Stanley Luk’s Terrace Garden Paradise

Landscape architect Stanley Luk packs a whole lot of heaven into his 300-square-foot/28-square-meter condo terrace. My visit on a sunny Sunday morning in late July captured this 5-year-old garden in the sky in just one of its seasons. Trust me, there are at least three seasons of delight here.

Imagine sitting in this shady corner! Luk prunes this 5-year-old Japanese maple (Acer palmatum ‘Bloodgood’) to keep it in scale, and groups heavier plants at the well-supported edge of his terrace.

Visiting brought both pleasure and pain. On one hand, Luk’s east-facing terrace downtown gives one hope that a lush, flowery garden in the sky is possible. On the other hand, it makes one realize that it takes a ton of passion and dedication (aka “effort”) to create and, more critically, maintain a terrace garden like his.

Containers – more than 300 of them – overflow with just about every form of plant life: perennials, annuals, tropicals, herbs, spring and summer bulbs, shrubs including several roses, vines, and small trees such as the variegated Japanese maple (Acer palmatum ‘Orido Nishiki’) on the right. 

Luk has the eye of a designer (he was an artist before switching to landscape architecture) and the heart of a collector. His plant menagerie includes numerous collections such as hostas, Japanese maples, and orchids. Plus, his talent as a horticulturist is evident in the health and longevity of the plants on display.

The centrepiece here is a delightful miniature garden that has survived over, if memory serves, three years in its pot. Plants include a tiny columbine (Aquilegia saximontana), variegated Saxifraga umbrosa ‘Variegata’, a tiny bun conifer (Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Tusukumo’), itty-bitty columnar Euonymus fortunei ‘Rykujo’, variegated sedge (Carex firma ‘Variegata’), wee primrose (Primula x marginata ‘Alan Jones’), and the fuzzy rosettes of alpine Haberlea fernandi-cobourgii.

See what I mean? Art. Collection. Horticulture.

Drought-tolerant succulents sit beside the garden’s most important equipment: a watering can and hose.

What does it take to keep a garden like this going? Water is a big, big thing. Luk spends time each morning giving just the right TLC to his big family of containers.

He says, “Having a terrace garden is like having a pet. You have to walk it every day.”

This is something many of us would-be terrace gardeners need to keep in mind. Luk’s success isn’t (forgive me) luck. And it isn’t only thanks to work put in during the season. The end of the year is over-wintering time, when he relocates all his perennial containers. Those that don’t come indoors are arranged along the window wall and covered with a tarp. Periodically during winter, he’ll check the soil to see if the plants need a top-up drink.

Fall has Luk potting up bulbs for spring, and spring sees him starting annual seeds for summer.

It’s a year-round endeavour.

But look at the display, gorgeous in Luk’s preferred cool pastel colour palette! (Cursor over any “uncaptioned” images to read the captions.)

Yoda, the family cat, takes the air.

One of many things I admired was Luk’s knack for combining foliage patterns and textures – a legacy of his visual arts background. (Click any image to open the slideshow and enjoy the interplays of green on green, with deep coloured accents.) The Japanese painted fern is a cultivar called Athyrium nipponicum ‘Godzilla’ which he thinks is a little bigger and more upright than the more common species, perfect for containers. That golden grass above is actually a sedge (Carex oshimensis ‘Evergold’). I’m in love with the graphic stripes of watermelon peperomia (Peperomia argyreia).

As someone who has tried and failed to keep moisture- and shade-loving maidenhair fern (Adiantum aetheopicum) alive, I was in awe at how abundantly the one below was growing on a sunny balcony in late July. The plants thriving here are “not the usual” balcony plants. They’re fancy-pants plants like false anemone (Anemonopsis), seen in bud below right. Luk has a terrace full of gems like these.

The rich variety of the gardener’s Hosta collection. And, look, a cool Japanese maple, too!

Woody plants, by which I mean shrubs and trees, are a big part of the show. The lovely, lacy example below is one of at least three hydrangea species or cultivars – not the least of which is a standard form of H. ‘Limelight’ stretching up by the terrace railing. Panicle hydrangeas like ‘Limelight’ flower only on the current season’s growth, making them easy to keep in scale by pruning hard every spring. Japanese maples also make frequent appearances, many of them dwarf.

Just as impressive is the indoor garden, with its huge and fascinating array of orchids.

This little orchid beauty is Podangis dactyloceras.

Luk is not only an orchid grower, but an award-winning exhibitor, and a soon-to-be show judge at a very high level. Orchids have a mind-boggling diversity of form, many of which can be seen right here in the living room. Some also get to vacation outdoors.

Think of it. Are you like me, just happy to keep one run of the mill grocery-store moth orchid (Phalaenopsis) from biting the dust?

Yes, this, too, is an orchid. It’s Platystele umbelata.

Keeping the collection company are a massive rex begonia and eye-popping cascade of white moth orchids. Speechless.

Stanley Luk is now collaborating, along with Vincent Simon and Jen Williamson, on a book about balcony and terrace gardening, so you can be inspired by and learn from a master. Look for it in the months ahead! I certainly will be.

If you’re on Facebook, and are a gardener in Toronto (the moderator will ensure that you are), check out the Toronto Gardeners group – no relation to our blog (except that Sarah and I are both members), where Stanley is very active. You’ll see many pictures of his terrace through the seasons.

Stanley Luk very kindly shepherded me around his wonderland and shared his knowledge.

From the sidewalk, it’s pretty easy to guess which terrace is home to a gardener. What do you think of it?

The trees seem even taller from below.

4 comments

  1. Absolutely amazing! Wonderful to see him growing an alpine Gesneriad on the balcony (Haberlea)- and those orchids! Wow… wow… wow!!

  2. Wow Gardening like you mean it. Precise gardening, just so
    There is nothing limiting about having a small space when you are this smart

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