Garden Photo of the Day

READER PHOTOS! Melissa’s garden in Ontario

Flowering perennials in the front garden.The daisies always steal the show. TWO WAYS TO ENLARGE! Click directly on the image to enlarge in a pop-up. Click HERE to view the image in a new browser window.
Photo/Illustration: Courtesy of Melissa Will

Today’s photos are from Melissa Will in Ontario. Melissa says, “This was my garden in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. When we moved there it a typical small, suburban lot with grass and a few shrubs. One day I saw a friend’s garden with massive delphiniums and that changed everything. I had to start my own garden.

The front garden with raised vegetable beds between the perennials. This area is just 8 feet wide.
Photo/Illustration: Courtesy of Melissa Will

“The yard was small (under 1/10 of an acre including the house) and I just started digging up grass and putting in plants. As you can see from the 7th photo, the soil was very hard clay, and my budget was very low ($100 a year). I could not bring myself to spend money on amending the soil so I stubbornly persisted in buying plants and watching them struggle.

The good news is, if you let enough plants die, they become compost! I laugh now but it was a big learning curve to understand that the health of the soil really is the key to a healthy garden. My composted manure budget amped up over time, and after about four years there was a big turning point. The perennials began to flourish and the garden I had envisioned started to become a reality.

A small pond in a raised bed by the front door. I used this bed to temporarily house volunteers pulled from the rest of the garden but the lavender and self-seeding pansies were so happy they never left.
Photo/Illustration: Courtesy of Melissa Will

“The narrow front yard was shared with our non-gardening neighbor and he graciously accepted my relentless love of plants as I systematically dug up every bit of grass I could. Taking advantage of the full sun in the front yard, I added tiered raised beds to grow vegetables and herbs amid the perennials, and also placed dwarf fruit trees and various berries throughout the garden. The diversity of the plantings seemed to confuse the pests and my one and only struggle was with red lily beetles who loved my Asiatic lilies as much as I did.

Delphiniums in the shady side garden. Grapes grow over the arbor.
Photo/Illustration: Courtesy of Melissa Will

“As a young gardener I naively accepted the donation of free plants, many of them becoming invasive nuisances, impossible to remove from the clay soil. These included mint, lemon balm, bishop’s weed, trumpet vine, obedient plant, and raspberries, which at least offered me some sweet compensation.

Asiatic lilies, raspberries, wiegela, hydrangea in the backyard.
Photo/Illustration: Courtesy of Melissa Will

“As you can see from the photos, I am incapable of saying no to flowers and like to plant them closely together to deter the weeds. Daisies in particular loved the soil and became the focal point in each bed. I also indulged in a many other cottage garden favourites including coneflowers, bee balm, lavender, sedums, cosmos, dahlias, day lilies, Asiatic lilies, bleeding hearts, hostas, clematis, and more. Those much-desired delphiniums became the stars of the narrow side garden. Unaware of their preferred growing conditions, I planted them in full shade and apparently they didn’t know the rules either because some years they reached up to eight feet in height.

I use garden art to add interest while waiting for the plants to grow.
Photo/Illustration: Courtesy of Melissa Will

“Just over a year ago, after ten years of working on the garden, we had to move for work purposes. I admit I really miss that garden but try and cheer myself up by thinking of all of the invasive plants I left behind. I’m starting over now with another bare lot with a whole new challenge: extremely sandy soil. Older and wiser, I focus on improving the soil before plants are added, and I’ve got almost one hundred delphinium seedlings started, ready to transform things once again.

I write a daily garden blog at Empress of Dirt. Come by and say hello and see what I’m working on now.”

Clay soil.
Photo/Illustration: Courtesy of Melissa Will

Amazing, Melissa! I can’t believe that yard was almost bare 10 years ago! I can’t imagine how much you miss it, but starting over must have it’s own joys. Thanks so much for sharing these photos and your story with us!

Even the carrots love the garden. And each other.
Photo/Illustration: Courtesy of Melissa Will

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View Comments


  1. charlotteA 08/15/2012

    thank you for captioning the pictures. I love it. And I love this garden. I've already learned a few things from
    the captioning.

  2. Annedean 08/15/2012

    I really enjoyed the humor in your writing and photos, dear empress of dirt! I think your new home is lucky to have you.

