The Magic of Old Gardens

Touring old Nova Scotia gardens is one of the great joys of my work as a landscape designer and gardener. I love discovering hidden perennial treasures, old rock walls, vines intertwining with natural plants, ruined foundations and weathered fruit trees. These gardens have worn the test of time.  They have been forgotten and rediscovered, perhaps many times over. They tell us stories of the past while offering dreams for the future. When I find old plants, I love to imagine the gardener-past at work creating their oasis. Digging into the soil of an old garden feels like directly connecting with them through time. I like to imagine some future gardener also reconnecting and rediscovering the garden, with my care and contribution, perhaps long in the future. That is what makes old gardens magic.

Climbing roses, rose-of-Sharon and a white picket fence offer old garden romance (Mahone Bay).

Climbing roses, rose-of-Sharon and a white picket fence offer old garden romance (Mahone Bay).

I am often called in by clients who have inherited an old garden and don’t know what to do with it. It can be overwhelming to look at the whole, complete with rambling plants and weeds. It begs the question, “Where to start?”.  My advice is to begin with simplifying the canvas by learning about and caring for the existing plants.  Once you do that, you will be able to observe and get to know your garden. Over time, you can fill gaps with new plants you love, transplant as desired, or even change the garden shape more easily.

Here are my recommendations for simplifying that canvas by giving your old garden some TLC:

An old perennial garden after some TLC (Lunenburg).

An old perennial garden after some TLC (Lunenburg).

1.    Learn about the plants in your garden. Take a look around at different points in the season and notice interesting plants. Take pictures so you can compare year-to-year. Identify what you can. Guide books and gardening books are helpful tools here. Keep a close eye out for rhubarb, peonies, columbine, roses, sedum and asparagus because these plants are long-lived and popular traditional garden plants in the region. Also look for old shrubs and trees such as lilac, apple, and spirea. You can also engage a professional like Earthshine Gardens if you need more support. Contact us to book your complementary site visit.

2.   Clear out excess deadwood, brush and leaves around plants. Deadwood and leaves are helpful in your garden to a point. They provide habitat for critters, protect the soil and help create humus. In an old garden though, it is likely that these materials have piled up to an extent that they are inhibiting plant growth.  Carefully rake up leaves where they are a thick mat. Prune deadwood off shrubs and trees, and shear dead plant stalks as needed. These materials can be composted onsite or woven into an ornamental brush wall.

Perennial garden classics (peony, sedum and iris) ramble in the foreground of an old rock wall (Chester).

Perennial garden classics (peony, sedum and iris) ramble in the foreground of an old rock wall (Chester).

3.   Weed. Old gardens are often very full of plants competing with each other for space, light and nutrients. Giving the garden a good weed will help desired plants thrive. I recommend waiting until early summer if you are just getting to know your garden, so you can see what is coming up.  What is a weed is entirely up to you. Plants are just that, plants. We humans label a plant a “weed” when we don’t want it to grow in our garden. If you like the wildflowers such as daisies, dandelions, buttercups, asters or goldenrod- let them be. They are adding to your secret garden vibe, and they are food for pollinators. You may consider adding bark mulch after you weed, depending on your aesthetic.

4.   Control aggressive perennials. Not all garden plants are created equal, and some plants will naturally out-compete others in a garden that goes many years without care. Hardy geranium is a good example. It’s a popular plant that is tougher than nails. It spreads by rhizome, deer don’t eat it and it’s super low-maintenance. It is a dominating presence in old gardens that chokes out other plants. Limit the more aggressive perennials to patches and clear out space around desired plants that are being smothered.

5.   Feed struggling plants with compost. A quick top-dressing of a high-quality compost will help those struggling plants thrive. 1-2 handfuls for herbaceous plants and 2-4 handfuls for shrubs and trees should do it. This should be done at least once per year in the spring and summer. I like Stormcast seaweed compost from Bear Cove Resources.


Trust me, that old garden is worth the time and effort. You are doing a service for people and nature; past, present and future. Plus, when we give our old gardens love, they share their secrets. Who knows what you might discover!

Your garden will thank you with living beauty, such as these classic fall-blooming hydrangea (Bridgewater).

Your garden will thank you with living beauty, such as these classic fall-blooming hydrangea (Bridgewater).

Free SIP Workshop at DesBrisay Museum

Join Earthshine Gardens’ designer, Caitlin Doucette for a free sub-irrigation planter workshop at 2:00 pm April 20th at the DesBrisay Museum in Bridgewater. Create your own sub-irrigation planter (also known as a self-watering planter or wicking bed ). It will make more efficient use of water by watering your plants from underneath. This activity is eco-friendly and is made primarily with used recyclables. Plant your own pole beans to enjoy this summer.

