I woke yesterday to a fine dusting of snow, and during the day more snow fell. Today it outlines the branches of the big oak tree by our boathouse and the old crabapple trees by the drive, emphasizing the contrast between rough bark and soft fluffy white.
The forecast calls for more snow to come, and as confirmation, the sky is grey. But once the snow stops and the barometer rises, the sky will be a clear, bright blue that cheers the spirits.
For those who live in warmer climes, the thought of snow and ice and temperatures that routinely drop to -30C must be daunting. But for those of us accustomed to winter, it is full of glories, just waiting to be seen. Some are ephemeral …
… others longer lasting.
At Glen Villa, my garden in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, sculptures and installations that I’ve created reflect the history of the land. These art works have a special appeal in winter. When the sun shines, the steel bands of Trees Rings cast shadows on the snow, mirroring the tree’s internal rings on the ground as they do in the air.
On frosty mornings, the barbed wire encircling these inverted branches acquires a beauty that denies its hurtful reality.
Webster’s Column, the sculpture I made to celebrate my husband’s 50-year career as a journalist, appears black and white in the distance, missing only the touch of red that would turn it into the newspaper riddle popular when I was a child.
Colours make a stronger statement in winter than they do in other seasons, when so many other colours compete. A yellow tree trunk advises caution, think about your choice.
A gleaming red apple warns you to resist temptation.
Even blacks and whites gain strength.
At Orin’s Sugarbush, silver leaves chime gently, announcing the holiday season.
And by the front door, a tree awaiting its silver star provides the seasonal touch of green. Iced, of course.
Here’s hoping that your holiday season is filled with colour and joy, and your garden with winter’s art.
Winter is almost here in Quebec, which means that not much is going on in the garden at Glen Villa. So instead of moaning about that, I’m remembering one of the gardens I visited in England last May.
Malverleys is a large private estate, rarely open to the public, so the small group of gardeners who were on the tour I was hosting was fortunate to be able to visit. We were doubly fortunate to tour the garden in the company of Mat Reese, the head gardener. Anyone who subscribes to Gardens Illustrated, or reads it regularly, may recognize his name — Mat writes ‘Plantsman’s Favourites’, several pages near the front of each issue in which he recommends special plants for each season.
The garden he is in charge of uses contrast as its central idea. Understandably, because Malverleys is a garden of extremes. Old trees tower over a new garden, and recently created views frame a countryside that seems to have existed forever.
Malverleys also shows what can be accomplished when talent combines with wealth. Working in conjunction with the owners, in a few short years Mat has created a garden that celebrates traditional Jekyll-inspired plantings, a style he believes best suits the English countryside. But not content with imitating the past, he is constantly experimenting, and the results of his experimentation show what can happen when contrasts are pushed to the limit.
Easiest to identify (and to photograph) in the ten intensely gardened acres are the contrasts in colour. These range from sharp contrasts within a single border …
… to contrasts within a single plant.
Less obvious but equally effective are contrasts in texture and size.
When the owner acquired the property, none of the current gardens existed. Now open spaces are carefully balanced against closed ones, light against dark.
In contrast to open fields and a sunny lawn is a dark stumpery, full of mystery and ferns. Some forms are delicate …
Water is handled with equal care. A large pot of water sits in a shallow pool, surrounded by beds thickly planted in cool colours.
A larger pool surrounded by more vibrant tones reflects the sky.
In a section of the garden still being constructed, water arcs from the sides of a rill to form circular patterns, while the sound of the splash adds a new note to the symphony of birds.
Throughout the garden, formality is contrasted with informality. Beside the house a recently planted parterre combines yew, boxwood and hydrangea …
while in the walled garden there is a meadowy abundance.
Classically influenced statuary at the top of a low set of stairs sets one tone …
while designer chickens wandering through the garden set quite another.
