Sunday, May 26, 2013

Silent Splendour – A Garden's Journey

Gardening is both art and simple pleasure, and as gardeners we can choose to be inspired by others, or remain free spirited, willing to experiment and make mistakes. Regardless of the path we choose for ourselves, no garden can become a garden without a plan of some sort. Now the real fun, as Martha Stewart might say, really begins, making choices.

As children we are introduced to a method of dealing with questions with multiple choice answers. Unlike the examiner in school, our gardens are far more forgiving. If a plant was chosen and planted in a location where the sun's smiling face is too strong for the poor thing to handle, then simply bring out the shovel or pitchfork and move it. The wrong choice does not represent itself as a failing grade, it simply requires another choice to be made.

In 1997 my wife Olivera, our two children and I came to this modest home in St. Catharines, Ontario. Its yard not large though barren of any colour, simply grass stretching from front to back. Two large maple trees flanked left and right in the front of the house, and nothing more. Olivera had spent most of her life growing up as an apartment dweller and had not got her hands into 'dirt' before. Her father had spent many years as a custodian of an apartment complex, looking after the grounds, though young Olivera had not joined in at that time. Now she was eager to try anything, and without gardening gloves.

This was the original blank canvas we had landed upon. The only question was what to do next?

My background was somewhat different, as a child of eight or nine my parents had installed me as their apprentice gardening hand. Colour always filled our front yard with a variety of plantings, and the back was a veritable supermarket vegetable section with tomatoes, dill cucumbers, zucchini and so much more. Nothing was considered out of place and style did not exist, only the splendour of life. So I was introduced to soil under my fingernails and brown patches on my jean's knees early, and have remained so inclined ever since.

Here and now we were forced with the cliched 'blank canvas'. We knew that it could not remain so, the rest was going to be a journey of making choices, changing them, and then refining our space to suit our dreams and ground them in reality. Our 'blank canvas' measured only 33 feet in width and a little over 100 feet in depth, reality could not be ignored.

Average suburbia gardens represented a small amount of lawn cut away next to the house. Here rudimentary shrubs, such as evergreen balls, may be planted with a little occasional colour splashed in between. Plastic hanging baskets with geraniums left swinging through mid-Spring and Summer. The remaining space is left green and exposed to either a weekly or bi-weekly ballet to the accompaniment of a two-stroke mower engine.

Backyards are generally kept as green carpets exposed to the same musical fate as the front. Some install pools, either in-ground or dropped atop, though in the Niagara area of Ontario pools do not represent the same oasis quality as their counter parts in California or Florida. Our climate in Niagara becomes a serious spoiler for optimum usefulness of these receptacles of chlorinated water.

So a pool was definitely out of the question for us. Our backyard was after all only 33 feet wide and 100 feet deep not allowing for great expression, at least those were our thoughts at the beginning. The decision process was somewhat difficult, knowing more of what we didn't want rather than what we did want to replace it. Seeing inspiration from those who had travelled the path of such decision making is not simply copying someone's success. It is more like a pinch of bone meal in the soil to encourage and stimulate germination of growth and the illumination of colour.

One of England's greats, Gertrude Jekyll, born in London in 1843, is an example of both formality and picturesque playfulness of a traditional English garden. Gertrude Jekyll had authored 15 books about gardening, her most famous being Colour in the Flower Garden, and had collaborated with Sir Edwin Lutyens, another famous English garden designer. Many gardens, regardless of their chosen style, display a Lutyens Bench as an accessory of privilege, even if it is a copy.

Gertrude Jekyll, not only a prolific author of gardening books, had worked on famous gardens such as Greywalls, Hestercombe and Upton Grey. Hestercombe Gardens stand as an example of regal formality. Hedges trimmed perfectly, lawns manicured, and not a hair out of place. At Upton Grey, Gertrude Jekyll allowed herself to play with colour and a brash informality. It is a planned and organized 'mess', yet when in bloom bringing forth a smile on all who visit.

Europe's gardens of the Baroque or Renaissance period with their geometric designs, coupled with topiaries standing as sentries, still find themselves copied in part today. Though without giving consideration to the actual surroundings of a garden one could take on a task of the ridiculous. Our front yard is in polite terminology modest, in reality small. Topiaries, whether in animal shapes or geometric in design, would appear mildly insane. Two mature maple trees flanked left and right, their roots made the surface uneven, more conducive to grazing a sheep for the purpose of lawn care rather than a man made device.

Olivera took to books, gardening magazines, and gardening programs on HGTV. My inclination was more on the side of a wonderful English gardener and his famous call to all gardeners. Christopher Lloyd dared all gardeners to “do something outlandish, to splash out, and be freer than ever.”

Christopher Lloyd was born in 1921 and passed away in 2006. He was the twentieth century's most influential gardener, author of numerous books, and 'steward' at Great Dixter. The rose garden at Great Dixter was designed by Edwin Lutyens in 1912, it had ten geometric beds, each planted with the Hybrid Teas. This rose garden had yew hedges on three sides and an ancient cow house on the last, providing shelter from winter's harsh conditions. Christopher Lloyd decided to replace the Lutyen designed rose garden with something more daring, even shocking.

English gardeners are not to be expected to fall into neat categories for labelling, and Christopher Lloyd proved that more than once. In 1994 the old roses were ripped out and Christopher Lloyd recorded, “The rending noise of huge old roots reminded me of a hyena devouring a plank of wood” (from the Preface by Frank Ronan of Exotic Planting for Adventurous Gardeners). Lloyd had decided to be daring even shocking to a degree.

Frank Ronan said of Christopher Lloyd, “...I know that shock was not his intention. He might have enjoyed the overreaction of others, but that was never what he set out to achieve. Who would go to the enormous trouble of making an exotic garden only to see dismay on the faces of people you thought little of anyway? No, he made that garden out of an absolute love of the plants and the desire to grow them. If there had been no one else to look at it, or be shocked, he would have done it all the same.”

If inspiration was to be sort out then this would be mine. It is the sheer beauty and serenity of a garden that provides the motivation. As far as shock value went, we did indeed achieve that later, though in the beginning we started slowly. Our garden's major constraint was its size, or lack of size, at least it appeared so in the early stages. Till finally we picked up our pruners and released ourselves from the set perceptions of a suburban front yard, or that of a 'small' space.

Looking at our space, both my wife and I knew that it could not remain as it was. Yet this did not mean we could simply take a shovel and begin to dig, not without some plan or idea to follow, to guide us. Neither of us had any formal training in horticulture or garden design. It was to become the beginning of a journey learning through experience, and most of all the willingness to try almost anything. In time it has led us to the garden we have today, and a question that has never found an answer with finality. What's next?

The blank canvas has changed dramatically, and we did truly 'splash out'.

This is the first instalment of a six part series which will follow the journey of a garden as it evolved and changed to become an oasis of silent splendour. Both my wife and I changed gradually with our garden, becoming more daring, slowly cutting loose the bounds of convention. Come and enjoy the ride, and bring with you your comments and experiences, after all as gardeners we love to share, and not only our seeds. 
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1 comment:

  1. Most of the front yards I visit are either too plain (foundation plantings pushed up against the house or a riot of different colours textures and shapes. I try to accentuate the architecture both in period and style.
    Garden evolved over time this way.So when designing a garden there is a wide latitude.Simple is best for a front yard. Visually you can't take in all the nuances of many plantings. Colour simplified is your best bet if you want a lot of variety.Lipstick on a pig is still a pig. Sorry bad reference. What I am saying is anything goes but just not everything.