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Time to revive my perennial garden in the sky

In 1891, a young factory worker in Manchester ran an ad in a local paper, asking for help in planting a window box just three feet long and 10 inches wide.

As things turned out, the ad pitched up on the breakfast table of a portly, myopic, middle-aged Englishwoman known to her friends as Aunt Bumps, who decided at once to take the boy and his box in hand.

"The post brought him plants of mossy and silvery saxifrages, and a few small bulbs," Aunt Bumps recalled later. "Even some stones were sent, for it was to be a rock-garden, and there were to be two hills of different height with rocky tops, and a longish valley with a sunny and a shady side."

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The woman who enthusiastically answered the working boy's appeal - the lady famed outside her inner circle as Gertrude Jekyll (rhymes with treacle) - was accustomed to gardening on a somewhat grander scale than a window box. Her home plot in Surrey was big enough to keep a half-dozen gardeners busy year round. In her very long life, Ms. Jekyll would design, often in consultation with outstanding architects, nearly 400 gardens, large and small, for a galaxy of wealthy and less lofty clients. She was gardening history's greatest master of painterly planting, with blossoms serving as dabs of bright pigment on her verdant canvas, and with sweeping floral beds as brushstrokes.

But, as she knew perfectly well, and as snobs never learn, creating a wonderful garden has less to do with money or great space than with rigorous attention to both detail and ensemble. It requires a thorough grasp of plant structure and behaviour, reverence for the genius loci, expressed in the suite of lights and shadows, weather and built context that makes every site, even the tiniest window box, unique. Gertrude Jekyll had it all - talent, exacting taste and commitment - and that made her the perfect guide for the young man in Manchester.

The good example of Ms. Jekyll has been on my mind lately, as I've been thinking forward to the time, fast approaching, when I can get back into my garden. This bit of unroofed architecture is small, only about 350 square feet, and is perched on the third level of my west-side Toronto apartment.

Shortly after moving into the converted tool-and-die factory where I still live, 20 years later, I set about turning the deck into a site suitable for a garden. I had water piped up to the deck, wooden planters constructed, trellises installed. And I had to learn some facts about how to get a perennial garden to flourish three storeys off the ground. Among these facts, for example, was that it's not freezing that kills plants over the winter, but a combination of thawing and refreezing. The boxes had to be doubly insulated, to insure that the roots of the plants stayed frozen in a block of ice from autumn to spring.

What I managed to build, then, was a place small enough to be manageable in the midst of a busy life, but quite large enough for someone to do something interesting there.

That someone, in this case, was the gifted garden designer Anne Gibson, who, several years ago, tackled the transformation of my south-facing roof deck into an urban refuge with verve and broad knowledge of what could work.

The result of her labour was a fresh and handsome perennial garden in the sky. One trellised wall was clothed by a stout climbing hydrangea, another wall by cascades of clematis and a pink rose, and a wood-framed bed was planted with dwarf lilacs and shrub roses. There was lively colour in every month of the Toronto summer, and the greenery produced an attractive sense of enclosure and sanctuary.

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But living in a big city means, among other things, that it's altogether too easy to get distracted from good pastimes like gardening by work and other pleasures, and that's exactly what happened to me. Over the past couple of summers I have neglected the garden, with predictable outcomes. Unpruned, the lilacs grew enormous and jungly. The clematis vines, untrained on their trellis, got droopy and tangled and matted. The bones of Ms. Gibson's skilful design are still there, underneath the wrack and ruin, but what was once a place of green escape is no more.

So now you know my project for the spring and summer of 2011: to apply some Jekyllian fervour to the job of restoring my deck garden to what it once was. Garden artists, from the Victorian times of Gertrude Jekyll and her window box, down to the present of Anne Gibson and other designers, have greatly enriched the quality and temper of urban life. But now that April's here, the time has come - almost - to make good on their proposals, at least in the tiny corner of metropolis I call home.

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John More

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