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The backyard of James Dale'sToronto home. June 24, 2009.


James Dale is a busy guy. In addition to running a prominent garden-design firm (Toronto's Earth Inc., which he operates with three partners), co-hosting a show based on their exploits (HGTV's Dirty Business, which began a new season on June 30) and raising two young girls with his wife, Sandra, the English-born landscape architect recently renovated his own home and backyard, turning the latter from a riot of weeds and junk into a chic, multifunctional space.

In the process, which involved about 50 different designs, Dale gave up on the cozy, plant-heavy garden that he would have created for himself and submitted to the wishes of Sandra and the girls, whom he jokingly refers to as his "clients."

And they got just about everything they wanted: a greensward for play, a charming little shed for keeping bikes and tools, a multitiered deck (with wood-burning fireplace) for entertaining, an intimate seating spot for conversation and a cleverly concealed area for garbage cans and recycling boxes.

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Dale was a little more scrupulous (and unwavering) with the manicured front of the house, where he insisted on a meticulously traditional space to complement the two-storey home's gambrel roof and cottage-style façade. Anyone looking at it, he says, "might think I have a control problem." The fence, for instance, is an exact copy of a Virginia picket fence, right down to the blue-grey paint. It embraces his favourite beech hedge, which is backed by an interior row of Hillsii yew.

As might be expected of a perfectionist, Dale prunes everything in the front garden three times a year and loves doing it. Along the outside of the fence, a row of pale cream daylilies complements the greenery, while a quadrant of paperbark maples sits in front of the living-room window. A little gate, which Dale installed in deference to the postman, leads to the yard next door. It also makes the small space look bigger than it is.

Back in the rear garden, though, the mood changes completely. A small deck edged in glass descends to a generous paved patio featuring what at first looks like a sculpture but is in fact a sleek Danish fireplace. This area steps down into what Dale calls the Grand Lawn, which is lined on either side by an array of stylized plantings, including six Chanticleer pear trees along one fence. The garden's colour palette is green on green, but Dale has the flexibility to change elements radically if he chooses to do so.

In the middle of the yard, blocks of Indiana limestone bisect the Grand Lawn, creating a straight, elegant path to the bike shed. When he pulled down the rotting garage that sat at the very back of the garden, Dale kept the old vertical fence that stood with it, then carried it on with new horizontal cedar fencing.

As for the trash cans, they're hidden away in a nook created by the deck and a driveway shared with the neighbours.

As Dale points out, grandness and sweep aren't concepts usually associated with small urban backyards, but they're more than apt when describing his stylish yet child-friendly garden. And even if the design doesn't reflect his initial instincts, it couldn't be more personal.

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