All posts by Pat Webster

The Donald Lecture

Last week, I spoke at Bishop’s University to a large group os students, faculty, staff and members of the local community.  My talk was one in a series of lectures held over the past 13 years called the Donald Lectures, sponsored by Bishop’s alumni John Donald. Previous speakers include some real superstars, people like Jane Goodall, Steven Pinker, Jesse Jackson, Edward Burtynski, and Naomi Klein, so I feel honoured to join the list.

Bishop’s 550 seat Centennial Theatre was almost at Covid capacity, with about 200 or more people in the auditorium, and with over 80 more on the live stream. It was the first time in a VERY long time that I’ve spoken in person to an audience, and an even longer time since I’ve spoken to that large an audience.

It was amazing!


Photo courtesy of Michael Goldbloom, Principal of Bishop's University.
Photo courtesy of Michael Goldbloom, Principal of Bishop’s University.


The questions from students after the talk were challenging. How do you integrate yourself into the landscape, and vice versa; and how do art and gardens fit into the picture? (Wow, that was a tough one.) What was your biggest disaster in the garden? (The first thing that came to mind was trying to get the Aqueduct to work properly. I could have named many others.) What is your most beautiful garden memory? (Impossible to choose only one. So I chose several: three family weddings in the garden at Glen Villa and one mental image from a garden in England where photos were not permitted.)

The talk was on a Wednesday. The following Saturday, students and faculty and community members toured the garden. It was a sunny day that ended in a downpour, well-timed at the end of the morning, after most people had walked the 4 km Timelines trail and had visited most of the garden proper. I had the chance to meet and talk to many students, which for me is always a high point. I saw some old friends and met some new ones. And as always, the day went smoothly thanks to two very special men.


Ken Kelso and Jacques Gosselin, the two men whose work makes my job in the garden and wider landscape possible. Photo by Michael Goldbloom.
Ken Kelso and Jacques Gosselin, the two men whose work makes my job in the garden and wider landscape possible. Photo by Michael Goldbloom.


A big thank you goes to all those who attended the lecture in person and to the large number who listened to the live stream. It was a real pleasure for me to share my passion and enthusiasm for Glen Villa Art Garden with you all.

The talk is available on Youtube, starting at about 40 minutes into this link:

If anyone watching the link has questions, do get in touch. I’m happy to present this talk or one of several others listed on my website to groups far and wide, either in person or via zoom.


The North South Arrow, Year 2

Creating a garden isn’t a quick and easy task, particularly a garden that grows out of personal memories and the history of the site.

The most prominent and visible piece of history at Glen Villa, the land where I live, is the ruin of a summer resort hotel named Glen Villa Inn.  When it burned down in 1909, it left behind the stone wall that was its foundation. When we moved into Glen Villa in 1996, the wall was in a sad state, with stones falling down regularly.


This is how the wall looked in 2007.
This is how the wall looked in the winter of 2007.


Two years ago my husband and I decided that the wall was such an important remnant of the past that we couldn’t let it fall down entirely. So in November 2019, it was rebuilt.


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In front of the wall was a stone circle where hotel guest got into a horse-drawn carriage that would take them to the nearby village of North Hatley, or to the train station to meet a guest arriving from one of the southern states in the U.S. For some years, that circular wall was home to the Yin Yang, where I planted perennials of contrasting colours, heights and textures intended to suggest the black/white contrast of the Asian symbol.


The un-repaired foundation wall is in the background.
The un-repaired foundation wall is in the background, the unplanted Yin Yang in the foreground.


Ten or twelve years ago, we added a sleek stone coping to the top of that wall but by 2019, the original stones were falling down, creating gaps between the coping stones.


The gaps were becoming dangerously wide.
The gaps were becoming dangerously wide.


So in 2020, that wall was also rebuilt, using the same stones but adding a stronger foundation.


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The two rebuilt walls threw this part of the garden out of balance. Before, it had been an almost neglected corner; now it was important, demanding something more than weedy grass.

The North South Arrow was the solution. I designed the Arrow to suggest the train trip taken by so many of the hotel guests as they came north for the summer. A long straight line oriented directly north-south, the new bed was a place to try new ideas and new plants. The plants had to be big — the arrow was over 100 feet long and 15 feet wide. The plants also had to be unappealing to the voracious deer that call Glen Villa home. This meant planting lots of shrubs along with deer resistant perennials. I chose plants with hot-coloured flowers or foliage at the southern end of the arrow and those with cool-coloured flowers or foliage at the north.

We dug the North South Arrow in 2019, shaping it with arrowheads at both ends and bringing in good soil to replace the sandy grit that was there.


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The first plants went into the new bed in June, 2020.


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Covid meant that many of the shrubs and perennials I’d chosen weren’t available so it was only this spring that the bed was fully planted. And my! How it has grown.

Here is one section of the Arrow on June 2, 2021. The line of Panicum ‘Northwind’ is meant to suggest the railroad tracks bring people north.




A month later, many of the shrubs were blooming and the columnar boxwood at the southern end of the Arrow were standing tall.


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A different view, also taken on July 2 this year, shows the yarrow (Achillea ‘Sassy Summer Sunset’) and one of the Spireas (Spirea ‘Double Play Big Bang’) in bloom. Beyond the Arrow is the re-built circular wall with its new name and new plants: the Compass Rose. And beyond that is the rebuilt hotel foundation wall, with a bench giving a view onto the new beds.


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By August 2, the Elderberry bushes (Sambucus ‘Laced Up’) were starting to gain height and the Russian sage (Perovskia Denim ‘N Lace) was blooming well.


