Village retreatPublished on April 28, 2008

  • Mary-Anne and her family recently renovated their kitchen, but preserved the room's original chimney. Photo by Darren Brown

  • Mary-Anne used inexpensive and readily available pea stone to set the stage for her Zen retreat. Photo by Mary-Anne Schmitz

  • The serene mood of the back garden is enhanced by this water feature. Photo by Mary-Anne Schmitz

  • When it came time to update the home's front entranceway last year, Mary-Anne donated the old wooden steps to a local church. Photo by Mary-Anne Schmitz

When Mary-Anne Schmitz describes her home gardens, she paints a picture of colour, texture and scent. And all it takes is one visit to understand that they are a living example of her passion for the art of gardening. The landscape designer, who has worked with Artistic Landscapes for 26 years, moved into her heritage home in the south Ottawa village of Kenmore more than 10 years ago. She has since transformed its surroundings into a personal oasis. The lush outdoor spaces include a classic Victorian garden, a traditional entranceway and a Zen retreat that's a restful place where she can experiment. The 49-year-old, who shares her village sanctuary with her husband, three daughters and a menagerie of pets, recently welcomed Ottawa At Home to take a trip down her beautiful garden paths. You have such a large property - which section did you tackle first?

We started in the front garden first because sometimes it's very obvious about what you need to do and I wanted to experiment with plants and hard materials. We have about an acre of land - it's a double city lot. We live in a village that was originally an old mill town and our house is the mill owner's last home. It was built in 1914 and has lots of charm. I believe the front area always needs to be in character with the house and has to flow, so the front of the yard became a Victorian garden.

Was it a big project?

It was doable for us to do. My husband and I did all the work with a few pieces of equipment, like a small back hoe. It was fun to do that it way - when you do your own work, place your own plants and you know you're doing the right thing. We've been letting the front garden change over time - we've put vines in there, we used wrought iron trellises and obelisks and then we added an Adirondack chair and painted it pink. It flows and just works. You have to put your personal touch in there - it's like adding artwork to a beautiful room, it's what you really like and what makes your garden very personal.

Is maintenance a big factor in your gardens?

You can't just do a garden and say it's done. That's impossible. And you can't say this is low maintenance and I'll never touch it again. We've been doing a lot of pruning and putting shape to the growing evergreens and shrubs. From the beginning of your garden you need to put in good earth, mixed with a lot of compost and then add a bark mulch on the surface. Once the earth is nice and warm every spring, you rototill or hoe very lightly everywhere and put on an inch to two inches of mulch and that will take care of 80 per cent of your weeds. It's always important to keep your weeding down because if it becomes time consuming then you're going to get tired of your garden.

You've also created a Zen garden in the back section of your yard?

Yes, this area was lower and may have been a junk area because everyone in the country used to have a little area like that, so we dug it down and created a sunken pea stone garden in there. It's surrounded by pea stone and river stone and on the inside you'll see boulders, and a beautiful little discreet water feature with just a trickle of water in the one corner. We painted the furniture a pinky-purple colour - it's beautiful and you just want to go there and hang out. Here and there we also added a broken pot and it's grown in so gorgeous. I especially love the ornamental grasses in the fall.

Are the grasses a personal favourite?

Yes, I love to work with them. Ornamental grasses are really there for texture, with some that are early and others that are late bloomers. If you don't mix your grasses in your garden you may not get that nice variation starting early in spring. Once the fall comes you'll get a totally different formation - with shorter days and cooler weather, the grasses transform into something completely different.

What's your most recent project?

We did the things later that cost the most amount of money. We had to redo the porch because we were getting too much sun and then we added another shed. Last year we did the front entrance, which was really expensive to do in real, good natural stonework. The project was clear to me because we needed to go with the style of the house. We've got two beautiful pillars with lamps and vines that grow up above it. The vine has been there since we moved in and I think it was there soon after the house was built in 1914. It's called a Dutchman Pipe.

Is working with clients much different than working in your own gardens?

With a client you want to give them the whole picture and in your own garden you can take your own time. Every so often you'll get new materials to try out, plus if you're busy at work then your house comes last. My house is an experiment so I want to use things I can show to my clients. I've tried to create show gardens - a butterfly garden and an evergreen garden - but it didn't work and you have to go with the flow. I also expect my clients to call me sometime down the road to reassess because I do that with my own garden. The main difference is I like to take my time with my own garden and it does take longer, but that's OK. That's the right thing to do. Plus you have to pay for these additions, so we've saved up for the bigger projects like the front entrance.

What's your favourite part of your garden?

I'd have to say it's the pea stone area because it's almost zero maintenance. The spots I spend the most of my time are the small areas with roses. It's the type of work I don't like doing because I hate to be prickled, but the pea stone garden is so calming and it's always beautiful. It never looks bad no matter the season and it's quite big so when you're in that area you're away from everything. I think most people who come to our house find it's their favourite spot.

Spring gardening tips from Mary-Anne:

Uncover your roses around the end of April (after the last full moon) on a cloudy day. Spray or dust with sulfur and prune dead branches. Spray your deciduous shrubs and trees with dormant oil and/or lime sulphur on a wind still, frost-free day. (temperatures not over 25º C) Apply crab-grass preventer on lawns when forsythias are blooming. Fertilize trees, shrubs, perennial beds with proper granular fertilizers. Lightly hoe garden beds before applying bark mulch (manure or mushroom compost may be applied at this time) Thoroughly rake your lawn. Topdressing and/or re-seeding can be done near the end of April. Take caution against working the soil too early in the year. Tilling wet soil will destroy its structure, compact the soil, and squeeze out the air.

At Home workshop:

Mary-Anne is offering workshops in her home garden this year every Saturday in June and September. The "afternoon in the garden" workshops will include an introduction to the basics of good landscaping with a gourmet lunch and a personal garden assessment. For more information, call 613-821-3699 or go to

Mary-Anne's favorite perennials include:

Purple Coneflower, semi dwarf variety (Echinacea purpurea "Knee High") Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fuldiga "Goldsturm") Ornamental Moor Grass Molina caer ("Moorflame" and "Moorhexe") Japanese Forest Grass (Hakonechloa macra. "Aureola") Variegated Knotweed (Fallopia jap. "Milky Boy") Bush Clover (Lespedeza)

Sign up for our Newsletter
Subscribe to theMagazine

Subscribe to Ottawa at Home for only $25.00 + hst per year. Click to Subscribe.