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


Special Trees

January 14th, 2018 | 10 Comments »

A piece about specimen trees in the on-line magazine Gardenista started me thinking about trees and how special they are to me. Having recently planted a long allée of crabapple trees at Glen Villa, (and having written about it here) where the impact stems from the sheer number of trees and the precision of their placement, my mind swung to the opposite end of the spectrum, to individual trees that make an impact on their own.

The most important tree at Glen Villa, my garden in rural Quebec, is the basswood, or linden as I prefer to call it, that stands at the end of the Big Meadow. This tree is the garden’s signature tree. It is the focal point of the view from our kitchen window and even in the fog that almost obscured it a few days ago, it stood out as something special.


There was so little colour this morning that I took this photo in black and white.
There was so little colour that I took this photo in black and white.


The linden is special in every season. It is spectacular in autumn….


The linden starts as pure gold and changes gradually to become liquid honey.
The linden starts as pure gold and changes gradually to liquid honey.


… gloriously green in mid-summer…


The shape of the tree adds immensely to its appeal.
The shape of the tree adds immensely to its appeal.


… and a shimmer of light in early spring.


Spring green leaves shine in the sunlight.
You can make out a few muscari or grape hyacinth just coming into bloom underneath the tree. I added bulbs for several years; now a blue haze covers the ground in spring.


The linden tree is special, but it isn’t the only special tree at Glen Villa. An old maple tree that for obvious reasons I call the Semaphore Tree signals the letter O non-stop. (Is the O a smoke ring signalling danger or a sign  of sudden comprehension? I wish I knew.)


This maple tree was planted over 100 years ago, as part of the landscaping for the resort hotel, Glen Villa Inn. The hotel burned to the ground in 1909.
This maple tree was planted over 100 years ago when the resort hotel, Glen Villa Inn, was built. The hotel burned to the ground in 1909.


The Semaphore Tree makes me laugh, as does the Grass Snake Tree close by.


My grass snake reaching for the apple reminds me that my garden is not paradise. But it comes awfully close.
The grass snaking its way up the tree makes everyone laugh, particularly when they notice the apple, just out of reach.


Other trees speak to me more softly.  A small horse chestnut tree I planted some years ago announces the on-set of fall. It is always the first to change colour and while that should make me sad, the peachy tones that I know will change to fiery red make me content to welcome the inevitable.


I took this photo on August 22, 2017. It was a shock to see the tree beginning to change colour that early.
I took this photo on August 22, 2017. It was a shock to see the tree beginning to change colour that early.


So what if summer is over, I tell myself.  The beauty of autumn will make up for it.


I took this photo on Sept 8, 2017. A few days later, all the leaves had dropped.
I took this photo on Sept 8, 2017. A few days later, all the leaves had dropped.


Other trees have inspired me to create art installations. A dead pine tree determined the location of a trail through the woods. A few years later the trail became a meditative walk called In Transit/En Route, where the tree plays an essential role. (You can read about the process of creating In Transit/En Route in a three-part series I wrote several years ago: here, here and here.)


I came across this dead pine tree when marking out a new trail through the woods. As soon as I saw it, I knew it would become an important feature.
The shadow of this tree falls on posts that mark the hours, transforming the tree into the gnomon or pointer, and the clearing around it into a sundial.


When it was struck by lightning, another dead tree at the edge of a field became the spark that ignited Abenaki Walking, an installation that chronicles the story of the original inhabitants of this part of Quebec.


The name for this tree was obvious -- the lightning tree. Unfortunately, it is no longer standing.
The name for this tree was obvious — the lightning tree. Unfortunately, it is no longer standing.


Dead trees speak to me. Only a section of the trunk now remains of what must once have been an impressive specimen — a maple perhaps? — but its presence inspired a project I’m working on that links tree trunks to Greek columns.


The trunk looks enormous here but that's a trick of the camera... I was low to the ground when I photographed it.
The trunk looks enormous here but that’s because I was flat on my back when I photographed it.