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And now, on September 2, the Panicum North Wind is showing off its stuff. As the seasons continue, its line that zig zags the length of the Arrow will become more prominent, tying the planting scheme together.


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There are some unfortunate gaps and some plants that aren’t performing as well as I’d hoped. The mock orange shrubs whose fragrance was meant to suggest a clichéd southern sweetness are not pulling their weight, thanks to the deer, and I may have to replace them. The Artemesia ‘Silver Mound’ needs regular pruning to keep it from falling apart, but I still like the way its round form echoes the balls of boxwood.

I haven’t been as attentive to details this summer as I should have been and I’m trying to make up for that now, as summer turns to fall. The arrangement of plants that looked so good on paper isn’t as satisfying as I hoped it would be, so in a few weeks I’ll dig up and re-arrange the plants, softening the sharp zigzagging angles and joining the line of grasses to reinforce the idea of a train track. I’ll continue to enclose some sections, as shown above, making them into ‘compartments’ on the train but blocking as much as possible the view from one side of the arrow to the other.

It isn’t easy to re-work a planting as new as the North South Arrow. It takes courage — but I know it will be better if I do.

What projects do you have in mind for the fall?


My Favourite Gardens: the Reford Gardens and the International Garden Festival

I first visited the Reford Gardens when the government of Quebec was in charge, sometime in the 1980s, I think, when the gardens were not very interesting. I can’t count how many times I have visited since, though, and always with enormous pleasure.

Les Jardins de Métis are divided in two parts, a historic garden and an international garden festival. The historic garden is a testament to the ambitions and talents of Elsie Reford who began to create the garden when she was in her 50s. Working in a cold climate, she managed nonetheless to take advantage of micro-climates and heavy snow cover in winter to plant a garden in the English style of the times, with a double herbaceous border, a rock garden in a dell and woodland walks that continue to be a delight.


And seen from the other end


I enjoy the flowering abundance evident in the historic gardens but for me, the stronger attraction is the International Garden Festival. The first Festival was held in 2000 and I’ve visited regularly since then, always finding installations that make me think.

Some stand out in my memory. Hal Ingeberg’s plexiglass installation, Coloured Reflections, continues to confuse the relationship between inside and outside, creating an experience of constantly shifting perceptions.


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Courtesy of Nature by the Dutch designers Johan Selbing and Anouk Vogel, makes nature the centrepiece, giving it pride of place in an almost worshipful way.


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The garden’s signature flower is the Tibetan blue poppy.


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Claude Cormier took inspiration from the colours of the flower to create the Blue Stick Garden.


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It has been installed in various locations in Canada and in other countries, but when I last saw it, it was on the lawn in front of Estevan Lodge, the garden’s principle building and formerly Elsie Reford’s summer home.


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I’ve used this installation and several others from the International Garden Festival to illustrate talks I give. The Blue Stick Garden makes it obvious how important it is to see a garden from different points of view: from the outside, all is blue; from the inside, the predominate tones are those of orange and red that form the centre of the poppy.

Equally telling is Murray MacDonald’s installation, Nature morte de Métis, that illustrates subtly the movement that occurs in many gardens, from the fabricated garden to the natural world.


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Several playful installations stand out in my mind, in large measure because I visited them with two granddaughters. The Woodstock by the French firm Atelier Yok Yok offered a chance for the girls to work off some of their energy.


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The Vertical Line Garden by Julia Jamrozik and Coryn Kempster created a playground of colour and movement that amused all three of us, changing as it did with every shift of the wind.


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A favourite aspect of the site for me is the natural area that links the two parts of the garden. A stream whose name I’ve forgotten suggests a tended wildness …


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… and everywhere wildflowers abound.


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I also enjoy installations in the traditional garden that highlight the history of the area.  The leaping fish in Bal à la Villa, by Quebec artists Annie Ypperciel and Robert Desjardins, is a sparkling way to acknowledge the importance of salmon — Estevan was originally Elsie’s fishing camp. I particularly appreciate how the fish dance over the rounded boxwood in the same way they leap over rounded stones in the Mitis River, adjacent to the house.


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There are many installations that stand out in my mind: Afterburn by Civilian Projects …


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… Every Garden Needs a Shed and a Lawn by Deborah Nagan …


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… Pomme de Parterre by Angela Iarocci, Claire Ironside and David Ross, where potatoes were wired up to power a battery, and variations of Making Circles in the Water by Balmori Associates that I saw in different years.


This version appeared in 2011.


This second version appeared in 2015.


The list of firms and individuals whose projects have been featured at the Festival is stunning, including as it does some of the most noted designers in the world: Bernard Lassus from France, Christopher Bradley-Hole from the UK, Land-I from Italy, Michael Van Valkenburgh, Balmori Associates and Cao Perrot from the U.S., Taylor Cullity Lethlean from Australia and Topotek 1 from Germany. Not surprisingly, there are numerous Canadian firms and individuals but for me the stand-outs are Rosette Elkin’s Tiny Taxonomy 


Rosetta Elkin's Tiny Taxonomy showcases the plants of the forest, too often overlooked.


…and the many installations of the Montreal firm, NIP Paysage, including Floating Forest, installed off-site at the inauguration of the Chelsea Fringe Festival in London.


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One of the joys of the Reford Gardens is remembering the people with whom I shared the visits: children, grandchildren, in-laws, and my husband.  As I write, on what would have been her 82nd birthday, I’m remembering with particular joy the visit I made with my sister Nancie Kennedy in 2008. She and I visited many gardens together, but the visit to Métis is one of the highlights. By chance we bumped into Alexander Reford, the driving force behind the garden and the International Garden Festival. He took us ‘backstage,’ where the iconic blue poppies were being raised, and shared stories about some of that year’s installations, making the visit particularly memorable.