  3. tractor1 08/15/2012

    I'm trying to wrap my mind around how growing plants just for the sake of growing plants with no goal torwards structure is gardening. Melissa needs some acreage, like 40.

  4. User avater
    meander_michaele 08/15/2012

    Can't wait to spend some time on your blog...based on the pictures and prose you shared here, I'm already a fan! In fact, I owe you a big thanks for starting my day off with a laugh with your romantic carrots.
    You accomplished great things in your previous garden and because of the very effective learning by doing curve, your new garden should be amazing. I identified with your clump of clay except mine here is east TN is bright orange. Funny how the solution to both sandy soil and the clay stuff is adding compost, compost, compost!
    We'll all be looking forward to future pictures from your new labor of love. Hope an abundance of daisies will join your already existing crop of fledgling delphiniums.

  5. BrendaCoulter 08/15/2012

    "I admit I really miss that garden but try and cheer myself up by thinking of all of the invasive plants I left behind."

    Thanks for the laugh! I'll bear that in mind if ever I have to abandon my own beloved cottage garden!

  6. MelissaWill 08/15/2012

    I appreciate the kind words! And yes, as meander1 said, compost is always the answer no matter what your soil woes!

    I will share a tour of my new garden at some point. While it couldn't be more different (soil type, amount of space, layout) than the old garden shown here, the theme of daisies and delphiniums is definitely continuing.

  7. greengrowler 08/15/2012

    Melissa, your garden is so charming and full. My garden went through the same metamorphosis - from barren clay to overflowing (in non-drought years) beds. Although, in a dry climate, even with regular amendments, my soil still needs work; only the strong survive! May I make one suggestion - the cute shuttered window shutter you've placed on the fence, you might try putting a mirror behind the window opening which will make it look like a real window and reflect/visually extend the garden beyond the fence.

    I've always believed what defines a "garden" is what makes the gardener happy, including as many different styles/elements as there are gardeners! Thanks for sharing with us.

  8. snollygaster 08/15/2012

    Thanks for sharing;just the right combination of whimsy and beauty for me. I shall check out your blog.

  9. sheila_schultz 08/15/2012

    We seem to have a similar style of gardening, Melissa... plant what you love, then plant some more! Your former gardens were so much fun, definitely a feast for the eyes. I'm eager to see what your new gardens have in store for all of us!

  10. MelissaWill 08/15/2012

    @GreenGrowler Funny you mentioned adding a mirror to the garden art: I'm a big fan of garden mirrors and actually had many mirrors in that garden, but the location of that window with shutters was in a bird flight path so I didn't add one there.

    In case anyone is interested, there's an entire post on my blog about using mirrors in the garden with advice for keeping it safe for birds and which types of mirrors can safely endure the Canadian seasons year round.

  11. greengrowler 08/15/2012

    Wow, Melissa, I never considered the bird safety issue - YIKES! Thanks for the heads-up; will remember it for future mirror placements... and check out your blog....

  12. user-2025168 08/15/2012

    Melissa, I enjoyed your notes as much as your garden. I found your story just as entertaining with your obvious humor showing through bright and clear. I am just starting my garden in a long and narrow lot in northwest Washington

  13. cwheat000 08/15/2012

    Very cheerful!

  14. cwheat000 08/15/2012

    Nice job. Wow, that was some bad soil.

  15. cwheat000 08/15/2012

    Nice harvest, Tractor1. That's one crazy eggplant.

  16. MelissaWill 08/15/2012

    @cwheat000 The soil was so bad, one day in complete frustraton, I put down my shovel (which I broke many times just trying to dig) and started making a set of doll dishes for my daughter from the clay. My neighbors' gardens were not nearly as clay-filled. I just got "lucky" with my lot.

  17. tractor1 08/15/2012

    Yes, cwheat000, that salacious eggplant got lots of comments. I attempt a vegetable garden every year, some years the results are better than others, mostly due to the weather. My vegetable garden is 2,500 sq ft, really too large and produces too much, so a few years ago I gave up a third to growing a dozen blueberry bushes. On another note, I also have a nice 800 sq ft cottage available for rent ($750 + utils), if anyone is serious about living in the northern Catskills, it's quiet, plenty of privacy and elbow room, and lots of gardening possibilities.

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