Mat Rees’s title is Director of Horticulture. This isn’t the title used in most gardens of this type, but at Malverleys, a title isn’t the only convention that has been given a twist. Topiary in a flowery meadow, for example. Christopher Lloyd’s garden Great Dixter famously had one, and Rees may well have worked on it when he was there. At Malverleys, the meadow combines the standard wildflowers with perennials and shrubs, and a topiary statue twists its way up amid the yews.
A double border lining a bit of green lawn is a standard feature, a cliché too often made worse by unimaginative planting. Not so here.
An old stone path where cracks burst with thyme and self-sown plants is a commonplace that Rees has freshened, both with the variety and combination of plants he has chosen and with the broken pattern inserted in the walk.
And what self-respecting garden of this type excludes a white garden? The very name conjures romance in the moonlight, perfumed yet coolly restrained.
At Malverleys, the white garden is wild, unrestrained, punctuated with touches of colour, on the verge of tipping over into confusion.
Can the same be said of the garden as a whole? Malverleys is a garden built on contrasts — between convention and experimentation, between restraint and lack thereof — and with contrasts as strong as these, finding a balance is essential. Establishing that balance isn’t easy; maintaining it is even harder. And I’m afraid that with the addition of one more thing, one more garden room, one more feature, the balance will be lost. A studied garden will fall over the top.
I hope I’m wrong, for the plans that Rees outlined for the future are exciting: a lake, an arboretum, a series of courses for those wanting to learn more. A few more years will tell the tale.
Last week my computer went on the blink and for three whole days, my typing fingers had a rest. The days off-line gave me time to do other things, but instead of using the time wisely, I wandered around feeling bereft.
So it was only yesterday, when all was once again well on the computer front, that I ventured outside to plant bulbs. I should have done this weeks ago but the weather had been so fine, almost summer-like, that I kept putting it off.
Until the snow fell.
There wasn’t much of it, but it was a clear warning that the job had to be done before the ground froze. Thankfully I hadn’t ordered too many bulbs so the job didn’t take long.
Planting bulbs lets me hope and dream. Come spring, will I see a sprinkle or a cloud of snowdrops (Galanthus elwesii) alongside the path to the China Terrace?
Will the several dozen trout lilies (Erythronium tuolumnense ‘Pagoda’) planted under the witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) by the front door look like they grew there naturally, as I intend?
Walking in my mind along the path through the Big Meadow, I dream of seeing a mix of blue and white Camassia (Camassia leichtlinii ‘alba’ and ‘caerulea’) poking their heads through the grass.
And with luck, my dream of seeing foxtail lilies (Eremurus x isabellinus ‘Cleopatra’) towering above the boxwood and nepeta at The Aqueduct will come true.
What I’m most eager to see though, are the blossoms on the long avenue of crabapple trees we finally finished planting. (I wrote about them in my last blog post.)
The Avenue is impressive, whether seen from the road looking north…
or from the driveway looking south.
In the spring we’ll harrow and seed this long strip of earth, now arrow-straight. The grass should be a young, tender green when the trees bloom, pink and white.
But first we’ll enjoy another winter, with snow piled high outside and fires roaring inside. There will be books to read and dreams to dream.
When is a straight path not straight enough? When is it too narrow?
Last March, I decided to transform an unused farm field into something spectacular by lining the path that ran through it with crabapple trees. When the ground was barely thawed, I paced out the length to determine how many trees to order.
I was taken aback. We needed 100 trees, 50 each side, planted at 18 foot intervals.
The number made me stop and think. Was it worth It? The mental picture of trees in full bloom took my breath away and I decided it was.
I began to research the best varieties for our situation. I wasn’t sure if I wanted pink or white blossoms or if I wanted both. And how should I arrange them? Should I alternate the colours, mix them at random or establish some other kind of pattern?
As I often do when I face a decision like this, I called my friend, the landscape architect Myke Hodgins. We talked about the possibilities and he suggested the pattern I’m using, a single line of white blossoming trees on each side of the path, with a square of pink ones to mark each end. He also suggested that I continue the trees across the driveway to create a tunnel of pink, an idea I found immensely appealing.
