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).

Book your 2019 Garden and Land Care Projects Today!

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Earthshine Gardens can help with your 2019 garden and landscape projects. You will love our team, our work and our prices. Now booking landscape design and creation, garden care, tree/ shrub pruning, path creation/ care, shoreline erosion mitigation and garden/ landscape consultation. Serving all of south-west Nova Scotia. We work with nature to create and care for sustainable, ecological landscapes.

Contact Caitlin to book your complementary site visit today, (902) 298-1205 or

Choose the South Shore's holistic ecological land care team.

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Where do you get your...??

Clients often ask us this question; "where do you get your...??

Whether it's plants, soil, mulch, rock material or tools; people want to know where Earthshine Gardens is shopping. As a small business with ecological values, we support local whenever possible. We are proud to have a stellar network of local suppliers here in South Shore, Nova Scotia. Here is a list of some of our favourite suppliers along with why we love them. We hope this helps you shop local too!

Name: Land Care Nursery (1436 HWY 10, Cookville), Why we love them: Great selection of high quality plants at truly affordable prices.

Name: The Village Nursery (430 New Cumberland Rd, Pleasantville), Why we love them: Their plant collection includes extensive veggies, herbs and hanging baskets. They've got a long-standing good reputation and it's pleasure to walk through.

Name: Cosby's Garden Centre and Concrete Creations (4122 HWY3, Liverpool), Why we love them: This is a truly inspiring place that merges unique sculptures with nature in an outdoor gallery walk. Ivan's flowing creations make great garden art, and they have lots of other garden supplies too.

Name: One Sky Now (7657 HWY3, Mahone Bay), Why we love them: A small operation that is one of the only nurseries with a selection of organic plants.

Name: Oceanview Nursery (4392 HWY3, Chester), Why we love them: This is where we go when we are looking for a specific plant that we can't find elsewhere. They also have a growing selection of native plants. The garden art and ornamentation is beautiful and extensive. This one is a bit pricey so we usually visit it last.

Name: Medway Moss (Port Medway), Why we love them: This small company fits our ecological values perfectly. Tim rescues native mosses from the Medway Community Forest before the sites are clear cut. Mosses can be a nice option for shady or wet corners of the garden. They also often come with other native forest plants seeded within them that mature over time- bonus!

Name: Wile's Lake Farm Market (3254 HWY325, Wileville), Why we love them: We love any nursery where you can shop for plants while eating a danish! This is a sweet spot with a seasonal plant selection, a bakery and a local grocery section. Also it is one of the only places we can get Fertilo (our favourite granulated chicken manure product) in our town.

Name: Maughan's Construction  (RR#1, Bridgewater), Why we love them: Maughans has high quality garden soil, mulch, pea gravel and river rock. Their service is always friendly and the prices are great. Turnaround time is quick, and we can often get a same day delivery if needed.

Name: Bear Cove Resources  (142 East Berlin Rd, East Berlin), Why we love them: Storm-cast compost is the best quality compost around and it makes our gardens grow! This family operation has been sustainably harvesting and composting local kelp to create their black gold for decades. Plus they're a joy to work with.

Name: Yonder Hill Farm (Laconia, NS), Why we love them: Chris and family produce high-quality, heritage vegetable, flower and herb seeds. They are local, sustainable, organic and locally-adapted. Plus they have an almost 100% germination rate in my experience!

Name: Halifax Seed (Halifax, order online), Why we love them: They have a great seed selection and the ordering process is quick and convenient.

Name: Gow's Home Hardware (450 LaHave St, Bridgewater), Why we love them: The manager had me when she offered me 'aggressive discounts' for Earthshine Gardens. The service is always great and returns are never a problem. Plus they won best Home Hardware in Canada (2017) and they're expanding soon [larger garden section?!].

Name:  Details Event and Design Studios (mobile business based in the South Shore), Why we love them: Shanna has been a key part of developing Earthshine Gardens' brand. She did an excellent job with our logo and promotion material. It's eye catching and unique. Plus we hear she does weddings too!

Name: Fundy Textile and Design (Dartmouth), Why we love them: These folks literally gave us the shirts on our backs! They've done a great job with our team shirts two years in a row, and oh how we love that royal blue.