The Reford Gardens and the International Garden Festival combine in a thoroughly satisfying way two aspects of gardens and garden design. They showcase plants arranged traditionally in the garden …


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… and more inventively in the festival, as seen below in Round Up by Legge Lewis Legge.


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The Festival stretches the boundaries of what a garden is, or can be, pushing us as observers to examine — and possibly to rethink — our preconceptions.


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The festival gardens I’ve seen at Métis have inspired me to broaden my approach to gardening, pushing me to test the limits of what a personal garden can do. No wonder the Reford Garden and the International Garden Festival are on the list of my all-time favourites.

Continuum, Part Three

In 2005, I started to cut a trail at Glen Villa; that trail became Timelines, the walk through fields and forests where art installations explore ideas about history, memory and our relationship to the land. I’ve written about this trail in many blog posts; I wrote about Continuum, one part of the trail, in two posts last fall. (You can find those posts here and here.)

This large rock outcropping is what prompted me to first begin thinking about how to give voice to the land and the ideas and emotions it evoked. When I noticed it many years ago, I thought it was worth emphasizing in some way. But the trees in front screened it from full view.


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We cut and chipped the trees, but even the clearer space didn’t inspire an idea. Last summer, we dug down to expose more of the rock face and the small hole we dug began to fill with water.


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We enlarged and shaped a pool, creating a spot that was peaceful and quite beautiful.


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Above the pool we placed rocks that outlined maple keys, one step in the process of establishing Continuum’s theme of beginnings, ends and re-beginnings.


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Over the winter I drilled the same maple key pattern into large boulders. One went into place along the trail that leads to the pool, a hint at what was to come.


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Two weeks ago, the other drilled rocks went into place on the bank beside the pool.


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With all the digging and the moving of dirt, the natural vegetation that once surrounded the pool had died back. Earlier this month, only bare soil was visible.

Not any longer.

Jacques and Ken, the two wonderful men I work with, brought in some good soil from the large piles we accumulated when our big pond was dredged a few years ago. They added a wood chip path that leads around the pool and into the woods and positioned more rocks near the pool to provide places to sit.


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With the rocks and path in place, it was time to seed the ground. To my delight, rain came just on time and the area is greening up very quickly. We transplanted some ferns which I expect will spread, grouping some around the drilled rocks to make them look more natural.


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Continuum is almost finished. The sign announcing this section of Timelines is in place in the field where it begins.


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A walking path leads from the pool to the rocky road that was already there. All that remains is the finale of the section, to be called The Group of Seven. We started on that section in the spring, digging and planting some maple saplings.


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Finishing up entails work that only I can do — and there is a lot of it. I hope to find time to do the painting and the collage over the summer but the work will probably extend into the fall. And will Timelines then be complete? I doubt it — the land always has more to say.



Many people have asked whether we will be opening Glen Villa to the public this summer. The situation remains fluid but the Eastern Townships and all of Quebec are entering a green zone for Covid, which increases the likelihood that the garden will open.

We’re looking at one or possibly two days near the end of July/beginning of August and/or near the end of August and the beginning of September. I wish I could be more precise and as soon as we make a decision, I will post the dates in a blog, on Facebook and Instagram.

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My Favourite Gardens: Veddw

Why do some gardens appeal to us while others leave us cold or indifferent? Is it something in us, in the garden, or in the interaction between the two?

Veddw is a garden in Wales, created over the last 33 years by Anne Wareham and Charles Hawes. It is a garden that touches me deeply, and I’ve spent many hours examining my memory and the photos I’ve taken there trying to understand why. I know that the connection between the site and its history is one reason. Acknowledging and highlighting that type of connection shapes the garden at Glen Villa, so it is possible that ‘like likes like’ is the only reason. But I know there is more.

Veddw has an extraordinarily strong sense of place. It’s memorable. It’s a garden that engages visitors and prompts strong reactions, whether positive or negative. It is distinctive, with designs, plants and structures that differentiate it from other good gardens created in recent years.  But still there is more.

I’m particularly attracted by the sinuous hedges that wow you when you first enter the garden. Thank goodness there is a bench where I could sit comfortably and take the time I needed to grasp the complexity of the arrangement before me.


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Talk about theme and variation! This outlook shows that in spades.


I’ve used this image from the entry to Veddw many times in a talk I give called Learning to Look: the Art of Garden Observation. For me, it illustrates how important it is to give yourself time to appreciate what is in front of you. Only by doing that and then, later, by spending time looking at the photograph, did I discover the complexities of the design, how the theme ‘hedge’ is introduced and varied: scalloped-topped hedges backed by square-topped hedges, cones in the foreground echoed by square columns in the distance, arches echoing scallops, and all enlivened by shades of green varied with touches of maroon and rust.

In 2017, after an extended visit, I wrote that Veddw is “a garden of a different sort”. What did I mean by those words. Original? Unconventional? Bold? Veddw is all of these, and more.

While the atmosphere of the garden varies considerably from one section to the next, there is a unity of purpose, an authenticity and a feeling of integrity that holds the disparate parts together. The garden is unconventional, to be sure, and in this way it reflects its creators, a couple who left jobs and a secure life in the city to make a garden for themselves. But while it is unconventional, it doesn’t reject convention entirely. Instead at Veddw, familiar ideas receive a distinctive twist.

Take garden rooms, for example. They are a commonplace in many English gardens and at Veddw there are garden rooms aplenty. Those on the hillside are outlined and separated by hedges, but each room appears to be a different size or shape, and different plants give each one its own  character.


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Close to the house a garden room is divided in four squares centred on a handsome dish filled with water that sits on an equally handsome squared-off pedestal. But instead of one room, are there four, each delineated with a ‘wall’ of rails painted black?


