Sunday, October 20, 2013

Silent Splendour - A time for daring, a time for freedom

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.

Timid and predictable may have described the early footprints we had imprinted upon our surrounding environment. Still reward was bestowed on us and the starlets of 2002 brought with them not only a splash of colour onto a barren canvas, but became the kindling to a flame that has found no end. Our new shovel was no longer a novice, it had cut through clay, mixed rich black soil with peat moss and manure to provide a welcoming home for infant planting. Now it stood ready at our side bolstered by success, to reach out for freedom from convention.

Spring 2003 felt like it was taking its time to arrive. During winter's slumber new ideas had been discussed, photographs provided a visual through a blanket of snow to guide planned additions to our young garden. Finally crocus, daffodil and early tulips peaked through the yawning ground. Life and colour was beginning to burst all around bringing with it a bubbling excitement to feel the soil once again in our hands.

At the front of the house we decided to stone face the short retaining walls to add strength and substance. Two new beds were laid out in the wide passage way. Both of these beds were raised above ground level, first to avoid excessive digging and collision with a gas line, and second, to avoid a war with the giant maple tree's roots. Unlike the front garden these beds were shaded by the cement block neighbour and our own little house, providing an opportunity to choose plants which complemented, yet were accustomed to part shade conditions.

It was in mid-season that we finally decided on a major change. I had become tired of the ups and downs of mowing over the maple tree roots. Neighbours would roll out their two-stroke partners for the bi-weekly man ballet. One would even bring out the rolling pin after mowing to ensure no blade of grass stood taller than other. We had decided on a more radical step.

The lawn removed, we went about changing the total look of the front garden.

Finally Christopher Lloyd's words come to roost in our hands. We had decided to “do something outlandish, to splash out, and be freer than ever.” The front lawn, as such that it was, was removed. As the shovel worked hard under the bright sun lashing and cutting at the blades of grass, two neighbours stood only feet away and watched. One came from across the road, the other from the cement block tall boy next door, and stood arms folded on the sidewalk. They ridiculed and laughed at what was outlandish and insane in their opinion. We continued undaunted.

The decision to remove the lawn was not something that was done to shock those around us. Nor was the removal planned without an alternative design. Frank Ronan said of Christopher Lloyd, “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.” That was absolutely true of both Olivera and I.

Strong evergreens were planted to ensure straying paws knew their limits. 

Our front lawn was not what could of been called a lovely accent of a green area rug. It was uneven and difficult to mow. Removing the grass opened the doors of opportunity for imagination. Now the real work was to really begin.

So what was the plan? First, with the grass removed very large stones were brought in to create a path leading through to the passageway. Some of these stones were up to 30 inches in diameter and were chosen for their tough and rugged look, found near a disused railway line. Much of the local stone used in the evolution of this garden had been recycled local stone brought in for the beauty of its natural strength.

The thirteen and a half foot long path leading from the sidewalk to the front steps had a soldier course of Munstead lavender planted, with two evergreen cedar balls at the head of the steps. A white picket fence was definitely out of the question, yet we needed to separate our space from the public sidewalk. Two young juniper bushes were strategically placed in the middle of each section to the left and right of the path. In time these would grow to provide a natural border to keep straying feet or paws from losing their way.

It was time to turn our attention to the giant umbrellas nature had provided, after all it was their root system which ran deeper than the underground freedom railway that prompted such a dramatic change. We had formed two frames with lavender, evergreen cedars, junipers and the stone faced shorter walls. The giant maples were the outside perimeters of these frames, which felt somewhat empty needing a splash of Pollock style exuberance.

Lavender, iris and purple liatris to bring life and colour.

I was prepared to do the root tango when laying the large stones for the path, though to continue this dance again was less appealing. Instead two circular beds were designed to apron the trunks. As each of the trees were at the edge of our property, these beds could not fully encircle the base but were large enough in diameter to provide ample space for planting. Stone again was used only this time in a dry stacked style. Each bed raised some twenty inches from the surface to ensure enough depth for root growth for the new plants.

Giant alliums peeked out above the sweet scent of lavender. 

Choosing what to plant in the circular beds was a little more challenging. Plants that normally co-inhabit well under trees such as hosta or fern would require sunscreen lotion greater than 1000 SPF, personal sunbrellas and a constant supply of water. Instead daylilies and sedums were chosen as the base for the beds, with additions on a seasonal cycle.

To complete this full frontal transformation, black cedar mulch was spread to cover the surface remaining without plants. It was not only for the visual aesthetic that the mulch was used but also to avoid a mud bath after each rainfall. Though I'll admit that the black looked darn good against the stone and maturing plants.

At the end of all the work we were pleased with what we had achieved. Our front garden was unlike any within our area. True some laughter and ridicule came our way in the beginning, but soon changed as our garden matured. Changes would come, in time, additions and subtractions are part of any gardener's equation. For now we were satisfied and turned our attention towards the back.

