A path of exploration
Unveiling the beauty and meaning behind art and gardens


The Spirit of Stone: A Book Review

April 10th, 2017 | 6 Comments »

I share something with Jan Johnsen, author of The Spirit of Stone — a respect for stones and the qualities they bring to a landscape.

At Glen Villa, my garden in Quebec, I’ve used stones in paths, steps and walls. I’ve used them more unusually in the gabion walls of The Aqueduct and in the parking area in front of the house.

Gabion walls can be practical and aesthetically pleasing.
Gabion walls can be practical and aesthetically pleasing. A low pool can be attractive to a tiny granddaughter.


Two stunning moss-covered rocks in the woods dictated the route of a path that we installed shortly after we acquired the property in 1996. A rock only partly exposed became the centrepiece of a new shrub border when we uncovered more of it. And at the Skating Pond, smooth blue-toned rocks are a highlight, setting a colour palette for the plantings that surround them.


Lime green ninebark (Physocarpus Gold Nugget) is a sharp contrast to the smooth blue stone beside The Skating Pond. We had no idea such a gorgeous stone was hiding underground.
Lime green ninebark (Physocarpus Golden Nugget) is a sharp contrast to the smooth blue stone beside The Skating Pond. We had no idea such gorgeously coloured stone was hiding underground.


The Spirit of Stone looks at uses like these and more. The subtitle of the book is an accurate description of the contents: 101 Practical & Creative Stonescaping Ideas for Your Garden. I didn’t count the ideas but the book is full of them. In effect it is a primer on the multitude of ways in which stone can be, and has been, used in gardens.


The book is a useful primer on how to use stone in the garden.
The book is a useful primer on how to use stone in the garden. It also feels good in the hand.


Short sections give practical advice about using these natural treasures in rock gardens, walks, steps, walls and as accents in the garden. A final section is about plants that work well in combination with stones large and small.

Johnsen’s advice is helpful but for me the ‘spiritual’ aspects of the book are more interesting. Stone is revered in cultures around the world and understandably so. Beautiful in its variety of colours, shapes and textures, it conveys a sense of permanence that anchors us in a way that changeable plants do not.  A quote from the English artist Andy Goldsworthy underlines this point.

“A lone resting stone is not merely an object in the landscape but a deeply ingrained witness to time.”

A rock at Crawick Multiverse in Scotland shows the marks of time.
A rock at Crawick Multiverse in Scotland shows how beautiful the marks of time can be.


A number of the ‘spiritual’ uses Johnsen reviews, such as standing stones and stone circles, are familiar. Others are less so. I for one have never seen a split rock like the ones she illustrates, which apparently were regarded by Native Americans as doors to the underworld. Nor did I know that the continent’s indigenous people believed quartz contained supernatural power.


A vein of quartz forms a natural A on this rock at Glen Villa. I placed memory posts to my father and brother-in-law in this location to be near the A Rock. Does that testify to its supernatural power?
A vein of quartz forms a natural A on this rock at Glen Villa. I placed memory posts to my father and brother-in-law in this location to be near the A Rock which pulled me like a magnet.


I do know that using rock successfully requires paying close attention. Building the cascade at Glen Villa, one of the first things we did in the garden, took genuine patience. We had to examine each rock, find not only its best face but the face that it wanted to show to the world. Because, odd as it may seem, rocks will speak if you give them, and yourself, time to hear.

Rock art is one of the few rock-related topics Johnsen does not address. Perhaps this is understandable since few of us are about to use rock walls as canvases to tell stories. But since I love rock art and have ventured far into the Australian outback and other places to view it, I found the omission regrettable.


A strangely fingered figure is painted on a wall inside a cave-like overhang in the Kimberley area of West Australia.
A strangely fingered figure is painted on a wall inside a cave-like overhang in the Kimberley area of West Australia.


The Spirit of Stone is not a big book. It isn’t a philosophical tome and it doesn’t take long to read. But if you are looking for good ideas and practical advice about using stone in your garden, this is a helpful book to read.



Garden Plans: I’m Dreaming Again

March 27th, 2017 | 25 Comments »
You can see a bit of the trail on the left side of this photo, taken in 2009. We cleared brush from this area last fall. Some of the wildflowers have disappeared but the site still feels the same. Is this an example of unity persisting despite change?
Now that winter has dumped several feet of snow on a garden that was almost snow-free, I'm back by the fire, metaphorically at least, dreaming of the seasons ahead.   [caption id="attachment_5009" align="aligncenter" width="600"] I took this photo about ten days ago after a fresh snowfall. Today is grey. And maybe more snow will fall. I hope not.[/caption]   I'm dreaming about a trail that will lead around the property. I'm considering the route it will follow and what I will call it. I know the purpose of the trail -- it will connect art


