A review of “What Are Gardens For: Experiencing, Making and Thinking About Gardens” by Rory Stuart

April 30th, 2013 | 2 Comments »

This book arrives at a good moment. In a few months, I’ll be visiting gardens in England along with fifteen other women, and Rory Stuart’s book offers some excellent pointers on what to pay attention to when visiting a garden and how to evaluate the experience.

The subtitle, Experiencing, Making and Thinking Abut Gardens, explains what the book is about.
It’s not a ‘how-to’ book, and there isn’t much in it about making gardens. Not to worry, the book offers much more. It’s one of those books that helps to bring your own fuzzy ideas into focus. It’s well-written, and stuffed full of quotations from a wide range of writers: commentators like Robin Lane Fox, Tim Richardson and Joe Eck, designers like Thomas Church and the inimitable Russell Page,  poets like Philip Larkin, Jamaica Kincaid and the Canadian Patrick Lane. Plus historically-grounded comments from Humphrey Repton, Joseph Addison and (of course) Alexander Pope.

The author has good credentials. After teaching English literature in England, India and the U.S., he inherited a cottage in the Cotswolds and began looking at gardens critically, in preparation for making his own. Eventually his interest in garden-making led to a course in garden design, a career as a garden designer and a writer for garden magazines. He has led garden tours of France, India and Italy and, very obviously, has looked at, and thought about, gardens in a deep and meaningful way.

A path through the fields at Glen Villa

Naturally the book exposes Stuart’s own predilections, particularly his bias towards romantic gardens. But he backs up his views with well-presented examples. And unlike so many English garden writers, he isn’t insular. He praises gardens that vary widely in location and style. He writes little about plants but much about atmosphere and overall impressions. Best, though, he analyzes and lays out a few guidelines for garden visitors to consider when assessing a garden and their responses to it.

Because it isn’t enough to like or dislike a garden. We have to understand its context. We need to know something about who made it, and when, and what they were hoping to achieve. We need to give ourselves time to experience the garden and to think about it afterwards. Then, on reflection, we can try to articulate why something pleases us, why one thing satisfies and another doesn’t.

When I was beginning to make gardens, I visited the Reford Gardens at Metis, Quebec, to see what someone else had done. I was admiring a view up a stream when the experienced gardener I was travelling with asked me why I liked the view. What, specifically, was I admiring?

Looking up the stream at the Reford Gardens in Metis, Quebec

Looking at the photo from the Reford Gardens, taken in mid-June many years ago, it’s easy to see why I liked it. It’s pretty. It takes thought, though, to detail why. Yes, the scene is full of colour, happy tones that lift the spirits. There’s a nice rhythm to the plantings, a repetition of colour combined with a variety of shapes and textures. The structure of the bridge is important. It anchors the scene, adds weight and substance. And the shape of the stream moving through the photograph draws your eye up and back, into that shadowy area, the space that appears to disappear. That darkness adds mystery, a wonderful element in a garden.

When my friend posed her question, I stuttered out something incoherent. But I remembered her advice. And every time since, whenever I visit a garden, I ask myself the same question. What makes this place stand out? What makes it successful? Equally important, how could it be better? what is getting in the way?

Looking now at the photo from the Reford Gardens, I’d say the scene would be better if that bare patch of ground between the masses of white (where the small plants suggest a recent planting) was filled with a dark, broad-leafed shrub. This would add another spot of mystery, another space that would appear to disappear. I’d like to see a second touch of orange azalea, like the one in the upper right of the photo, in the lower left. And maybe it was there. Maybe my photo cut it off, making the omission mine rather than the garden designer’s.

(Garden photography: truth or fiction? That’s a whole other subject, fit for many blog posts to come. As they will, in due course. For instance, there’s the story behind that daffodil-lined path. Did you stop to wonder why the photo was so narrow?)

The photographs in Stuart’s book are not very good, which differentiates it from the many garden porn books that show beautiful (and too often misleading) scenes. You know the ones, where text is nothing more than a photo caption writ long.

Stuart’s book is full of rich ideas that will re-pay multiple readings. In a chapter entitled “The Garden Critic in Action,” Stuart looks in detail at three English gardens, quite different in style and intent: the Old Vicarage in Norfolk, the Alnwick Garden in Northumberland, and Veddw House Garden in Wales. I haven’t seen these gardens and can’t know if I agree with his evaluations. But my agreement is less important than noting what he takes into account, the multiple aspects he considers before reaching his judgements. 