Our first project had to be to move the back fence and reclaim over twenty feet of depth lost for no reason. But now Mohammed could no longer ignore the growing mountain of soil. As each of the beds were cut out of the vast emptiness of our backyard, bucket after bucket of clay mixed soil mounted. Trucking this soil to landfill would result in a ridiculous cost, so another idea at recycling had germinated.

Recycling has become a popular catch cry in North America today, for both environmental and even profit reasons. To us it was simply common sense. The original boards of the fence were removed carefully so as to be used again, their length at four feet was a perfect fit to the design planned. A stone wall was dry stacked to be the outside corners of a square. Here as in the pathway it was limestone that was chosen, only in this application smaller stones that had size for stacking. This wall was two feet high and 17 feet by 22 feet, the remaining height of the fence was filled with four foot long fence boards.

The mountain levelled and stone walls to encase the newly raised patio. 
Inside the new fence the closing two sides of the square were also dry stacked stone. In this case a pink/grey sandstone used throughout much of Canada was selected. This stone has been used in the construction of many public buildings such as churches, the old Merritton Town Hall and commercial buildings such as the restored Keg Restaurant, once a rubber factory of the early 1800's and a stop on the famous underground railway in St. Catharines.

Finally the mountain was levelled out within the stone walls to form a raised patio area, but the patio had to wait. A watermelon seed decided to germinate and before we identified it the vines began to spread throughout the raised area. In time we had more watermelons than we could eat and were giving them to neighbours.

Part of the transplanted hedge with cannas and dahlias. 

With the last of the watermelons being handed out and autumn closing in, it was time to prepare plans for the next stage in the shaping of the garden. Olivera had decided to begin a visual diary of sorts as both a planning tool and a record of the gradual changes taking place. This became a log not only to record the types of plants which had become part of the overall design but also ones that failed. Looking back at the sketches today it has become a wonderful source of memories of earlier plans and ideals. Then with a new spring approaching it was time to breathe life into the sketches.

Honey toned stone became the floor for a resting area for weary bones. 

The front garden found itself settling in well by the spring of 2004, it was time to devote more attention to the larger space in the back. Our neighbour had decided to remove a large six foot high section of hedge which sparked our recycling juices. As the rose garden was still in its youthful stage reaching only some three feet in height, the transplanting of the hedge along the chain link fence provided much needed privacy. A wonderful honey toned sandstone had been unearthed locally so the cart and muscle rolled again. This rather beautiful stone became the base for a seating area in front of the newly transplanted hedge. Later as the roses reached maturity and stature, combined with the hedge and a transplanted lilac, this was to become a favoured resting spot, secluded and serene.

Several pieces from the transplanted hedge were brought up to the top corner of the raised area. Now with the mountain levelled and watermelons gone, two long raised beds were constructed at the perimeters along the fence. Large stone was used in the construction of the same pink/grey tones as the walls. More stone was chosen to lay out a flooring throughout the surface of the raised patio area. One of the raised beds was chosen to be the home for canna lilies and the other for dahlias. This was an ideal part of the garden for such sun lovers, the cannas reached heights of six feet plus, and the dahlias produced an over abundance of cut flowers for the home.

Empty space and a kidney shape. 

Small pond for some water lilies and still enough room for more.

Our attention was drawn now to the opposite side of the raised patio. It was a large enough area with the lily garden in front, and abundant sun exposure as the neighbour's garage was far enough away from the fence. Overall we were becoming satisfied how the garden was taking shape, though such an opportunity could not be overlooked.

Along one fence line the curved beds were filing out, peonies and a Bonica rose developing strength. The transplanted hedge developing its roots and presence. Our lily garden, though at this time still separated into four individual sections, flourishing with colourful exuberance. Asiatics appearing first, bright and cheerful allowing the orientals and trumpets more time to stretch towards the sun.

Curved beds along the fence filling in nicely. 
A lily garden with its watchful maiden, shy and demure. 

An empty space would simply be out of place, both in Olivera's visual log, and in our eyes. Yet we needed to do something different here. A solution came in the shape of a kidney. Olivera and I decided that a small pond would satisfy all the begging requirements. Adjacent to the newly settled pond room remained for dahlias, zinnias, roses and clematis.

The climbing roses become a screen for a house that was waiting for its time for attention.

We were heading towards the close for 2004 and we were pleased with how much was achieved. A barren empty space was being dressed to please. Sitting back now looking at the early photos memories flood forward. Buckets of soil dug to form new beds filling with life and beauty, a mountain flattened, stone found and moved with sweat and muscle. Our garden was becoming an island on which peace and rest could be found from the everyday challenges. We knew that changes and additions were only around the corner. For now it was time for rest and contemplation.

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