Experimenting Landscapes: A Book Review

March 13th, 2017 | 10 Comments »
Experimenting Landscapes: Testing the Limits of the Garden is the newest book about the International Garden Festival at Métis, Québec. Full of helpful insights from  the author Emily Waugh, the book presents photos and essays analyzing some of the Festival's experimental gardens. Focusing on a selection of gardens from the last ten years, the book suggests five categories or methods of investigation that help readers position the gardens within a larger context.   [caption id="attachment_4966" align="aligncenter" width="300"] This cover photo shows Courtesy of Nature, by Johan Selbing and Anouk Vogel. It is one of



February 27th, 2017 | 10 Comments »
North is a direction, an idea, an experience. North as designed by the architects Suresh Perara and Julie Charbonneau of the Montreal firm PER.CH is a triumph. Using familiar materials, PER.CH turns the idea of north on its head. Literally. Thirty-nine fir trees hang upside down from a metal framework, their soft green triangles pointing down to a bare Toronto beach.   [caption id="attachment_4945" align="aligncenter" width="2000"] Photo courtesy of Suresh Perara.[/caption]   North is one of eight installations that make up Winter Stations, an exhibition on the shores of Lake Ontario. Now


Thinking about Gardens

February 13th, 2017 | 17 Comments »
This sign seen at the wonderful Italian garden Bosco della Ragnaia, created by Sheppard Craige, says it all: If not here, where?
After a short but enjoyable holiday in Florida, I'm back in Quebec. Moving from one weather system to another that is radically different strains the body and provokes obvious questions. Why leave ocean breezes for frozen lakes, or blue skies and green palm trees for white snow and grey skies?   [caption id="attachment_4918" align="aligncenter" width="600"] The angle of this photo tells you how hard I was working in Florida. Don't laugh: leaning back and doing nothing takes some doing. (Ok, not much.)[/caption]   It is cold here. And it keeps on snowing,


Do You Care about Garden Trends?

January 30th, 2017 | 23 Comments »
I lifted from this photo from an on-line article in the English newspaper, The Telegraph. The cut-line that ran with the photo reads "This year, look out for cacti, price wars and carrot yoghrt," says Matthew Appleby.
Do you pay attention to garden trends or do you think they are a pile of baloney? Every year about this time, I read an article telling me what's in and what's out. Hot new plants are described. I read that there's a colour I can't live without, or that shrubs are making a comeback. (When did they ever go away?) These articles appear in magazines, newspapers and on-line sites in countries around the world.  Sometimes they are based on surveys, sometimes on opinions, sometimes on catchy phrases. Alliteration abounds. As do odd conclusions.


Reading the Garden

January 17th, 2017 | 15 Comments »
Those who can't garden, read. On grey winter days, nothing beats sitting by a fire and reading garden books. For the last few days, I've been devouring Garden Revolution: How Our Landscapes Can Be a Source of Environmental Change. This 2016 publication by Larry Weaner and Thomas Christopher was top of my Christmas wish list; I'm only partway through but I'm enjoying every page. The book lays out sensible ways to garden ecologically, and, as it turns out, I was already applying its principles of natural evolution to guide the transformation of  the Big Lawn


Garden Goals for 2017

January 9th, 2017 | 10 Comments »
The tin maple leaves hung in November 2016 are now coated with snow, making the scene even more evocative.
Setting annual goals for the garden keeps me on track and helps me avoid jumping from one thing to another, something I'm all too prone to do. Last year I set 10 goals for myself and discovered, looking back in last week's post, that ten was too many. So in 2017 I'm cutting my ambitions in half and setting five goals for the year ahead. 1. Finish The Upper Room The bare bones of The Upper Room, the new area in the garden that honours my mother and her beliefs, have


Looking Back and Forth

December 31st, 2016 | 10 Comments »
Since I didn't do anything about new pots, I shouldn't have a photo to illustrate this goal. But I did use Mandeville vines on the living room deck. I've had these same plants for ten years or so, and they continue to provide abundant blooms and colour.
Last December I took the risky step of setting goals for 2016. So as that year ends and 2017 begins, it's time to assess. How much of what I wanted to do did I actually accomplish? 1. The Cascade: As intended, I modified the plantings around The Cascade. I reduced the number of different types of plants, improved the drainage and the soil in the beds themselves. As a result, the plants flourished and I was content. But of course there are always reservations. The Weigela 'Wine and Roses' needs another year


A Recklessly Record-less Year

December 19th, 2016 | 14 Comments »
This album will be arranged by project, not chronologically.
For the last sixteen years I've kept a record of what happens each year in the garden. I've conscientiously photographed each project I've undertaken, each border as it changed from season to season, each modification I made or was thinking about making. I've stuck these photographs into albums and written comments --  about my intentions for a project, or the weather, what I was wanting to do next -- in effect, about anything that seemed relevant at the time. These albums are immensely helpful. They are a record of how the garden has developed. They both show and tell