not get too technical with my posts. There are many great resources on the internet to help tune a compost pile and, once you begin and the conversation starts, these sites will be places you will want to visit often. Here are a few key thoughts that will hopefully encourage you to start.

  1. Start a carbon pile first. These are very easy to do and though they do take up space they are easily able to fit in any garden design.
    1. Think “mulch” when you create this. Cut stems and the like down to a size you would typically find in mulch.
    2. Spread evenly on the ground
    3. layer with leaves where possible. This is mostly for appearance but by making the layers even you will help the pile rot more evenly
    4. the pile will only ever get so big.
    5. NOTE: These piles take nitrogen from the soil. Fertilizing the plants next to the pile and even the pile will help everything.
  2. Start a kitchen waste compost. I suggest starting at step one for the first year. This helps you to begin to “budget” carbon, to see the seasonal needs and it will help train you in management.
    1. Keep the balance 60/40 as stated above.
    2. Never put excessive lawn clippings or greens of any kind in without stirring in an appropriate amount of leaves and layering with a fine layer of dirt. (or sheep and cattle manure)
    3. NEVER put in greases, bones or meat. No Animal feces.
    4. The design of this bin should allow you to access the pile from the bottom to occasionally empty it. The black bins are good or we can custom make a bin for you.