In her book The Inward Garden Julia Moir Messervy writes that our responses to the landscape are shaped by our experiences as children. I know this is true for me. A huge pear tree outside the kitchen door of the first house I remember living in established an axial line that continued to the rear of the garden, and axial lines in gardens still sit happily in my mind. A wide spreading cherry tree that bloomed pale pink outside my bedroom window in the house where we moved when I was 12 whispered romance; I’d put down the book I was reading and imagine a boy climbing the tree to rap on my window and carry me away. The oak tree at the first house my husband and I owned was so large that I thought it had inspired the name of the town, Oakville. The ground shook when a branch fell in the night, waking us both, but leaving a crotch wide enough to hold a tree house where our children played with friends.

The archetypal tree of my childhood, though, was one that grew at my grandparents’ farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Relatives always called it a poplar; now I know it was a tulip poplar, or Liriodendron tulipifera, named after the shape of the blossoms. The tree stood in a field high above my grandparents’ farmhouse, too far away for a little girl to walk to on her own, but always out there, beckoning, urging me to explore. Over dinner I remember hearing stories that courting couples could walk to the tree since they were always in view from the house. And that once there, they might even become engaged. Or not — paintings of the tree done by two powdery great-aunts hung throughout the house, silent testimony to their old maid status.

I have a photo of the tree that I took the last time I visited my grandparents’ farm in 2003, long after they both had died. Unfortunately I didn’t take a photo from the farmhouse looking up, as I remember the tree most clearly, but from the hilltop looking down.


Standing higher on the hill behind the poplar, I was looking down towards the farmhouse when I took this photo, many years ago.
The building on the right of the tree is the old barn. The farmhouse is out of the picture to the right.


Who knows if the tree is still alive? It may well be dead now but no matter — the memory survives.

Are there trees that stand out in your garden, or in your memories? I’d love to hear the stories.


Garden Paths

December 28th, 2017 | 12 Comments »
Ragged robin, lupins and buttercups edge the path that leads to the China Terrace, the re-creation of Glen Villa Inn.
As the end of the year approaches, I'm thinking about transitions. In  the context of gardens, transitions are often linked to paths. Paths lead you somewhere, either literally or metaphorically. They take you through different landscapes -- meadows, forests, open fields -- whose settings evoke different moods. They come in all shapes and sizes -- grassy and gravel, broad and narrow, straight and curved. One path may lead to a specific place, another to nowhere in particular and yet a third to someplace unknown, a future waiting to be discovered. Anyone visiting Glen Villa, my garden in Quebec,


Art in Winter

December 11th, 2017 | 18 Comments »
The shape of the crabapple tree becomes dramatic when outlined with snow.
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.   [caption id="attachment_5887" align="aligncenter" width="3888"] The shape of the crabapple trees becomes dramatic when outlined with snow.[/caption]   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


Malverleys: A Garden of Contrasts

November 27th, 2017 | 17 Comments »
Vivid colours appear in the hot border. Contrasts are more subtle in the cool-toned border but are still  dynamic and inventive.
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


Planting for Spring

November 14th, 2017 | 11 Comments »
Empty boxes and bags are proof that all the bulbs are now in the ground.
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.   [caption id="attachment_5837" align="aligncenter" width="3888"] Snow


The Straight and (not very) Narrow

November 1st, 2017 | 23 Comments »
These crabapple trees in front of my daughter's house are Malus 'Dolgo.'
  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.   [caption id="attachment_5771" align="aligncenter" width="5169"] This path was a convenient short cut across a flat farm field.[/caption]   I was taken aback. We needed 100 trees, 50 each side, planted at 18 foot intervals. The number made me


The Grandchildren Trees

October 24th, 2017 | 12 Comments »
One grandchild stands next to her tree along with her father.
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


Giving Thanks

October 9th, 2017 | 15 Comments »
The foliage of this tree (Nyssa sylvatica) is always colourful in autumn but this is the first time I've seen it with two distinct colours.  Can anyone explain why this happens?
  Today is Thanksgiving day in Canada, and there is much to be thankful for. In the garden, colours are bright.   [caption id="attachment_5729" align="aligncenter" width="2820"] Sedum 'Autumn Joy' lives up to its name.[/caption]   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.   [caption id="attachment_5743" align="aligncenter" width="5184"] Those stubs of nepeta between


The Big Meadow, 2017

September 25th, 2017 | 8 Comments »
I took this photo near the end of July. The mown path remained green all summer, thanks to the amount of rain we received.
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


Little Things Mean a Lot

September 18th, 2017 | 12 Comments »
The added height offers a different perspective on the Skating Pond.
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