Italian lessons: planting The Big Rock

July 27th, 2014 | 1 Comment »

I have no desire to create an Italianate garden in rural Quebec. Yet many things in the Renaissance and Renaissance-revival gardens I visited this spring are inspiring me to re-examine aspects of the garden at Glen Villa. High on the list is ensuring I have the right balance. Balance between simplicity and decoration. Between open and closed spaces. Between light and shade.

One of the simplest gardens we visited in Italy was the ‘secret garden’ at Villa Medici at Fiesole, just outside Florence. A small area beside the house was divided by gravel paths into grassy quadrants, each of which held one single magnolia tree. A simple fountain marked the intersection of the paths. Despite of — or because of — its simplicity, the space was extraordinarily evocative. The view overlooking Florence was spectacular, yet spectacle didn’t overwhelm the peacefulness of the garden. The quiet was palpable. Being in the space, alone or with others, I felt calm. Yet at the same time I was stimulated — with thoughts and ideas that made me take note of every detail.

The ‘secret’ garden at Villa Medici at Fiesole, Italy.

I came home determined to see how I could apply what I had learned, not only at Villa Medici but also at some of the other splendidly inspirational gardens I visited. Because although so many things are different — the climate and context, the terrain and the plants that will grow, to mention only the obvious —  there are lessons to be learned and ideas to be applied.

Simplicity is one idea. At Glen Villa, the big lawn sweeps away from the house creating an open view with a major focal point, the linden tree.

The linden tree in early spring offers refuge from a stormy sky.

When we moved into Glen Villa in 1996, one of the first things we did was to add a bench around the base of the tree. Even from a distance that wooden bench draws your attention to the tree. It also acts as a magnet, for the eye and the feet. Seeing the bench, you want to walk to the tree. And most people do.

Light and shadow, and a welcoming place to sit: heaven on earth.

Once there, they sit and look back towards the house. Off to one side is a large rock. Or actually two, a large craggy one partially covered with moss, and a flatter horizontal one that stretches out along the slope. Together they form a lovely combination that speaks to the beauty of nature, undisturbed.

The shape of this rock appeals to me enormously.
You have to imagine it surrounded only with lawn, ferns and poison ivy.

Having successfully drawn attention to the linden, I wanted to do the same with the rock, making it a special feature by changing it from a rock on the lawn into The Big Rock. At the time there were a few ferns growing around it, some poison ivy and not much else. To add prominence, I decided to add some brightly coloured plants.

The Big Rock is in the distance on the left of the photo. You can also see the shape of the bed around it.
The blue fuzz in the foreground is muscari just coming into bloom.

First to go in were some Pink Prelude day lilies. I chose them because I thought they would stand out from a distance. And they did. But I should have paid more attention to the name: pink was only a prelude to an orange tone that I didn’t like at all.

I replaced those day lilies with the old standard, Catherine Woodbury, and with a relative newcomer, Siloam New Toy. They were ok, but the impact from a distance wasn’t strong enough. So I added some ornamental rhubarb with big leaves, some baptisia from the Lower Garden, and a big sweep of switchgrass (Panicum virgatum ‘Heavy Metal’) that had outgrown its previous home.

This photo from 2009 shows the size of the Big Rock and the shape of the smaller one beside it.
It also shows the sweep of Panicum at the rear, planted a few years earlier.

It was all too much. Yes, it looked fabulous in autumn when the switchgrass turned colour.

Fall colours make everything look gorgeous. Here,
the inflorescence of the Panicum ‘Heavy Metal’ is an airy contrast to the solidity of the rock.

But the simplicity of the rock rising out of the lawn was gone. Its message was blurred by too many distractions.

So sometime in the next month or so, I will apply the first lesson I learned from Italian gardens. I will dig up everything that is planted there. (I know I’ll be digging up Panicum for years to come since it self-seeds prolifically. As does the miscanthus that somehow got mixed in with it. And before I start digging, I have to find a good spot for the grasses. Suggestions, anyone?)

Instead of a collection of plants, I intend to add a single evergreen, either a tree that won’t grow too tall or a shrub that won’t become too bushy. I want something that looks wind-blown, like the West Wind, or the Jack Pine, both icons of early 20th century Canadian painting by Tom Thomson.

Tom Thomson’s West Wind, painted in 1916, photo courtesy of Wikipedia

I want the combination to feel settled, as if it had always been there, yet to appear as precariously balanced as the pine in Thomson’s painting. Stark and simple. Something like a giant bonsai, twisted with age and feathery in spite of it.

Imagine if this bonsai from the Montreal Botanical Garden were full size:
it would make a perfect foil for the Big Rock.

Traditional Chinese paintings often combined rocks and pines, to symbolize eternity (the rock) and the wisdom that comes with age (the pine), and that symbolism pleases me.  As does the idea that a pine near the entrance welcomes visitors and suggests hospitality.

But the key goal for the change is to restore simplicity and the balance that comes from finely-tuned contrasts between the rough, immoveable rock and softly wind-blown foliage.  If I find the right tree, I’ll be happy. My Italian lessons won’t be over, though. Those gardens have survived and thrived for centuries; they have much more to teach me.

I’ll keep you posted.

How a Garden Grows: The Skating Pond

July 21st, 2014 | 7 Comments »
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