If you’re new to Urbaneer.com, you may not know our boutique Toronto real estate site isn’t limited to properties for sale or rent, but also explores all manners of housing as it relates to place, culture and design. That’s why, if you go through our Blog Categories, you’ll see a number of different topics ranging from our comprehensive Toronto Real Estate Forecasts, the engaging Dear Urbaneer Series which answers questions from readers, and proprietor Steve Fudge’s design and renovation blogs including Rejuvenating The Button Factory, Renovating The Movie House Loft, and his latest project – enlarging a mid-century purpose-built utilitarian duplex in the Tales From Tennis Crescent!
One blog – which began in 2011 – is The Tales Of Upper Hillsborough which shares the search, purchase and transformation of a vintage 1880s manse in Charlottetown, PEI. This home sweet home, co-purchased with Urbaneer team member and bestie James Ormston, is where we find solace throughout the year and offer as a vacation rental for those seeking bespoke accommodations with family and friends. A legal triplex, what started as a dilapidated tenement has now become a substantially-rebuilt and extended escape containing two and three bedroom suites. It’s been a journey of creativity and love, transformed by the very best in their craft.
When we made the decision to paint the property black – and call it The Black House! (here’s why) – our dear friend and bestie Dan Nuttall suggested we also plant a black garden. Huh? Being urbanites with balconies or terraces we had never even considered this a possibility, but the idea resonated with us. After all, the more interesting and unique the better, especially as we wanted our rental property to be distinctive and memorable.
Here’s Dan Nuttall’s explanation and implementation of creating a Black Garden at The Black House!
BLACK HOUSE – PLANTING SUMMARY
Natural plant populations very rarely contain black-pigmented leaves, although horticultural cultivars are increasingly headed this way due to consumer demand. While black-pigmented leaves occurring in natural plant populations have been found in some genera of mosses, lichens and liverworts they are otherwise absent from the plant world. The relative absence of black plants is thought to occur because there are few evolutionary advantages. Some research indicates that back-leaved variants of green leafed plants assimilate less carbon dioxide and thus accumulate less biomass. This results in a less vigorous plant. At the same time however, we all know that black coloured objects tend to gather and retain heat, which may help keep plants warm and could support the plant’s physiology.
© Dan Nuttall, THE BLUEBERRY, oil pastel, 16 x 20”; Blueberries and eggplants are great examples of colouration provided by the pigment anthocyanin.
The black pigment most commonly occurring in plants is “anthocyanin” which belongs to a group of pigments referred to as the “flavonoids”, a very colourful group which includes yellows, reds, blues and purples. “Flavus” means yellow, so a great example of yellow flavonoid would include the skin of lemons! And though it is a part of the flavonoid group, anthocyanin itself tends to produce colours in the red/purple/blue range. These colours are found not only in leaves but in blooms, fruits, barks and roots. You can begin to sense a link here between black and red/purple/blue as many of the anthocyanin containing plants that we consider black are actually more in the red-black and purple-black range. Think of the colours of blueberries and eggplants. As leaves, rather than blooms, tend to stay on the plant for longer periods of time the success of a black garden is predicated on finding plants with black leaves as opposed to blooms.
© Dan Nuttall; The reddish/green leaves of an Astilbe, centre, express colours that might support a black garden theme.
In the image above we can see how the idea of black plants is really about the selection of dark leaved colours within the variety of colours that exist across plant species. Note how the dark and glossy green of the rhododendron peeking from the left exerts a different effect than the lime-green leaves of the Hosta, while the reddish/green of an Astilbe in the center, in contrast, begins to support the colours we might be seeking in a black garden. Also note how the textures of plants create shadows and these can play a role in supporting how a black garden might look, particularly as ambient light levels fall. As shown below one of the darkest plants available is Black Mondo Grass, Ophiogon planiscapus which, although not very vigorous in some planted settings, adds an unique texture as a groundcover. To me it is among the truly blackest of available plants. It is also usually quite pricey!
© Dan Nuttall; Black Mondo Grass at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, NYC.
The planting design of The Black House began with working alongside the Owners and besties Steven and James to determine a concept that would complement the design of the house. As with many garden designs a design concept can run up against practical and aesthetic considerations. Would an all black garden look dreary? How commonplace are black plants in local nursery stock? Can the selected plants withstand the tough winter conditions on Canada’s east coast? Are there enough black plants across the various growth habits of plants (e.g., trees/shrubs/groundcovers) to create a comprehensive design? Were there other tradeoffs that we would have to consider? For example would we plant something that was black but produced a lot of leaf litter or was possibly invasive? Planting design, as with other forms of design, is often the result of considering multiple dimensions (political, economic, socio-cultural, ecological) and balancing trade-offs. To give you a sense of the history that we wanted to respect, below is an old archive photo of the property, the leaky, dilapitated state of the property when Steve and James took ownership, and, finally, the throughly transformed Black House.