I narrowed the selection to six possible varieties and made the final choice based on what could be sourced locally in the quantities I needed. That meant ordering 24 Malus x moerlandsii ‘Profusion’ (violet-red blossoms, bronze-green foliage and bright red fruit) and 100 Malus ‘Dolgo’ (white blossoms and overall reliability — plus the crabapples make a very tasty jelly.)
We began to prepare the site in mid-August. I thought it would be an easy job. The field was flat, the path was straight and all we had to do was widen it a bit.
I was wrong on all counts. Very wrong.
The path wasn’t straight. It ended far too close to a telephone pole and to a tree I wanted to keep. And it was much too narrow, particularly considering the ditches we’d have to dig.
To avoid the tree and the telephone pole, we shifted the path towards the truck you see in the photo above. We widened it from 8 feet to 12 feet. We added another six feet on either side, to give enough space for walking once the trees spread to full size. Then came the ditches, essential in a sometimes soggy field. And suddenly we were looking at a plowed strip 60 feet wide.
Then the real work began. Equipment was hired. Ditches were dug, necessarily deeper and wider than I had anticipated.
Neighbours noticed and politely inquired. Were we building a landing strip or a new road?
Finally, though, the work finished. And then the wait began.
We were ready but the trees were not, which was unfortunate since the weather was ideal — dry, sunny and cool. And while we were waiting, it started to rain. And it rained, and rained, and rained. All the holes we’d dug filled with water. And still the trees didn’t arrived.
Until finally, they did. This morning an enormous truck arrived, heavily laden with 124 crabapples and one little willow.
The trees were unloaded beside the road and the planting began.
The trees are heavy so each has to be chained and lifted into a waiting hole.
Planting will take a full day at least. And before the holes are re-filled with earth, each tree will need to be adjusted to ensure the line is straight.
I’ll post a photo once the work is done. I know the trees won’t look like much then, but consider how they’ll look next May!
A final note: Recently, I found a note I made in 2012 after visiting gardens in England. “Use a straight tree line in the garden. But where?”
The year after our first grandchild was born, we planted a maple tree in her honour. A few years later when our second grandchild was born, we did the same.
We continued to do this. After each birth, another tree was planted. We planted the trees in a straight row, on the slope of an old farm field where the growing conditions were right — plenty of sunshine and soil that wasn’t too wet or too dry. When the fifth grandchild was born, there wasn’t enough room in the row, so we started a second one. When that row filled up, we started a third, and then a fourth.
All of a sudden — or so it seemed — we had ten grandchildren and ten maple trees, planted in a triangle like the pins in a bowling alley.
By last summer, the trees were big enough to have an impact. But the long grass in the field hid the triangular shape.
In order to emphasize the shape and to draw attention to the trees themselves, we started to mow around them.
Mowing helped make the shape clear, but it didn’t help enough. We sprayed a white line on the grass.
That helped a bit more, but the spray paint didn’t last very long.
Recently I returned to the problem, searching for a solution that would showcase the trees but wouldn’t require too much maintenance.
I think I’ve found it.
A steel bar mounted on steel legs now marks each corner of the triangle with a sleek silver line. Next summer we may spray paint the legs that hold the bars above the grass silver as well, or we may leave them to gather even more rust.
The spray paint didn’t end the necessary tweaking. Because almost three years ago, grandchild #11 appeared on the scene. Where could we put her tree? The triangle was complete.
If her tree wasn’t part of the pattern, did it have to be a maple? Her mother suggested we choose a tree that bore fruit — appropriate for a little girl, she said. Until a few weeks ago, this youngest tree stood in the same field, not far from the other grandchildren trees but not part of the group either. Her cousins didn’t like that. They said she was being left out.
What could I do but listen?
Now the youngest (the final?) grandchild’s tree is in place. It stands opposite the tip of the triangle, elevated on a berm like a conductor leading an orchestra.