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Garden allées are another common garden feature and at Veddw there are several. One allée is defined by high hedges that create a narrow, almost claustrophobic, path.


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A white bird acts as the obligatory focal point for this allée. The bird features prominently in other areas in the garden as well.


Another is open-sided, with a mown path flanked by mirrored globes. The posts, squared and angled like the post that holds the dish of water, are arranged in pairs but the pairs don’t match. Instead they vary in height, not getting shorter in a predictable way to make the distance seem longer, but ordered randomly, encouraging the eye to skip down the path.


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This photograph was taken by Charles Hawes and is used with his permission.


Veddw is full of contradictions. It is open to its surroundings and closed off from them. On my last visit, I felt immersed in the dense plantings.  While occasionally I caught a glimpse of the surrounding countryside, more often my view was limited by a hedge or a fence …


I like this simple fence. Made of inexpensive materials, it nonetheless looks sculptural, almost like a city skyline or rolling hills.
I like this simple fence. It’s made of inexpensive materials, yet looks sculptural, almost like a city skyline or a range of rolling hills.


… or an exuberance of plants.


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Do the fields in the distance count as borrowed view?  They can easily be seen as part of the garden.


When a paths that wanders through the maze of hedges appears to be blocked, words appear, offering a way out through a door in the mind.


Cut into the stone are words from T. S. Eliot's 'Four Quartets.'
Cut into the stone are words from T. S. Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets.’


Unlike more conventional gardens where words are rarely used, words at Veddw are scattered throughout, and their presence invites other times and places to enter. Words on the bench at the entry offer different spellings of the garden’s name, making the past they bring to mind a part of the present.


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The (grave)stones almost buried under perennial blooms do the same.


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Tintern Abbey is close to Veddw and a bench at the edge of the woods quotes lines from Wordsworth’s poem, Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey.


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“Sportive wood run wild:” this could almost describe Veddw itself. It teeters on the edge of wildness, not at all like the well-mannered gardens of England’s Home Counties. Veddw feels closer to anarchy, or to a chaos barely contained. For me, this is one of its pleasures: to see the beauty in an untidy nature.

Wordsworth wrote that the “wild secluded scene” around Tintern Abbey led to “thoughts of more deep seclusion” that “connect the landscape with the quiet of the sky.”

This is what the reflecting pools at Veddw do — they pull the sky down to the ground.


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One of the pools seems to pull the sky down even farther, drowning it under the water to create an intriguing sense of mystery.


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That sense of exploring the unknown permeates Veddw. Unlike the many English gardens centered around aesthetics, Veddw centres itself on ideas. It is set off from the world, yet connected to it through allusions that extend its boundaries to the worlds of literature and art. It’s a garden that knows who it is and what it wants to be: a work of art that goes beyond what can be seen, touched, smelled or heard.

No wonder that it’s one of my favourites.

My Favourite Gardens: Villa Lante

Yesterday I gave an on-line talk about Glen Villa to a group of well-informed, well-educated women, many of whom attended the same single sex college I attended years ago. (What used to be Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Lynchburg, Virginia is now the co-ed Randolph College.) In the question period afterwards someone asked if I had a favourite garden. It took me only a moment to respond. Not one, I said, but several.

I named four or five gardens, and today as I think back, I am struck by  how different those gardens are yet how closely they are linked by a single concept. Each tells a story, and each uses history and allusion to ideas outside the garden itself to make the story understandable.  This is something I’m doing at Glen Villa, in the garden and as part of Timelines, the trail through fields and forests that explores ideas about history, memory and our relationship to the land, and this may well explain why I like the gardens as much as I do.

Today I began to re-live my visits to those gardens. In a series of posts, I plan to look more carefully at each of my favourites, starting with the oldest, the Italian garden Villa Lante.


This fountain stands in the wooded area that once formed part of the garden.
This fountain of Pegasus surrounded by the nine muses stands near the entry to today’s garden, in a wooded area that once was integral to the garden’s story.


Villa Lante was built in the mid 1500s by the famous Italian architect Vignola for an important man, the Cardinal Gambara.  It is a very sophisticated garden that tells a story about the relationship between art and nature, showing how humans were transformed from a ‘primitive’ existence in the Golden Age to the ‘civilized’ society that the Cardinal was part of. And with extraordinary versatility, Vignola tells this story through the use of water.

The garden, located on the side of a hill in the province of Viterbo, is divided into three terraced levels. At the highest of the three, water enters the garden as a destructive, chaotic force. As it moves down the hill, it becomes channeled and controlled, tamed as it were by the power of art.


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The rough tufa wall and the informal vegetation provide a strong contrast to the more refined fountains and formal arrangement of plants that will follow.


The power of the Cardinal himself is glorified throughout. As water moves from the top-most to the middle terrace, it passes through a channel edged by scalloped shells, each slightly different.


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A giant lobster or crayfish head at top of the chain and over-sized claws at the bottom make a pun on the Cardinal’s name, Gambara, the Italian word for crayfish.


The crayfish symbol appears throughout the garden.
The crayfish symbol appears throughout the garden.


Water falls from this scalloped chain into the Fountain of the River Gods, two recumbent figures representing the rivers Arno and Tiber. These are the rivers that water the Cardinal’s property, and its abundance in the fountain is a metaphor for the fertility of the land – and for the Cardinal’s generosity as landowner and governor.


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Crayfish claws are visible at the top of the waterfall.