SIP Planters April 20 poster.png

Leaves in Flower: Foliage for the Fall Garden

“Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.” – Albert Camus

Japanese forest grass offers swaths of lime-green foliage and can grow in part-shade.

Japanese forest grass offers swaths of lime-green foliage and can grow in part-shade.

            Fall is a season of immense natural beauty. Nature-lovers are rewarded with a vibrant spectrum of foliage so diverse, it is like the second coming of spring. With cooler temperatures and less bugs, we can truly enjoy our outdoor spaces as the days begin to shorten. Moreover, for us gardeners, we can take advantage of fall nursery sales and great working weather.

            When it comes to our gardens, fall is the time for flowers to take a back seat while foliage enters centre-stage.  Foliage plants come in many colours including red, purple, burgundy, blue, gold, orange, yellow and every shade of green imaginable. Adding a few fall stunners to your garden will provide a lovely background in summer that will grow into the main event each fall.

A collection of fall foliage waits to be planted (kalmia, dwarf spruce, boxwood, false cypress, red-osior dogwood, ninebark, pieris and mugo pine).

A collection of fall foliage waits to be planted (kalmia, dwarf spruce, boxwood, false cypress, red-osior dogwood, ninebark, pieris and mugo pine).

            For sunny gardens, ornamental grasses feature swaths of colour as they bloom in fall. Plant them in masses of 3-12 plants for the best results. Shorter grasses for fall include blue fescue, little bluestem and side-oats grama. Karl Foerster feather reed grass and Japanese silver grass are excellent medium-height fall grasses. Ravenna/ hardy pampas grass is the giant of the hardy ornamental grasses, growing up to 12 feet tall. Grasses are especially lovely when mixed with fall perennial flowers, such as autumn joy sedum, rudbekkia and Russian sage.

            For part-shade landscapes, there are a number of no-fuss-no-muss shrubs with vibrant fall colour to choose from. Broadleaf deciduous shrubs such as burning bush, smoke bush and oak-leaf hydrangea have showy fall foliage. Red osier and yellow twig dogwood feature brightly coloured stems. Coniferous evergreen shrubs make excellent garden companions for more showy plants.


No fall landscape is complete without a tree or two. And there are so many excellent options to choose from. When it comes to trees, there is no need to scour the nurseries for fancy varieties. Our good old Canadian trees can’t be beat when it comes to fall colour. Serviceberry, sumac, and birch and are great choices for small trees. Red maple, sugar maple and red oak are larger options. Tamarack (also known as larch) is another interesting choice, as it is a conifer that turns yellow and fall and loses its needles. These trees are all part of the Acadian forest ecosystem, so they are well adapted to Nova Scotia’s climate and have great habitat value. Fall also features delicious hardy tree fruits such as apple and pear, which grow well in our climate, and yield a delicious bounty.

Contact us to book a complementary site visit today (serving south-west Nova Scotia).

Earthshine Gardens fall land care services

Earthshine Gardens is Permaculture Atlantic Network's Business of the Month

We are very pleased to announce that Earthshine Gardens has been selected as Permaulture Atlantic Network's business of the month.  Permaculture is a design practice that learns from/ works with nature in order to create sustainable human systems. Caitlin is a certified permaculture designer who received her trianing through Kootenay Permaculture Institute and Whole Village EcoVillage. Read all about how permaculture informs our gardening and business practices in this interview with designer/ project facilitator, Caitlin Doucette. We encourage you to contact us to discuss and get support for your permaculture project.

Springing into Action: Nova Scotia's All-New Ecological Land Care Team

Spring has sprung and Earthshine Gardens is giving our local land some love. Our team is already working on land and garden care projects across Nova Scotia's South Shore. Our Gardeners are busy tending asparagus, edging new beds, completing spring clean-ups and starting veggie gardens. Our forest technicians are pruning apples, planning trails and creating rustic brush walls. Our designer is drawing up ideas for local business fronts, new home constructions and edible landscapes. Every day, we are working joyfully to reconnect Nova Scotia's people with the beautiful nature around us, one landscape at a time.

We've also been working hard behind the scene this month. We've created a stellar workshop space complete with a new tool collection. We've been out there throughout the region and online talking to people to share our story. Our team is off to a great start with a unique staff orientation focused on skill-sharing, team-building and hands-on outdoor projects.

Building Earthshine Gardens has been a positive, heart-affirming process for myself (Caitlin) and Guy. We are passionate about weaving experiences of gardens, nature and home-grown food into our community. Earthshine Gardens is a platform from which we can launch our creative contributions to growing sustainable and resilient communities. We are falling in love with our business every day that it blossoms and we are overjoyed to have this opportunity to nurture positive change.