Russell Page, the British landscape designer, said that a successful garden has “a quality peculiar to itself.”  The Reford Gardens have that quality. I believe that the gardens at Glen Villa do, too. I’d welcome a visit from Rory Stuart to see if he agrees. I’d be nervous because his observations are acute, but I’d value his views. Why?

In the forest at Glen Villa

Because they’d help me to improve what I’m doing. And as proud as most of us are of our gardens, we have to admit they could always be better.

Stuart ends his book with two lists, the ten best gardens in the world and the ten best garden experiences. He says these lists are not meant to be prescriptive, but provocative. They are. They are also eclectic and not at all parochial. The “ten best gardens” list includes one garden from England (Hidcote), two from Italy (Villa Lante and Ninfa) and two from the United States (Innisfree and Lotusland), as well as gardens from China, Japan, Spain, Morocco and Northern Ireland. 

The “ten best” experiences are equally varied. I doubt Glen Villa will ever make it onto either list. And that’s ok. Considering the age of the garden (it’s about 12 years now, which isn’t that old when you remember how slowly things grow in a cold climate) it’s doing well. Every year I hope to make it better.

So agree or disagree with Stuart’s lists. Make your own. Or, better still, read the book. I’ll bet that your next visit to a garden — your own or someone’s else — will be a richer and more rewarding experience.

A river of snowdrops

April 26th, 2013 | 3 Comments »
Last year I dug up, divided and replanted about a dozen clumps of snowdrops. Amazing how a few bulbs will grow with time. According to my (less than perfect) planting records, originally I planted a few dozen snowdrops, ordinary ones that are readily available in most Canadian gardening catalogues.Thanks to an April 2012 blog post from Kathy Purdy of Cold Climate Gardening I decided to split the clumps. They were starting to look a bit overstuffed and I thought it would be worth the time and effort. Was I ever right!


Spring arrives at Glen Villa! Finally.

April 22nd, 2013 | No Comments »
Glory, hallelujah! Spring is finally here. Last Saturday the temperature rose to 24C (75 F). And suddenly, everything was bursting into bloom. Crocuses have been blooming for a few weeks now, and the suddenly warm day will shorten their life span. No matter. They remain a spot of light in the just-coming-to-life grass. No matter how many I plant, there are never enough. Crocuses shine, even in half-dead grass. Buds are forming on the Cornelian cherry (cornus mas), that most difficult of shrubs to photograph. The individual flowers are small and tucked


Springtime in Boston. Let’s hope it comes.

April 17th, 2013 | No Comments »
I was in Boston last weekend and hoped to share some spring photos from some of my favourite places there. But no luck. Instead of sunny April, the days felt like frigid, rainy March. And then came Monday, with the horrific Marathon bombings. Last year I was in Boston on the same Marathon weekend and the sun shone non-stop. Forsythia was in bloom everywhere, including at the Arnold Arboretum. Forsythia in bloom at the Arnold Arboretum Rhododendron and apple trees were in bloom, but temperatures in the week or two


Mud and Maple Syrup: Spring at Glen Villa

April 10th, 2013 | 11 Comments »
This is what's happening in my neck of the woods: making maple syrup. Part of the Sugar Bush at Glen Villa We tapped trees in late February and have only now stopped boiling the sap into syrup. Steam rises as the sap boils down into syrup. It takes 40 litres of sap to make 1 litre of syrup. And to do that, the fire has to be hot. Stoking the fire. This year we will use more than three cords of wood. Not a face cord, a real one, which measures


Washington, the Monumental City

April 5th, 2013 | 2 Comments »
I spent Easter weekend visiting Washington D.C. with my husband and my sister. We were hoping to see cherry blossoms colouring the sky but it has been too cold and the buds are only now beginning to open. So no photos of pink blossoms, although the photo below shows how gloriously bent and mis-shapen the trees are, monuments to time and the up-keep provided by the National Park Service. Cherry trees beside Washington's Tidal Basin   Instead of admiring cherry blossoms, we visited museums and two of Washington’s newer memorials.