Generosity and hospitality are hallmarks of the middle terrace where a long stone rectangle meant to suggest a dining room table continues the symmetrical layout. The table’s central trough is filled with water where wine could be cooled. For the sophisticated visitor of the period, the reference made by this staging would be obvious: Gambara is comparing his garden to that of the Roman writer Pliny the Younger, who floated antipasti in little boats in a polished marble basin.


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The lowest terrace is a hymn to civilization where man finds salvation through his intelligence and creativity. Formally arranged as a parterre divided into twelve compartments, this level now centres on the Fountain of the Moors, a magnificent work designed by the sculptor Giambologna.


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The design of the parterre has changed over time but remains formal and symmetrical.


The fountain sits on an island; in the pool surrounding it, little boats contain men with ancient guns and trumpets, their accoutrements signalling their roles to protect and celebrate both the prestige of the Cardinal and the triumph of civilization.


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As water moves from terrace to terrace, the sculptures and fountains and all that surrounds them become more ‘civilized.’ The garden becomes more elegant, more controlled. The balustrades that flank staircases from one terrace to the next widen to give fuller views onto the town – or previously the countryside – below, embracing it symbolically to make it the Cardinal’s own.


Villa Lante


Plantings support this ‘civilizing’ movement. Informal plantings on the uppermost terrace culminate in the square parterres and clipped fruit trees that originally filled the area around the Fountain of the Moors. Two small buildings, or casinos, that offered a place for the Cardinal to entertain his guests are on this level. Large central buildings were common in most Italian gardens of the period, but unlike more imposing constructions, these two small ones do not dominate or compete with the garden but rather are part of it, unifying and harmonizing with the whole.


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This masterpiece of Renaissance design is smaller than many of the period, yet despite its size, it cannot be seen in its entirety from any one spot.  I think this makes it easier to grasp the garden’s central message about the shift to civilization as art came to dominate nature.  We may not accept that idea but we can admire the garden that demonstrates the concept so beautifully.


Trees in the Garden

Trees are an invaluable part of a garden, so important that they are sometimes called its bones because they hold the other parts of the garden together. They are slow to grow and consequently are often the first thing planted in a new garden or one undergoing renovation.

Trees do more than hold a garden together, though. They are miracle workers, cleaning the air, providing protection against wind and rain, focusing our view and, in northern regions at least, providing splendid colour in the fall.


Autumn colour is more intense some years than others.


At Glen Villa, they add privacy to a picnic area, creating a sense of enclosure as well as adding beauty.


Crabapple trees in bloom


In winter, their black trunks offer a contrast to white ground and snow on their branches makes lines in mid air.


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Trees can also shape emotional responses to our surroundings. In France, the road that leads to Chenonceau is lined  with closely-planted trees, and their elegant regularity transforms an ordinary journey into a stately procession.


This photo is from a dozen or more years ago. I hope the trees still look as good.
This photo is from a dozen or more years ago. I hope the trees still look as good.


In Italy, at the contemporary garden Il Bosco della Ragnaia, trees planted in lines create a different response. Instead of suggesting a stately procession, their lines marching across a field suggest order and discipline.


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At the English garden Stourhead, Henry Hoare and his successors grouped trees to form patterns of light and shade, emulating the paintings he admired.


The planting continues, judging by the small willow in the foreground.
The planting continues, judging by the small willow in the foreground.


At Petworth in Sussex,  Capability Brown placed single trees and groves to shape the view, sometimes in order to highlight attractive features, sometimes to hide unsightly ones — including whole villages from time to time.


A cropped view


In addition to being useful and beautiful, trees can also play tricks on our eyes and our sense of perspective.  A small tree planted in the distance looks farther away than it really is; a large tree on top of a hill makes the hill seem higher, and when a small plant is added in the foreground, the effect becomes even greater.

In Scotland, at Broadwoodside, a line of hornbeam trees (Carpinus betulus) seems to stretch out forever. The trees look as if they are evenly spaced but when I was there on a visit and walked along the path between the rows, I discovered that the journey was shorter than I’d thought: the distance between the trees changes as the path extends, and that change of spacing distorts what our eyes see and our brains register.


Looking out from the house towards the end of the allée, the spacing looks even.
Looking out from the house towards the end of the allée, the spacing looks even.


I could cite many examples from large properties where trees affect our sense of reality but the same principles can be used in much smaller gardens. There may not be a high hill or a sweep of ground long enough for a tree to exaggerate the distance, but plants of different sizes can do the same job.

The boxwood balls below, which I saw in Le Jardin Plume in Normandy, are all the same size. But imagine how your eye would be tricked if they became smaller as they receded. The path would look longer, particularly if the straight hedges and triangular form at the end of the path were shorter too.

Boxwood at Le Jardin Plume in Normandy


The bench we placed around the linden tree at Glen Villa provides a sense of scale, but we could distort that impression if we wanted to. The bench is now the right size for adults; if we made it the right height for small children, the tree trunk would look much longer and the tree itself appear more massive.


This photo is from Nov 6, 2005. So maybe autumn isn't late this year.
The effect of a lower bench would be greater if the photo was taken from farther away.


I played this trick on the eyes as part of Timelines, but there I reversed expectations: the Adirondack chair in the foreground is tiny while the one in the distance would fit a giant.


The sign near the chair spells out my intent.


Trees often mark boundaries, whether the side of a road or the edge of a stream or the line between one garden and another.  Less literally, they mark a boundary in time, between yesterday, when the tree began to grow, and today, when we see it, and tomorrow, when it is old and dying.

Looking back, I remember the maple tree that used to shade the house, and I see the sculpture that it has become. I think of the three words I chose to laser-cut into one the stainless steel rings: Seed • Shade • Shadow. They sum up the tree’s life story in a tidy fashion and I’m happy with the message they send. But at the same time I realize how inadequate words are when we try to sum up a life. They are never enough.


tree rings
I designed this sculpture to honour the life of the tree and named it Tree Rings to indicate how it grew, more in some years than in others.