A duck friend enjoys  Earthshine Gardens '  living shoreline  on the  LaHave River .

A duck friend enjoys Earthshine Gardens' living shoreline on the LaHave River.

Personally, creating balance in life is a key value that I (Caitlin) am trying to uphold. I believe that balance between personal, professional, political, social and emotional aspects of our lives is necessary for our wellness. I also believe in the power of popular education praxis that combines lived experiences with theoretical knowledge and critical reflection. Praxis allows us to create a sustainable feedback cycle that helps us find solutions to live better with nature and one another. This may sound complicated, but it is the same thing that nature does in an ecosystem. Elements (animals, water, soil, trees etc.) exist in relation to one another, and nature creates resilient systems by allowing feedback between the elements and their functions. For example, if there is a dry, hot climate over time, evolution by natural selection favours plants with thick leaves and deep root systems while selecting for animals with slim bodies and long limbs that cool more easily. The system receives the ecological feedback and makes the change. Nature is my inspiration to find balance as the owner of Earthshine Gardens. My hope is that holding time for reflection, knowledge-sharing, dialogue and experimentation will allow our business to respond and thrive in the face of change.

Me enjoying a morning sunbeam with my seedlings.

Me enjoying a morning sunbeam with my seedlings.

For me and Guy, balance includes creating time for personal projects. We've been having fun these past few months growing our own organic vegetable seedlings for our balcony, for our community garden plot at Hodge Podge Garden and for the new garden we are creating at Blueberry Hill, space graciously shared with us by Laura, who is a member of our staff team. I started my tomatoes early and the plants are already big and strong. I have a feeling I will be neck-deep in canning and dehydrating projects by August! We've also been nurturing our living shoreline garden on the LaHave river, building the soil, combating the Japanese knotweed and adding new plants including luscious Medway Moss. It warms our hearts to hang out with our shoreline friends - Spirit the red squirrel, a little sparrow called Mustachio and his mate, River the rat (who shares a home with Spirit), Goofy Foot our silly loon, our beloved Autumn duck (RIP), and a revolving cast of sea birds. Sometimes we are even treated with a visit from a sleek seal or majestic bald eagle! When we need a break from the gardens, we've been working on art projects and rocking out with The Shadow Band, which provides the perfect balance for our hands-on work in the field with Earthshine Gardens.

Let Earthshine Gardens give your land some love. We're now booking for the 2017 growing season. Contact us to set up your complementary site visit for stewardship, design and creation projects, or explore our website to learn more about our services. Stay connected with our holistic ecological land care team on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter as we spring into action!

Happy spring,

Caitlin Doucette, designer / project facilitator

Launching Earthshine Gardens!

Late-winter reflection at one of my favourite places on Earth ( Gaff Point , Nove Scotia).

Late-winter reflection at one of my favourite places on Earth (Gaff Point, Nove Scotia).

It brings me (Caitlin) great joy to launch and share our new holistic ecological land care business, Earthshine Gardens! Starting in 2017, we will be offering a suite of organic garden and land care services in our community here in South Shore, Nova Scotia. In our work, our team will seek to re-connect our clients with their land and provide our community with meaningful experiences in nature.

I am thrilled to be working with a skilled team including Gardeners, Forest Technicians and even an Artist-in-Residence. Our small-team structure will allow us to personalize our projects to give our clients the best service possible. Together, our team has strong and diverse experience working with nature in ecological garden and land care initiatives. I am excited to provide an alternative to conventional landscaping that enhances beauty and bounty, while strengthening the ecological value, biodiversity and natural resilience  of our land.

My spring  living shoreline  garden on the  LaHave River . We're looking forward to even more blooms this year ( Bridgewater , Nova Scotia).

My spring living shoreline garden on the LaHave River. We're looking forward to even more blooms this year (Bridgewater, Nova Scotia).

This new venture brings together so many things that I am passionate about - people, gardens, nature, food and creativity. I have experienced the immense power and positive energy of really being in nature, of eating fresh garden harvests and of sinking hands into the soil. Earthshine Gardens will offer a new way for my team and me to share this experience by bringing it to others in our community.

Spring bulbs are coming soon, I promise!

Spring bulbs are coming soon, I promise!

Stay tuned for upcoming blogs, including more on our team and services.

I love to connect so please feel encouraged to contact me. I believe that nurturing strong and resilient communities is the root of living more local, more sustainable and ultimately more fulfilling lives.

Warmly, Caitlin Doucette