life in the garden

The beautiful brick house on Case Street – a stone’s throw from the intersection of busy Barton Street East and Sherman Avenue North – has been in the Debbie Diligente family for over 100 years. But his front and back gardens haven’t seen as much change as in the past three years.

It started, in a rather complicated form, with a bag of potato chips.

The Gardens is the work of Debbie’s partner, Dan McGillivray. Badly bitten by a gardening bug, when he was seven years old, he grew up on his parents’ subsistence farm near Woodstock. They grow food for themselves. But inside a bag of potato chips, young Dan found a “premium” – a small package of nasturtium seeds. Plant it and watch it grow and bloom.

“I was addicted after that,” he says. “I’ve always worked in gardens – for fun.”

Life and work have led him to various places “but everywhere I go, I’ve been creating a garden.” While in Woodstock, his garden won awards year after year; Another park is included in a discontinued local park tour.

He and Debbie have been together for three and a half years. Debbie and Dan live with her mother, Helen, who is 89 and has some problems getting around. Retired Dan, save for a few gardening gigs now and then (more on that in a moment), started making gardens right away.

There was a lawn, some cedar fencing, and a garden shed built by Debbie’s late father. The transformation was dramatic and fast. A 60-foot white pine tree, planted in 1967, was removed in December 2019. Dan began sculpting the beds and borders and planting them with a mixture of perennials, shrubs, vines, and annuals.

The property won Trillium civic beauty awards in 2020 and this year for its beautiful, colorful front garden, and Debbie and Dan opened the front and back gardens to visitors at last month’s Hamilton Spectator Open Garden Week.

The back is a park with distinct areas – not quite the garden “rooms” that would make a small city park look smaller but individual enough to give the park shape and structure. A freestanding wooden trellis built by Dan encloses an area densely planted with a mix of colorful perennials — liatris and daylilies, black-eyed Susans and conifers, California poppies and balloon flower — and a few annuals (zinnias and sunflowers). On the trellis, a scarlet bean vine adds a splash of red, right across the path from a climbing bean vine.

On the other side of the trellis, a small patch of grass left over a bed is wrapped with woody shrubs, weeds, castor bean plants, datura, bee balm, joe-pye grass and more. On the other side of the central path are bleeding heart, elder, ferns, canna lilies, and hydrangeas with large-leaved ‘Sum and Substance’ plants. There’s also the stunning ‘Boom Chocolatta’ geranium, which has gorgeous, deep bronze foliage and opens earlier in summer with blue-purple flowers.

Peonies survive Debbie’s father’s garden and are given the center stage. Dan works out of respect that he does gardening as Debbie’s father used to do. “Everything I do, I do with Joe in mind.”

He uses annuals in the garden – but a little reluctantly. “You can’t get away from the annuals,” he says. “There is always a place where you have had a winter kill or need to fill in a spot. In a perfect garden, you wouldn’t have annuals—but there is no such thing as a perfect garden.”

Dan worked part-time at a garden center for a home improvement store, partly to satiate his interest in plants and also because he loves to share what he knows. He also signed up for a website – – that matches people who need help in the garden with people who want to provide it. He had 10 clients at one point but cut that down to offer more help to Debbie’s mother.

Debbie says the garden was made by Dan, but it is her pleasure.

“This is about peace. Calmness and serenity. It is a labor of love,” she says. “I left it to Dan and I love him.”

Rob Howard and Gardens live in Hamilton. He’s a garden writer, speaker, and garden trainer. You can reach him at [email protected] or on Facebook at Rob Howard: Garden Writer.

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