And to make sure the others know who is in charge, we planted a crabapple!
Today is Thanksgiving day in Canada, and there is much to be thankful for. In the garden, colours are bright.
Even when the flowers have faded, I’m thankful for work that’s been done. At the Aqueduct the catmint ( Nepeta racemosa ‘Walker’s Low’) has been cut back, making the bed look more like a monk’s shaved head than the overgrown mop of foliage it was only days ago.
Also looking bare after its annual cut is the Big Meadow. With the hay bales still in place, it looks less like a lawn and more like the farm field it used to be.
Thankfully uncut are the ornamental grasses by the Skating Pond. They are at their best in autumn, particularly on a breezy day.
Usually, fall colours hit their peak at Thanksgiving, but this year the colours are muted, less vibrant than normal. I think this is due to the hotter and dryer days we had throughout September — many days felt like summer. These warm days have continued into October, making fall still seem a distant prospect.
Going through the woods with my granddaughter, fall was more evident. We spotted some bright colours, but they often appeared in isolated patches, surrounded by green.
Poplar leaves glowed yellow or occasionally appeared a blanched out white.
Ferns were clear markers of the change of season. Many have turned from green to toasted gold…
but others, like Christmas ferns (Polystichum) and maidenhair ferns (Adiantum pedatum) still wear their summer clothes.
The woods at Glen Villa comprise different ecosystems. Some sections are full of tall straight trees with almost no undergrowth.
Others are deep and mysterious.
Some places in the woods hint at earlier times, when the land was cleared for farming.
In other places, the hints turn into shouts and the land tells its story loud and clear.
Garbage collection and municipal dumps are relatively new things in many rural areas, including this one. Before they existed, farmers used the woods. This old dump close to a trail contained many things you might expect: tin cans, glass bottles, rusted metal and an old inner tube.
It also contained some surprises.
Even if they are less vibrant than usual, colours still abound in the woods, on branches and on the ground.
Without doubt, though, the most colourful part of Thanksgiving — and definitely the most delicious — was the turkey.
Is it accurate to call The Big Lawn at Glen Villa The Big Meadow? If you use an American definition, the answer is yes. If you consult an English dictionary, the answer is less clear.
Webster’s Dictionary defines a meadow as a tract of low or level land producing grass which is mown for hay, and that definition fits precisely. Allowing the sweep of grass beside our house that was tended for decades to remain untouched produced six large bales of hay last year, the first year we didn’t mow regularly. Those bales were so big and heavy that we left them in place all winter, using them as buffers to prevent grandchildren sliding down a snow-covered hill from sliding over the bank and into the lake.
Based on an English dictionary that adds the presence of wildflowers to the mix, our Big Meadow is falling short.
Regardless of definitions, I consider wildflowers an essential element of a successful meadow. There are a few that have appeared on what used to be our lawn but not as many as I want. Far from it.
Trying to remedy this, I seeded selected areas of the Big Meadow last fall. The results were not impressive. A few seeds produced flowers but there were few, if any, signs of the long-lived perennials I’d been hoping for.
The impact of long-lived perennials continues year after year. And perhaps next year, the seeds I sowed will begin to show up. Perhaps, as well, the Agastache I planted will begin to spread. I hope so.
But in the meantime, slowly but surely, the patches of red dock, or sheep sorrel (Rumex acetosella) are spreading.
Unfortunately, so is the ragweed. Some hours were spent this year, removing each clump to ensure it didn’t go to seed. Mowing once a year in late September or early October will prevent the regrowth of a forest, the natural condition of land in this part of the world, but it won’t stop the ragweed. It is all around us and will continue to show up. This is discouraging and I don’t know whether I’ll have to accept it or continue to fight what I think will be a losing battle. (Advice, anyone?)
Last summer I chronicled the development of the lawn each month, delighted to see how the grass grew and changed colour, almost from week to week. This year, I’ve been less delighted, perhaps because I’ve been less surprised. But one thing has delighted me enormously — we’ve seen almost no Canada geese.