Instead of looking back, I choose to look forward. The sycamore trees I planted in the meadow at Glen Villa a dozen years ago have not yet developed their camouflage bark but I know that one day, they will. And that gives me hope.

Do you have a favourite tree? Is it in your garden or in a park or one you only see in your dreams?

Borders, Boundaries and Beds

One year ago, almost to the day, the border between Canada and the U.S. closed. The closing didn’t end all movement back and forth but for all practical purposes, for most of us it put an end to easy crossings.

Today, no one knows when the border will re-open, and wondering about that unknown date set me thinking about borders and boundaries as they relate to gardens and landscapes. What is the difference between a border and a boundary, and what impact, if any, does a verbal distinction make on the ground? Thinking of those two terms brought garden ‘beds’ to mind, creating a trio of words to ponder over.

This is what I’ve concluded. Both borders and boundaries are lines that separate and define. They can be physical divisions — solid fences or border walls, for instance — or they can be less tangible, even invisible like the line on a map, while still marking where one area ends and another begins.  A border can be decorative, as on a tablecloth; a boundary can be metaphoric or moral, a limit on what you will accept in terms of speech or action from another person.  As for beds, must they be places where plants sleep as well as live and grow?

Putting verbal nuances aside, my mind shifted to the delight of all three. How gorgeous it is to look down on agricultural lands from an airplane to see a patchwork of fields, presented in shades of green, earth brown or tawny gold, depending on the season and the crop.


I must have taken this photo through a very dirty window. Even so, it shows how many colours a patchwork of fields can contain.
I must have taken this photo through a very dirty window. Even so, it shows how many colours a patchwork of fields can contain.


Stone walls are the traditional method of dividing fields in my part of Quebec. They are the result of necessity — in earlier days, stones had to be cleared so a field could be plowed and planted, which meant they had to be moved somewhere. So either they went into walls …


This crumbling stone wall once separated two farm fields at Glen Villa.
This crumbling stone wall once separated two farm fields at Glen Villa.


… or into rock piles at edges of the fields-to-be.


I discovered this stone pile when deciding on the route of Timelines, the trail that explores ideas about history and memory.
I discovered this rock pile when deciding on the route of Timelines, the trail that explores ideas about history and memory.


Fences mark both borders and boundaries but the message they carry is different from the message of a stone wall. The poet notes that while a wall separates, it always needs mending, the “frozen-ground-swell under it” making “gaps even two can pass abreast.”  The fence is a stronger barrier, telling the outsider to go away, to stay out, that this is my land, not yours.


The fence here is protecting shrubs against the deer. I've used this design in fences at several places in the garden at Glen Villa.
The fence here is telling the deer to go away. It works well, allowing plants to be seen and deer to be excluded. I’ve used the design in fences at several places in the garden at Glen Villa.


The Abenaki used to move across a land that had no borders or boundaries, and I’ve shown this at Glen Villa in several scenes. Because the Abenaki believe that human beings were created from the ash tree, I used inverted ash branches to show a group striding across an old farm field.


The Abenaki were migratory. While there are no signs that they camped on land that is now called Glen Villa, they did walk across it to go from their summer to winter camps.
The Abenaki were migratory and I used the slope of the land to show the chronology of their history.


Lower in the field, the Walkers encounter signs that settlers have arrived. First in time came split rail fences, then barbed wire which I have used to entangle the walking figures.


A winter frost makes a beautifully painful scene.
A winter frost makes a painful scene look beautiful.


In gardens that are more conventional than mine, more standard things act as boundaries. Hedges of all shapes and sizes are often used to differentiate one part of a garden from another.


Hedges define the boundaries of this walkway into one of the nine garden 'rooms' within Scampston Hall's Walled Garden.
Hedges define the boundaries of this walkway into one of the nine garden ‘rooms’ within Scampston Hall’s Walled Garden.


See-through fences or gates do the same.


Split rail fences remain common sights in Quebec's Eastern Townships. Protecting trees from cattle and other animals is much less common.
Split rail fences remain common sights in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. Using them to protect trees from cattle and other animals is much less common.


At the China Terrace, my recreation of the resort hotel that once stood on the Glen Villa site, hotel ‘rooms’ are bordered by blocks made of slate and china shattered when the hotel burned down in 1909.


The brick and slate blocks at the China Terrace mark imaginary walls between imaginary rooms.
The brick and slate blocks at the China Terrace mark imaginary walls between imaginary rooms.


The small stream at Glen Villa marks a boundary, not between countries as rivers do, but simply between one side of the stream and the other.


The stream running through the meadow creates a wavy black line, a strong contrast to the white snow.
The stream running through the meadow creates a wavy black line, a strong contrast to the white snow.


Knowledgeable linguists may be able to explain the difference between a flower bed and a border. I can’t do this with any certainty. Generally, though, I think of borders as linear strips of ground filled with shrubs and flowers, like the new North South Arrow at Glen Villa


This was how the Arrow looked last fall. I hope to finish planting it this summer.
This was how the Arrow looked last fall. I hope to finish planting it this summer.


For me, a bed (aka, a flower bed) can have any shape — it can be round, square, triangular or some shape without a name. I don’t often describe the plantings around the Cascade as a flower bed, but according this definition I suppose they are.


Yellow flag iris make a splash at the Cascade.
Yellow flag iris make a splash at the Cascade in early summer.


The Roman god Terminus protected the markers that indicated the end point of one thing and, presumably, the beginning of another. Greeks called these markers Herms, after the god Hermes, and over time both the Greek and Roman forms acquired a particular shape, similar to the Term I saw at Rousham, a wonderful historic garden in England.


