Annex duplex is a garden of delights
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Home of the Week, 199 Albany Avenue, TorontoDarren Eagles/Darren Eagles Photography

199 Albany Ave., Toronto

Asking price: $1,949,000

Taxes: $8,508.32

Lot size: 19 by 173.5 feet

Agents: Beth Sulman, Sutton Group – Associates Realty Inc.

The backstory

On a leafy avenue in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood filled with clusters of Victorian, Georgian and Edwardian houses is one of the most written-about gardens in all of Canada.

It’s not a huge public park or a stately private ramble built around a mansion; it’s the garden of Marjorie Harris, who’s been writing for decades about plants and planting as a former contributor to The Globe and Mail, in other publications and in her books, of which there are more than a dozen.

“I started doing a column at the end of the 80s,” said Ms. Harris. “Things were breaking all over in Canadian gardening: new nurseries were popping up, interesting groups were starting up, you felt there was a network of gardeners trying new things.”

The rear garden is where most of the work has taken place, and when she started it the almost 140 feet deep and not quite 20-foot wide lot “looked like a bowling alley.”

“I’ve got plants at every single level; when you walk through you’re almost drowning in plants,” said Ms. Harris. “The way it’s structured there’s colour and foliage in every part of the garden at every time of the year. It’s not filled with a lot of flowers so there’s a good deal less maintenance that goes into it. It’s as close to self-sustaining as a garden can become.”

Over the years she’s ripped out major chunks and redesigned it many times. At one point there was a checkerboard pattern of plantings and landscaping, when that felt dated she added paths and mirrors along the fences to create a more immersive experience. The space has benefitted from the advice and insights of dozens if not hundreds of gardening experts and enthusiasts she’s spoken to or worked with over the past 40 years.

“Every time I change something in the house it would change something outside,” said Ms. Harris. With her husband, Jack Batten, an author of more than 40 fiction and non-fiction books, they embarked on a series of home improvements over 57 years in the house. “It was an absolute dump when we arrived, the whole neighbourhood was completely different. We were really early renovators in The Annex and were much resented at the time,” she said. Things have changed now, when neighbours found out they’d be listing the home for sale they threw a going away party.

Not that they are going too far; they are alighting to a nearby condo apartment building. The next chapter of her gardening life is going to be all about enlivening her balcony (the elevation of which gives her something like the climate zone of Sudbury, Ont., to work with), and even trying to bring more plants inside. Ironically, houseplants have never been her thing.

The house today

  • Home of the Week, 199 Albany Avenue, TorontoDarren Eagles/Darren Eagles Photography

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You can smell 199 Albany before you stand in front of it, thanks to the front garden plantings of eternal fragrance daphne, a low shrub with evergreen leaves that flowers from spring until fall. “It’s a fabulous plant. You’ve got a sort of delicate vanilla scent; it floats on the air without being cloying,” said Ms. Harris.

The front of the house is enveloped by a series of plantings, all of which still have room to grow after the (still controversial to Ms. Harris) removal of a silver maple shade tree by the city more than a decade back. “The temperature in the house just rocketed up, so I started doing much bigger plants out front. [The porch] is wonderfully cosetted by the garden.”

Past the front porch and into the foyer there’s another surprise: in the late eighties this house was made into a legal duplex with the door to the second-floor apartment just inside. “It just changed everything, made it really flexible for us. At that time my husband and I were separated; he lived upstairs and I lived downstairs,” said Ms. Harris. Over time, the couple reunited, which is why the unit is not tenanted and the house is being sold as one living space.

The 1904 house has had either cosmetic or functional upgrades in every space, and the one large addition on the rear of the house isn’t the limit of what could be done with the property.

“The architect over-engineered everything. It’s got huge elephant feet [in the foundation] so you could bash up the back of the house all the way up for three storeys,” Ms. Harris said. “That was done with the idea of keeping the house flexible for the future, but it’s not anything that interested us.”

The upstairs unit has the largest continuous living space, a combination kitchen, dining and living room space (with a wall of built-in bookshelves) taking up most of the second floor. Behind the kitchen is one of two bedrooms in the upper unit (with a powder-room ensuite), though this was mainly used as an office and writing room by Mr. Batten. On the third level behind a pocket door is the upper primary suite, with a walk-in closet, more storage and a four-piece ensuite bathroom.

The downstairs unit opens into a living room space with more bookshelves and a window in a rounded corner (original to the house) peeking into the side/back yard.

To the right of the living room is a main floor powder room and one of two bedrooms in the lower unit, this one – with windows looking onto the porch and the street – also was mainly a writer’s office for Ms. Harris.

The back of this level had a serious amount of work. Past a galley kitchen (which has cut-out views to the back) there’s a short flight of steps down to the dining room addition. Built in 2007 by PLANT Architects, this space is 1 1/2 stories tall with a wall of windowed doors that fold up accordion-style to create a seamless indoor-outdoor communion with the rear garden (these are commercial units designed to segregate hotels from their pools). It’s an entertaining space designed for a gardener, blending the work of decades with the interior of the home.

“It’s a beautiful and unbelievably dramatic dining room, when it’s lit up at night it’s sensational,” said Ms. Harris. There’s also a privacy and shade screen on an electric motor that encloses the space when required.

The basement level was Ms. Harris’s primary suite in the duplex years. Down the stairs, you enter into a large bedroom with built-in bookshelves serving as a full-wall headboard around the bed. The walls are lined with built-in storage cupboards and past a walk-in closet is a full spa-like ensuite bathroom that’s essentially a wet room shower with a claw-foot soaker tub inside.

“The other thing I found amazing after cleaning out the place, was how little furniture I had to take out. The bedroom and spa bathroom, everything is built in,” said Ms. Harris.

The garden

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“Aesthetically it’s a very beautiful place. It’s like a waterfall of foliage, gold and red and deep almost acid green, it’s just thrilling to sit in it. Then you have a good stiff drink,” Ms. Harris said with a delighted laugh.

But her primary message for potential buyers: You don’t need to be a serious gardener to keep and maintain it.

“What I’ve done in these latter years is make it a garden for an older person,” she said. “There’s not a lot of kneeling down and pulling out weeds, weeds have a hell of a difficult time growing here, it’s so densely planted.” At most, you may need to do a “haircut” every couple of years, and a little maintenance between seasons. She’s even left a little present for the next owner: “There’s a potting shed in the alley with an old sewing machine table and I’m leaving my favourite shovel.”

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