Gwen Beam’s 33-foot lot is proof positive that you don’t need a lot of space to have an extraordinary garden. Originality and inventiveness — Beam has both qualities in spades — are key factors in transforming a tiny space.
Beam’s garden includes design elements such as a pond, pathways, and distinct garden rooms as well as vertical solutions that allow her to creatively maximize her square footage. For Beam, though, it’s all about the plants. She is passionate about plant collecting, container gardening, floral arranging, and designing with succulents and she networks closely with a broad community of plant enthusiasts. "Anything to do with horticulture, it’s my life, it’s in my blood," says Beam.
Beam has been an active member of the Brandon Garden Club for more than 35 years and currently volunteers as the program director. As Manitoba’s oldest garden club (established in 1893), the Brandon Garden Club has a well-earned reputation for stimulating a knowledge and love of gardening that extends well beyond its 76 members through its numerous community partnerships and initiatives.
Standing in Beam’s garden recently, I could sense the great interest in plants that she inspires. To start with, I want what she grows and that’s just one of the enjoyable effects Beam has on other plant lovers. Take the unusual Ligularia, for example, that grows in a shady nook of her garden. Ligularia przewalskii (pronounced sha-VAL-skee-eye) is named for Nicholas Przewalski, a Russian explorer and plant collector. Commonly called Shavalski’s ligularia, this unique variety is native to northern China and Mongolia and features large, dark green leaves that are palmately lobed with jagged edges atop purple-black stems. The golden-yellow flower spikes that bloom mid- to late summer are similar to the flower spikes of The Rocket ligularia but that’s where the similarity ends. The exceptional foliage of Shavalski’s ligularia makes this a standout specimen.
But there are many other intriguing conversation starters in Beam’s garden. Abutilon tiger eye flowering maple has large, green maple-shaped leaves and uncommonly beautiful flowers with bright red-orange veins suspended daintily on stems like Christmas ball ornaments. I first saw this variety last March at The Green Spot garden centre in Brandon where Bernie Whetter, owner, provides a good amount of space (for free) to members of the Brandon Garden Club for overwintering some of their tender plants.
Beam’s flowering maple has the stature of a small tree, about 152 cm. "But you let it get as big as you want to," she says. Each fall and spring, she takes cuttings. Beam enjoys the give and take of plant and seed exchanges with other plant lovers and is always on the hunt for something new. One such treasure is lemon sculpture scented geranium. Albert Parsons, president of the Minnedosa Horticultural Society, gave a cutting to Beam some years ago and today this living sculpture has grown into a statuesque plant with its distinctive, tightly curled leaves and horizontal branching. It stays indoors mostly but this year Beam has used it to decorate her patio by combining it in a container with zinnias which she started from seed.
Blackberry lily is another fascinating plant which Beam grows alongside her pond. At first glance, blackberry lily’s orchid-like flowers, each one with six, bright orange speckled petals with glowing yellow tones, call to mind the Tricyrtis hirta toad lily. But blackberry lily which is native to eastern Russia, China and Japan, is not related to toad lily. Indeed, blackberry lily is not a true lily. As a result of DNA sequence evidence, blackberry lily has been placed in the genus iris.
Initially, Beam wasn’t sure how well it would overwinter in her garden and lifted the tuberous rhizomes in fall for storing indoors. For the past three years, however, blackberry lily has reliably survived the winter outdoors. As each individual flower finishes blooming, it twists itself into an equally appealing bicoloured spiral shape followed by showy pear-shaped seed capsules with shiny black seeds.
Beam’s favourite colours to design with are purple, orange, and yellow. Lilium Lady Alice has downward facing reflexed blooms that are white with apricot-orange centres. An Aurelian lily, Lady Alice was purchased at the Lily Nook in Neepawa. Beam grows other lilies as well and only recently has been bothered by a very few red lily beetles, not that the beetles will get the better of her as Beam spends hours each day in her garden and subscribes to vigilance.
Hemerocallis Carrick Wildon is another find from the Lily Nook. A tetraploid daylily with large 19-cm flowers that are a yellow-red blend with orange tips and yellow throat, Carrick Wildon has a mid- to late season bloom period.
Beam has countless containers. In a sunny area of Beam’s backyard is a container arrangement with two varieties of Agastache Sunrise, one with purple tubular flowers and another with yellow flowers, together with Pretoria canna lily as the thriller with its variegated yellow and green striped leaves and large orange blooms and accented by the iridescent purple foliage of Strobilanthes Persian Shield and trailing chartreuse potato vine.
Beam’s narrow side garden features in-ground perennials, shrubs and container designs on both sides of the centre sidewalk leading to her backyard. In one container, she has combined Pretoria canna lily (a clear favourite) with a calla lily that has very dark black-green leaves and dark purple to black funnel-shaped flowers, accented by Jurassic Dino Rex begonia in hues of silver-green and a delicious, trailing plectranthus called Guacamole with its blend of yellow and avocado green foliage on deep red stems.
Succulents are everywhere in her landscape in traditional containers or funky, vintage pieces or spilling out of small bowls that sit on shelves or atop fences as well as in wooden frames mounted on exterior walls. There are beautiful examples of portulaca with bright orange flowers and fabulous Aeonium with purple-black rosettes.
Beam teaches workshops on designing with succulents and creates living succulent wall art. One of her pieces, displayed on an outer wall of her house, includes a wood accent with a carved face surrounded by an assortment of hardy succulents. To overwinter this piece of wall art, Beam places the entire frame upside down on the soil surface of one of her beds in fall, covers it with soil and ensures a good layer of snow cover for the winter. In spring, she lifts the frame, washes the soil off the succulents with a strong spray of water.
Beam also collects garden faces. There are stone faces and wooden faces throughout her garden. In one garden room, a trio of head planters sits beneath a cascading display of coleus and Dichondra Silver Falls. The centre head planter is planted with Huernia schneideriana Red Dragon Flower with strongly toothed stems for a Medusa effect. Fine Leaf Gold sedum with bright chartreuse trailing foliage fills the other two planters.
There is wonderful colour, texture, and flavour, too, in Beam’s vegetable garden. Two notable tomato varieties include Brad’s Atomic Grape tomato and Get Stuffed tomato which Beam says are delicious stuffed with rice and ground beef.