Saturday, July 20, 2013

Silent Splendour - We are here, now what?

A small cottage garden in St. Catharines, Ontario has been transformed from stark emptiness to a lush oasis of beauty and serenity. Its journey of evolution revealed in a six part series following a caravan of change towards a destination opposed to convention.

A plan, what we needed was a plan, something to guide us, something to work from. It is said that one must understand the lay of the land. Identify any possible obstacles and at the same time recognise all potential benefits.

Our chosen little house stood like an elf between two larger homes of brick and cement block. Its front yard more like one of those commemorative postage stamps, not so small to stick to the tongue but still a postage stamp.

We had 33 feet in width and only thirteen and a half feet from the city sidewalk to our front steps. Two tall and mature maple trees flanked left and right, and although they would provide shade in the summer, their root systems could not be ignored. It was also a major road for the area with relatively heavy traffic and in the winter with salt spreading and City ploughing, any plan we decided on would have to take these facts into consideration.

The passageways to either side of the house required attention. On the one side the neighbour's chain link fence was only two feet from our walls and dead space, weed control was the only action needed there. To the left, the passageway provided space to stretch the imagination. There was no fence to provide a distinct separation between the cement block giant and our elf, yet it was the connecting artery to the backyard.

A barren backyard found that the might of a shovel would overcome all challenges, and a plan began to take shape. 

It was the backyard that provided most of the excitement with its size. True its width could not be considered obese yet its length at some 100 feet the proverbial blank canvas waiting for splashes of daring and imagination. Chain link fences separated the yards here, leaving a feeling of something more like the flat lands of Saskatchewan, albeit in the mini size, than private spaces.

As far as plans go, we didn't have one other than being adamant that 'as is' was not going to be the policy. One decision made early was that the back fence, which was set some twenty feet into the property had to be moved. The rest was up in the air. Olivera and I thought maybe we should consider taking inspiration from one of the varied styles used by those who had travelled this road before us. After all copying something tried and true would mean leaning on an experienced formula, a set of guidelines.

Our front yard, small and compact, equal to the first guarded steps towards change. 

Two small garden beds were cut out left and right of the front porch, leaving much to the lawn in tact

Regardless of what style is chosen it needs to meld with both the gardener and the space available. It would be somewhat eccentric to think that geometric hedges and trimmed topiary could exist in a space measuring only thirty feet by thirteen and a half feet. Many garden designers suggest that real curb appeal takes into account the surrounding community. Now, blending may work for a distiller of whiskey but neither Olivera nor I were too keen on that idea.

So what style could we choose? One which first came to mind was the English Cottage garden. The cottage garden is a distinct style of garden that uses an informal design, traditional materials, dense plantings, and a mixture of ornamental and edible plants. Earliest cottage gardens were more practical than their modern descendants with an emphasis on vegetables and herbs, along with some fruit trees, perhaps a bee hive, and even livestock. Modern day cottage gardens include countless regional and personal variations of the more traditional English cottage garden, and embrace plant materials, such as ornamental grasses or native plants, that were never seen in the rural gardens of cottages.

Informality of design which was the main feature of an English cottage garden appealed to us most of all as we fought to formalise a plan. St. Catharines, Ontario has large sections of its land still used for agriculture, in particular for the wine industry of Niagara. Still the traditional notion of beehives, fruit trees and particularly livestock were features both Olivera and I discounted from any future plan.

Size is not a major concern for a cottage garden, even if we could not ignore its limitations. Gertrude Jekyll applied what are cottage garden principles to her structured design of densely planted borders at Manor House, Upton Grey Hamshire. The term 'cottage garden' may even be applied to the large and sophisticated garden at Hidcote Manor. Vita Sackville-West described this as “a cottage garden on the most glorified scale.” (Vita Sackville West, “Hidcote Manor”, Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society [1949:476-81]) At Hidcote Manor colour harmonies are carefully contrived and controlled, as in the famous 'Red Borders', though still applying the basic principles of a cottage garden.

Vita Sackville-West took these similar ideals to design her rendition of a cottage garden in one the many 'garden rooms' at Sissinghurst Castle. Her idea of a cottage garden was a place where “the plants grow in a jumble, flowering shrubs mingled with roses, herbaceous plants with bulbous subjects, climbers scrambling over hedges, seedlings coming up wherever they have chosen to sow themselves,” (Wikipedia, Cottage Garden). Even the language used to describe such ideals of the cottage garden style was delicious.

Regardless of what plan or style chosen we could not forget that we had two children under the age of ten. Room was needed for them to stretch out their legs and maybe even to throw a ball. Since our home and yard was something less grand than a manor house or castle, overly dense planting would ensure constant casualties. We started with small steps forward, piercing the ground with our shovel.

Buckets of soil mixed with clay and stone were moved to the back fence, soon enough we would have to deal with this mountain. 

At the front of the house we decided to establish beds for planting close to the porch and at the length of the passageway from the sidewalk to the house. It was the backyard that provided more exercise for the newly purchased shovel. Several beds were dug alongside the chain link fence on either side of the yard. As each bed was dug more and more clay based soil needed to be moved. Bucket after bucket of clay mixed with stone and even shards of coal were being deposited at the back fence. Eventually Mohammed would have to come to his mountain but for the time being it was the excitement of changing our barren yard into a garden that was of importance.

As with all gardeners, enough is never enough and the twin size bed had to grow into a double.

Muscle and sweat became a staple diet in this garden with more and more stone added as accent. 

In my 20's I had lived for a short time in Italy and a love for natural stone developed within me. Planning out our garden was the ideal opportunity to use those memories and experiences. Natural stone had been used by man as a building material since the early days of civilization. Its beauty and strength can be adapted to many applications, and in varying ways. I decided to incorporate natural local stone in pathways and separations for the newly established garden beds.

By the time the first phase was nearing completion we had cut out six garden beds in the backyard. To one side two long curved beds provided ample room for stronger plant selections to anchor each of the beds. On the opposite side the first ground breaking venture was a curved area close to the house with two lattice screens erected to support climbing roses. Smaller sections along the length of the fence line were cut out for more roses though leaving much of the grass intact.

Opposite to the two long curved beds an area was chosen to place a garden bench with its floor of eventual stone. Towards the back, four rectangle individual beds within a compound were selected for dahlias and lilies. Overall we were pleased with the layout. Enough space was left for our children to stretch their legs, and at the same time the bland open space was beginning to fill in.

Two long curved beds were laid out to one side of the backyard along the chain link fence. 

A cookie cutter was borrowed from the kitchen to prepare beds for lilies and dahlias. 

Late autumn and winter was a time to refine the plan and overall look of what we had started. The motivation that carried both of us to bring in nature's beauty into our lives was only at the infant stage. At first it was simple, we hated the emptiness of what felt like an open field. There was no feeling of intimacy or privacy where we could simply relax. Our front yard though small, was devoid of character, of individuality.

These early emotions and the desire for change set us on a journey, one that has lasted for over a decade now. Our steps were short ones, maybe somewhat predictable for a beginner. Christopher Lloyd had dared all gardeners to “do something outlandish, to splash out, and be freer than ever.” We had decided to take up Christopher Lloyd's dare in 2003. Maybe it was after a stiff shot of courage to be different, or just seeing the physical beauty that was beginning to develop within our first guarded steps.

Finally our efforts began to produce rewards, and it was joyful. It was such beauty that became our motivation for taking more daring steps.

Our climbing roses began to fill in the lattice screens standing behind them and explode with life and colour. Plants that had been young and timid were finding strength and vigour demanding companionship. Along with our gardens awakening came our own. The journey had began in earnest for both Olivera and I.

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