Earlier versions of Terms or Herms showed male genitalia. By the 17th century, the figures had become less revealing.
Earlier versions of Terms or Herms showed male genitalia. By the 17th century, the figures had become less revealing.


I’m using the idea of a Term figuratively in a section of Mythos, the extension of  Timelines that considers how mythology shapes our views of the world and how, by re-thinking the stories, we can re-shape the message they send.


One of the seven stone figures I've made over the winter. To me they looks scary. Do you react the same way?
This is one of the seven figures I’ve made over the winter to show men turned to stone by Medusa.


I’ve used the same shape as traditional Terms to re-tell Medusa’s story, twisting the idea of the border, or end point, to illustrate Medusa’s effect — which was to turn to stone those men who dared to look directly at her.  The end of these stone-like figures is death, the end of life. Which is sometimes what this pandemic feels like.

What do you call the planted areas in your garden? Are they borders or beds? And does it matter?


The Value of Criticism

Recently an article titled “Gardens Need Criticism” was posted on the garden website Veddw. Written by Veddw’s garden maker Anne Wareham and originally published in Garden Design Journal in 2002, the article prompted me to think about the art of critiquing gardens and the art of receiving critiques.

Last year a well-informed group of landscape architects and designers visited Glen Villa. I invited comments, and at the end of the visit one person quietly made a suggestion about a section of Timelines, the trail I’ve been working on for the last few years.

His comment concerned Mythos. There’s not enough of it, he said. It’s too short. The path doesn’t lead anywhere.


Many people walking the trail ignored the sign pointing to Mythos and continued along the main trail.
A sign pointing to Mythos led only a short distance into the woods. Most people walking the trail ignored the sign and continued along the main trail.


He was right. A barely visible path led from the main trail into the woods and ended at the small seat you see at the left in the photo below.


chapter 6-158


I expected walkers to notice that faint path and to follow it to reach the low seat, constructed from corrugated tin with a polished slice of wood on the top. I expected them to sit down and peer into the mirror on the ground in front of them. Slightly tilted, they would see themselves reflected against a backdrop of trees and sky. This, I hoped, would make them think about what it meant to see themselves in this way. At best, it might prompt questions about how we relate to our surroundings, or about vanity, or about self-examination and the search for self-knowledge.


Here I see myself photographing my reflection.
Here I see myself photographing my reflection, not to produce an image fit for a glossy magazine but to make myself part of the picture.


I based this arrangement on an experience I had when visiting the thought-provoking Italian garden, Il Bosco della Ragnaia. There, in a secluded spot, visitors are invited to look down into a natural depression in the ground, to ask a silent question, and to wait for the oracle to answer. I did as instructed, and received an answer that startled me with its succinct encouragement. At Delphi, some fifty or so years earlier, I did something similar. There the oracle produced a less helpful, typically cryptic response to my question. But the memory of the places and acts remained strong.

When the visitor to Glen Villa suggested that the brief detour I had made wasn’t enough, I knew immediately that he was right. The path didn’t lead anywhere —  physically or intellectually. Mythos was a big idea and I was missing an opportunity to explore it thoroughly.

Over the fall and winter, I began thinking about myths in a more focused way. I thought back to my original motivation for adding the sign itself — which was to offer a choice. People could continue on the main track that led to Orin’s Sugarcamp, where history as we knew and had lived it was memorialized, or they could turn off to experience an alternate way of thinking. If they chose the side path, they would head into a forest that looked and felt ancient, like a place our ancestors might have inhabited, where the beliefs we now label superstitions shaped a different view of the world.


Moss, ferns and decaying stumps make up this part of the woods.
Moss, ferns and decaying stumps make up this part of the woods.


Since the sign pointing to Mythos came immediately after The Forms, an installation based on the ideas of early Greek philosophers, using Greek mythology as a guide to further explore the idea of Mythos versus Logos seemed an obvious choice. Yet so many of those stories are not female friendly and I did not want to perpetuate the belittling view that demoted Hera, the earth mother, into being merely the spouse of Zeus.

Offering an alternate reading of familiar tales was the project I set myself.  But I knew that I had to build on the familiar — the tale of Medusa turning men to stone, a jealous Athena transforming a young girl who bragged about her weaving into a spider, Narcissus becoming transfixed by his own image.

A spider web fit within the context of the woods so I set out to make one.  Experimenting on a small scale gave me a chance to learn how to make a larger web and to find a good place to put it.


A rough sample small enough to carry around helped me choose the right location.
A rough sample small enough to carry around helped me choose the right spot for a big web.


A full-sized version is now waiting in the barn. We’ll install it between two trees once the snow has melted.


This photo gives an idea of the size of the web. It isn't finished here -- in fact, I was just starting to weave it when I took this photo.
This photo gives an idea of the size of the web. It isn’t finished here — in fact, I was just starting to weave it when I took this photo.


Men turned to stone are ready to be placed.


One of the seven stone figures I've made over the winter. To me they looks scary. Do you react the same way?
One of the seven stone figures I’ve made over the winter. To me they looks scary. Do they look that way to you?


Hera’s column, made from corrugated tin, is ready to be installed on top of a hill. Its elevated position is a testament to Hera’s importance and the letters that will appear at its base spell out a command that is also a play on words and the sounds they make.


The column to Hera and to the sounds that nature produces will go roughly where the four-wheel vehicle is.
The column to Hera will be installed roughly where the four-wheel vehicle is.


I’ve moved the mirror and column that the visitor criticiqued to a spot near the end of this section of Timelines, shortly before the kilometre-long path rejoins the original trail. At the junction I’ll erect a sign with the word Logos and an arrow pointing towards Orin’s Sugarcamp.


