My Visit To Lilactree Farm

– Posted in: Lilactree Farm

Almost exactly a year ago, I visited Lilactree Farm, the home and garden of Brian Bixley. In 2014, I would have considered this visit quite improbable. I am not a frequent traveler nor an adventurous driver. The only trips I take are ones where all the planning is done for you and all you have to do is get on the bus. The Garden Bloggers Fling is such a trip, and when I learned it was being held in Toronto last year, I realized my dream of visiting Brian’s garden was within reach. Canadian blogger and friend Pat Webster was willing to join me on this jaunt and willingly did all the driving. We had a lovely conversation during the drive and enjoyed the scenery along the way.

I first became aware of Brian’s writing through the pages of Horticulture magazine, when they published his essay about creating a labyrinth in mown grass.

grass labyrinth

The barely visible grass labyrinth.

I was glad to see this in person, but I really needed to get on a ladder to photograph it properly. (Better photo here.) You can make it out on Google Maps if you know what to look for.

Horticulture also published his essay on growing colchicums and hardy geraniums together. I thought this rather ingenious, and referred to it in a post about good plants to combine with colchicums. (Both essays are in his book, Essays on Gardening in a Cold Climate, reviewed here.) Much to my surprise, Brian commented on my colchicum post and eventually added me to his newsletter email list. The posts on Cold Climate Gardening with his byline were all originally issues of his newsletter, which I have reprinted with his permission. After reading so much about it, I could hardly wait to see this garden in person!

Same Climate, Different Conditions

As best as I can tell from this map, the climate of Lilactree Farm is roughly equivalent to USDA Hardiness Zone 5. But apart from sharing the same minimum temperatures and a rural location, our gardens couldn’t be more different. Let’s start with something basic: soil. His soil is alkaline and sandy/gravelly. I have acid clay. Plants that thrive in his free-draining soil need to be coddled in mine.

The one time I planted this Jack-in-the-pulpit relative, it never emerged in spring.

Arisaema sikokianum

Arisaema sikokianum thriving in Brian’s garden.

Shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia) made it through a couple of growing seasons but eventually dwindled away.
shooting stars spring ephemeral native wildflower

Shooting stars

I haven’t even had the chance to grow Lady’s slippers. Look how well they are doing in his garden!
Lady's slipper orchids native to North America

Lady’s slipper orchids

I really think all these plants prefer the better drainage of his garden.

Lilactree Farm is located on a ridge and is exposed to the wind. Brian has planted hedges and shelter belts to moderate the garden’s exposure. My garden is in a little hollow surrounded by trees. We don’t have much of a problem with wind, but cold air pools around the house. All these differences illustrate that how cold a particular location gets is only one factor determining what plants will thrive there. And if you have read Brian’s previous contributions on this blog you know he grows many plants that aren’t supposed to be cold hardy in his climate, but are nevertheless doing well.

The Key Difference

What Brian’s garden has–which mine does not–is structure. Specifically, sight lines and focal points that draw you into the garden.

bench at the end of a path

A simple bench at the end of the path draws you out into the garden.

statue in the hedge

What’s in that hedge?

statue in the hedge closeup

Ahh! Now you know!

kinetic sculpture by Hart Massey

What is that at the top of the hill?


A sculpture by Hart Massey, which takes advantage of the windy location. The path leading to the sculpture is one of several that lead up to the field. These are my favorites. They start out as dark tunnels obscuring their destinations.
tree lined path to the field

Don’t you want to know what’s at the end of this path?

And open up to a glorious vista.
stupendous view at the edge of the Niagara escarpment on Lilactree Farm

You can see for miles!

The view is much more dramatic for having been hidden from view, and more satisfying to the viewer for having to make some effort to discover it.

I like to think I have an interesting assortment of plants, attractively arranged, but there is no incentive to move through the garden. The beds are all snugged up around the house. Go ahead, walk around the house–you’ve seen it all. There is one sightline, from the front door to the road, which is attractive to me when I sit at the kitchen table. But there is nothing to lead one to explore. This is frustrating to me, as there’s nothing I like better than a path and the sense that I will find something marvelous just around the next corner. When it comes to my garden, this is probably what I mull over most–how to create mystery, surprise, drama. How to turn a garden walk into an exploration, a very modest adventure.

Visiting Lilactree Farm didn’t solve this conundrum for me, but intensified my desire to come up with a solution. Having read about the various gardens at Lilactree Farm, it was a great pleasure to see them in person and understand how they all interrelate with each other.

Kathy Purdy and Brian Bixley

Kathy Purdy and Brian Bixley

Thank you, Brian, for your generous hospitality.

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

What differentiates a bulb from a perennial plant is that the nourishment for the flower is stored within the bulb itself.…There is something miraculous about the way that a little grenade of dried up tissue can explode into a complete flower.

~Monty Don in The Complete Gardener pp. 142

Comments on this entry are closed.

Pat Webster June 6, 2016, 10:45 am

What a great reminder of a fine day. Thanks for helping me see it again, on line.

Pat Webster June 6, 2016, 10:44 am

What a good review of a fine day! Thanks, Kathy, for helping me remember all we saw together.

Kathy Sturr of the Violet Fern June 6, 2016, 7:16 am

What a beautiful garden! I love visiting other people’s gardens – I always learn something and walk away with inspiration. I am now wondering what kind of sight line you are going to create? I still think your winter window garden is genius by the way!

Joanne Toft June 5, 2016, 6:43 pm

Thanks for sharing! Love the idea of thinking about what pulls you into the garden. Now I will need to do some thinking.