As a starting point we decided that our biggest and boldest moves would have to be black – meaning that trees and shrubs would, where possible, be black. This is a very important design approach – if your biggest and boldest moves, or the “bones” of a project cannot be realized – there is no framework or backbone to the project and revisiting the design concept may be warranted. We began scouring local nurseries to confirm plant availability before we went too far!
Given the dimensions of the yard we needed about 3 or 4 tree/shrub species to create the “bones” or our framework. Beyond being able to read as black the selection of species also had to meet the core traditional spatial and cultural requirements (colour, size, shape, texture, sun and water requirements, seasonal characteristics). Below is a list of some plants that we thought we could find at local nurseries and could help shape the “bones” of our design approach. This is not as not an exhaustive list of black plants but were the selections that we would have to live with if we decided to carry through our design concept. While specific variety names have been included for some species below remember to leave your search quite open and do your research to find the plants that have the qualities you desire. A trip to the nursery or a review of good source guides will be required to select final cultivars or varieties. Remember, truly “black” plants are often just very dark versions of other colours and it takes shadows and breeding programs to “push” them towards a convincing black. You should also note that Norway Maple, listed below, is seen as invasive by ecologists and may not be the best choice. See if you can find native species that have been propagated to enhance the darkness of the leaves or let us know what your suggestions are!
Norway Maple, Acer platanoides ‘Crimson Sentry’
Weeping Beech, Fagus sylvatica ‘Purple Fountain’
Common Chokecherry, Prunus virginiana ‘Canada Red Select’
Barberry, Berberis thunbergii ‘Concorde’
Purple Ninebark, Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Diabolo’
Purpleleaf Sandcherry, Prunus x cistena
Black Lace Elderberry, Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’
Dark Horse Wegeila, Wegeila florida ‘Dark Horse’
Groundcovers – Perennial
Coral Bells, Heuchera ‘Blackout’ or ‘Obsidian’
Mondo Grass, Ophiogon planiscapus
Groundcovers – Annual
Ornamental Chile Pepper, Capsicum annum ‘Black Pearl’
Stonecrop, Sedum spurium “Voodoo”
Beyond using the “bones-framework” approach to determining the feasibility and starting point for our design, additional design principles began to inform our approach. Dark colours tend to “advance” or move towards a viewer, while light colours tend to recede and expand. Picture yourself in a dark maroon room versus a beige one. Would the use of dark colours move the planting space forward and make the space between the house façade and sidewalk “disappear”? Would a monochromatic space have little visual interest.
To expand the sense of space between the house and sidewalk and to add visual interest we opted for some low maintenance plants with dark blooms such as daylilies and we also used colours “in opposition” to purple, to magnify contrast. Maxium contrast here would come from using the traditional colour wheel – so yellows and lime greens would be perfect. You’’ll note in some images that those colours extent from the garden into home furnishings as well, providing an overall coherence to the property. Any time you place such opposition close to a viewer it draws the eye, in a sense distracts it, driving the eye towards the hints of colour rather than allowing the eye to pass through the garden, which would reduce privacy.
As well, we began to think about other garden materials that could help us with executing our design, in this case mulch that could vary from black to dark brown and still work. Much also provide other valuable functions in the garden such as suppressing weeds, reducing soil temperature and reducing evaporation of water. And here is what the final garden looks like, bones intact, principles of design engaged, design team happy.
Dan Nuttall (dandoesdesign), has both academic and professional backgrounds in the natural sciences and landscape design. His landscapes, which populate Canada, New York City and Mexico, include a diverse range of work from green roofs to therapuetic landcapes, public plazas to animal habitats, public parks to residential oases. Dan’s overarching interest in the natural world, sustainability, ecology, plants and animals is reflected both in his landscape design work and his art. As such, paintings and installations are another means of investigating and revealing the wonder of the world, both to himself and to others. Themes in his artwork include: the notion of otherness, often dwelling on non-human animal perspectives; space and sensing; the role of paintings as “ecological art” via ecological ethic. In both landscape design and art Dan hopes to inspire people to take a closer look at the world we live in with the goal of sustaining it.
Many thanks to PEI’s Doiron’s Landscaping & Gardening Centre for all their on-going landscape guidance and support in helping us realize – and maintain – the Black House gardens.
You can read a synopsis of our 7 year journey in this article featured in the ‘Discover Charlottetown’ Magazine called How I Came To Transform A Vintage Home In Charlottetown, PEI.
If you’re considering a vacation to Charlottetown, PEI, here’s our suites on vrbo.com
Although this is my first Black Garden, Dan has done some terrific outdoor spaces for me in Toronto including my brick-walled courtyard in Toronto’s Button Factory, and The Perfect Patio At My Movie House Loft.
And here’s one of my pieces in Dear Urbaneer: What Is The Value Of A Condominium Balcony Or Terrace? where I did the math on how much outdoor space is in downtown Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
Incidentally, if you’re a fan of Black Houses as much as I am, here’s two of my posts on my University Student Mentorship site called Houseporn.ca which you might like:
Black Houses In Canadian Urban Settings
Black Houses In The Canadian Landscape
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Tales Of Upper Hillsborough