This may not be the final location but it is in roughly the right spot.
This may not be the final location for the oracle mirror but I like the implications of ending Mythos with self-examination, however interpreted.


Taking the place of the mirror and column at the beginning of Mythos is a rock shaped like an arrowhead pointing upwards. I’m not sure why this feels so appropriate — perhaps it is simply the beauty of the rock itself, and how perfectly it is positioned, at the start of a natural procession of trees that leads into the distance, an unplanted counterpart to the planted rows of crabapple trees that form La Grande Allée.


Talk about serendipity! What looks like a base for a sculpture was a rock actually in that exact spot.
Talk about serendipity! What looks like a base for a sculpture was a rock we found in that exact spot.


It’s possible that I would have developed Mythos without the helpful critique that the observant visitor made. It’s equally possibly that I wouldn’t. I accepted the criticism in the spirit it was given; I took it to heart because it came from an educated and experienced individual whose judgement I trusted. I thank him. Timelines is better for it.

The Past as Prelude

The great English landscape architect Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe got it right. What’s past is past. But while it is over and done with, the past can’t be ignored. Instead, Jellicoe said, we should “ponder on the past not as the past but as a pointer to the future.”

In troubled political times, this sounds like good advice.  It’s equally good advice when applied to the land.

When I began to work on the garden at Glen Villa some twenty years ago, history was the principle that guided me and it continues to be a powerful element, generating ideas and actions. If looking back were my only motivation, though, I doubt I’d be satisfied. Looking forward matters. And the question I’ve been asking myself more and more often in recent days is this:  how has the past shaped the present landscape at Glen Villa — and perhaps more sigificantly —  how do my actions today shape its future?

Several decades ago, my sister-in-law arranged through a  government program to have trees planted on land that once had been farmed. Remnants of that farming history remained then, and still remain today. Most prominent is the foundation of a building, tilting earthwards more and more each year.


untitled (14 of 15)


I remember only vaguely the barn it was part of. I don’t remember at all the other sign of the farm-that-was, a moss-covered stone wall, now collapsing and overgrown with trees, that once divided two plowed fields.


Once I dreamed of exposing the length of this wall and planting sunny spots with lilac bushes. I doubt this will ever happen. but wouldn't it be beautiful?
Once I dreamed of exposing the length of this wall and planting sunny spots with lilac bushes. I doubt this will ever happen. but wouldn’t it be beautiful?


Sometime in the 1980s, the fields were harrowed and prepared for trees to be planted. Spruce and pine seedlings were mechanically added in tidy rows in one area, and oaks and a few black walnut trees in another. Over the years the hardwoods have grown tall and thin.


hardwoods (1 of 1)
The oaks look like they’ve been iced with snow. Scenes like this are typical of Quebec’s Eastern Townships in the winter.


The softwoods have branched out. Now they are a forest, beautifully atmospheric in some lights …


Believe it or not, this photo was not taken in winter but in mid summer.
Believe it or not, this photo was not taken in winter but in mid summer.


… and simply dark in others, even when shafts of light struggle to break through.


untitled (13 of 15)
Branches that scratch and catch on clothes make it difficult to walk through the spruce trees except on the path we cut.


Over the years I’ve walked this land hundreds of times, by myself and with others.


This photo of my husband and our oldest grandchild was taken 11 years ago. I love looking at it and remembering that particular day.
This photo of my husband and our oldest grandchild was taken 11 years ago. I love remembering that particular day and the people we were then.


The trees were planted to be cut and this year, for the first time, we began to do that. We aren’t clear-cutting the area but removing selectively, taking down dead trees along with the largest of the living. Jacques Gosselin and Ken Kelso, the two men who I consider my right and left hands, choose which trees to cut, limbing them up and burning small side branches as they go.


Once Jacques and Ken remove the side branches, they cut the trunk into the 8 or 12 foot lengths that sawmills are looking for.


The fire is a nice source of warmth on cold days …


The fire never gets out of control and the surrounding woods are not threatened.
The fire never gets out of control and the surrounding woods are not threatened.


… and the smoke it produces streaks the air.


Smoke from the fire is transformed by sunbeams.
Smoke lit by the sun transforms darkness into romance.


Cutting these trees is not a money-making project. By the time salaries are paid and the cost of equipment and transport to the sawmill are taken into account, we barely break even. But making money isn’t the purpose. Making the forest a more beautiful and more usable space is.

The rows that were planted 30 or 40 years ago are still visible in most areas, and loosening that straitjacket is one of my aims.


Another summertime photo that looks like it was taken in winter.
Straight rows are unnatural in a forest.


Removing even a few large trees lets in more light which means that smaller trees will grow more quickly. And because the light is uneven, some will grow more quickly than others, beginning the process of letting the woods find their own way forward.


More trees have been cut in this section than in most, to allow access for the tractor that pulls the limbed-up trunks to a central collection point.
More trees have been cut in this section than in most but even here, trees will begin to fill in the gaps in a year or two.


Jacques and Ken drag the bare tree trunks out of the woods and divide them into piles by length, 8 or 12 feet long. In a week or two the wood will be at the sawmill where it will be sawed into boards.


Snow caps the piled up tree trunks.
Snow caps the piled up tree trunks.


Seeing the tidy stacks, I ask myself a variation of the question I started with.  What effect do my actions have on the future? Am I making the land more usable by cutting these trees?  Am I making the forest more beautiful? Biologists say that the forest knows how to take care of itself, but this isn’t a natural forest, it is an artificial construct.  So I hope the effects of my actions will be positive. Only time will tell.