Getting rid of the geese was the first and perhaps the most important reason for making the change from lawn to meadow, and letting the grass grow seems to be doing the trick. Occasionally this summer a few geese stopped by, but there weren’t many, and they didn’t come often. What we saw instead were deer — lots of them, and almost daily.
The deer nibbled away at tender grass along the path and at anything (everything?) else that tickled their taste buds. I doubt it was the aesthetics that attracted them, but that was what appealed to me. The mown line, a curving strip of green, was a striking contrast throughout the summer months, whether seen from the house looking out…
or from the linden tree looking back.
Even now, as we near the end of September, the path is green and inviting.
This second year of the transformation of lawn to meadow has gone well. Longer grass has discouraged the geese and attracted the deer, and this is a trade-off I’m happy to live with. So whether more wildflowers appear or not, I’m pleased. For now, at least.
Little things mean a lot, in the garden as well as in song. It’s the little things that explain why we gardeners are always looking and re-looking. Shall I move this plant, modify this combination, add or subtract?
This past week I’ve been changing some little things at the Skating Pond. After 12 years, a few boards on the boardwalk needed to be replaced. And changing some boards gave me the chance (the excuse?) to change a few more. Quite a few, as it turned out. Because what started as a tweak ended up changing the shape of the boardwalk, not entirely but significantly, at one end.
It’s instructive to look back. Here’s a photo of the Skating Pond in 2011. The boardwalk started abruptly, without feeling connected to its surroundings; it ended with a modest curve that led directly into the field and to a view, in the distance, of telephone poles, electric lines and a house.
(I’d love to show you what that view looked like, but I can’t. Over the years I’ve taken more than 1600 photos of the Skating Pond; not one of them shows it. You’d almost think I didn’t like what I saw.)
That abrupt ending was hidden once the bank above the boardwalk was planted with ornamental grass, but problems with the view remained. And in the back of my mind, there was always a little itch of dissatisfaction.
Now I’ve scratched it.
The boardwalk now starts (or ends, depending on which way you are walking) with a strong curve that leads up the bank.
The curve and the steps are pleasing from every angle.
Best of all, the view from the top of the steps is good in every direction.
Over the past month or so we’ve made two other changes, each of which has, or will, make a big difference. The opposite end of the boardwalk has presented problems for years. The ground was wet and regardless of what I planted, nothing grew well.
A year ago we dug out the dirt to expose more rock. The result wasn’t pretty. More problematic than aesthetics, though, were the practical issues. I knew the slope would shift and slide over the winter. Something more had to be done.
In early July we dug out more of the hillside to change the angle of the slope. We added rocks, good dirt and a few trial plants, including divisions of Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ that are now doing well. We’ll use more Calamagrostis to fill in the space, dividing some of the existing clumps to continue the line, and possibly adding another type of plant as well. So while there is more to be done, I feel that finally the area is coming together.
Another section, closer to the new steps, is coming together as well. An underground spring runs alongside a section of the rocks here, creating a constant problem with slippage on the hillside. A few years ago we added a few large rocks to stabilize the ground but they have never felt completely natural.
Adding a few more rocks seems to have solved the problem.
Still to come is the final ‘little thing’, a weeping willow that will go beside the new steps. The tree should create the impression of a gateway at the entry that will focus the view and make the Skating Pond feel even more secluded than it feels now.
Next year I may need to tweak other things at the Skating Pond. But for the moment at least, I’m satisfied. No, more than that, I’m happy.
Last week I visited a very special garden, where rock outcroppings enhanced with shade-loving plants create an atmosphere of deep serenity.
Developed over the last fifteen years by designer Michiko Gagnon, the garden is at the end of a cul-de-sac in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, not far from the U.S. border. It’s an idyllic setting, with an old farmhouse that she and her husband, the artist Charles Gagnon, renovated some 40 years ago. Now, near the house at the edge of a sunny lawn, Michiko has placed two wooden chairs.
The chairs face a typical Township’s view. It isn’t grand or spectacular, rather it is gentle and comfortable, the sort of landscape you can relax into. But the view seems to stretch out forever, through farm fields to a dark green forest that merges seamlessly into rolling hills and shades of blue.
It’s hard for a garden to compete with that kind of pull, but Michiko’s garden succeeds. An intriguingly constructed fence is the first clue as to how it does this. Marking the division between domestic and wilder spaces and stopping the eye, the fence begs for closer inspection.
And close inspection is key to the garden’s success. A fern placed in exactly the right spot draws the eye and enhances the beauty of a rippled rock.
A sturdy tree growing on top of another rock appears even sturdier with a frothy green skirt of corydalis lutea at its feet.
Colour and texture provide subtle contrasts throughout. Set against the olive tones of a moss-covered rock is the fresher green of pennywort, or Cymbalaria muralis, one of many creeping plants that Michiko has used.
The subtle coloration of Diervilla and its tiny yellow blossom add a point of light in the deep shade.
Dark mulch on planted areas allow subtle differences in shades of green to emerge.
Not all the plants are indigenous but all are chosen for their particular colour, texture or shape.
Tree stumps gathered from surrounding woods add a timeless quality to the garden. Were the stumps below once trees growing in place, or were they brought in from somewhere else? It’s hard to know. But whichever, their presence makes the garden feel as if it has always been here.
Each season has its star performers — blue Siberian iris in early summer, Japanese anemones in late.
But the stars never throw the garden off balance. This is the second time I’ve visited Michiko’s garden, and on both visits I’ve been struck by its restraint. This isn’t an ‘in your face’ garden, it’s a garden of nuance, where subtleties have room to shine.
Both visits have been at the end of summer, when the garden isn’t at its best. Or so Michiko claims. I found it quite splendid both times, but next summer I vow to return earlier, to see if she is right. And to sit once again to enjoy the garden’s peace.
Even while summer is coming to an end, the garden continues to make me happy.
I’m really pleased with the gravel garden. Early in the summer we adjusted the slate border; now it steps rather than slopes down, giving a firmer definition to the edge. While the yucca didn’t bloom this year, it did produce dense clumps that should bloom next year. The sedum ‘Dazzleberry’ is growing well and the small islands of sandwort (Arenaria verna) that I added offer good colour contrast.
And talk about bees! They are dazzled by the Dazzleberry.
The shrub border in the Upper Field is full of strong colour contrasts, particularly striking on a sunny day.
We planted the shrub border in the Lower Field last fall, adding clumps of giant fleeceflower (Persicaria polymorpha) at the same time. The shrubs are still adjusting to their new location, the fleeceflower is thriving. Next year the shrubs should be fuller and begin to grow. But in the meantime the astilbe (A. Veronica Klose) we added is blooming as never before, providing a powerful punch of bright pink that picks up on the fading tones of the fleeceflower.
Although the yellow Ligularia has finished blooming, the Cascade still looks good. I like the contrasts in form and texture. The Weigela ‘Wine and Roses’ are starting to show their muscle… I’ll need to prune judiciously next year to keep everything in balance.
At the Yin Yang, the contrasts in colour, shape and texture couldn’t be more obvious — soft billowy grey-green, hard static brick red.
Colours at Webster’s Column are less obvious. The Column, dwarfed by the tall trees that surround it, is filled with newspapers that recognize my husband’s 50 year career as a journalist. The colours on the papers have faded over the last seven years since the column was installed. That means the news isn’t fresh — but it isn’t fake, either.
On the deck where we frequently eat, the flowers are as colourful as they were at the beginning of the summer, and much more profuse. This is a combination I may repeat.
The last touch of colour is one I’m not too happy to see… autumn will soon be here.
I hope your summer was as good as mine. If only it were longer!