Category Archives: Plants

Trees in the Garden

April 5th, 2021 | 2 Comments »

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.

 

say something

 

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?

The Past as Prelude

February 1st, 2021 | 1 Comment »
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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,

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Goals and Resolutions

January 7th, 2021 | 10 Comments »
Chinook Sunrise is from the  Canadian-developed 49th Parallel series of roses.
In January last year, I laid out six garden goals for the year ahead, never believing I'd be able to achieve them all. I put them on paper nonetheless to give myself something to aim for and, to my surprise, I find that over the last twelve months I completed five of the six. This may be due to Covid-related restrictions that kept me closer to home, or it may be because I was intent on using the time well, but regardless of why, I'm pleased with what I managed to do. So, what

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Tree Hugging for Tree Huggers

December 21st, 2020 | 16 Comments »
Seen at the botanical garden in Sydney, Australia
Do you know when the phrase 'tree hugger' was coined? I didn't, so I looked it up. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the first known use of the term dates from 1965. Other words coined that year: jet lag, mini dress, pop art, teach-in, doo-wop and time traveller. Reading these words, I felt like a time traveller myself. In part this is because those words are so familiar now but also because the connotations of 'tree hugger' have changed so much. In 1965,  tree hugger was a derogatory term. Not so today.

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Autumn Leaves

October 12th, 2020 | 11 Comments »
The Forms are one installation on Timelines, the trail at Glen Villa that explores ideas about history, memory and our relationship to the land.
Walking through the woods recently, I passed this installation, called The Forms.   [caption id="attachment_9253" align="aligncenter" width="3728"] The Forms represent the basic building blocks of the constructed world. They are one part of Timelines, the trail at Glen Villa that explores ideas about history, memory and our relationship to the land.[/caption]   The colours of the plexiglass shapes stood out from the muted tones around them, attracting me like a magnet. Closer, I noticed leaves scattered on top of them, some haphazardly, some artfully arranged.     The contrast in colours atop

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Autumn Colour Brings Joy

October 6th, 2020 | 4 Comments »
The colour of this sourgum is quite different from the one next to it -- this one a fruit salad of peach and apricot, the other a fire of red-hot apple.
The autumn colours seem particularly intense this year at Glen Villa, my garden in Quebec's Eastern Townships. Leaves started to turn earlier than usual and the height of the season has almost come and gone. But what a season it has been! It started early, when a small horse chestnut tree (Aesculus pavia) began to turn.   [caption id="attachment_9230" align="aligncenter" width="2541"] This photo was taken in mid-September[/caption]   It continued as the sourgum trees (Nyssa sylvatica) nearby began to change colour. First one tree caught fire ...   [caption id="attachment_9228" align="aligncenter"

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The Yin Yang is Remade

August 10th, 2020 | 10 Comments »
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You know how one thing leads to another? That's what is happening this year at Glen Villa. Last November we began to rebuild the foundation wall of the old Glen Villa Inn.  Once the job was complete and I saw the impressive wall, I knew it needed a garden to complement it. The result is the newly planted area, the North South Arrow, now beginning to grow in. Between the hotel wall and the Arrow is a low circular stone wall. Its original purpose was to provide a turn-around for horse-drawn carriages bringing

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A Three Part Garden

August 3rd, 2020 | 2 Comments »
Meagher, Timelines-010
A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to visit a garden in the small village of North Hatley, Quebec, where I live, to see the work of garden makers Jane Meagher and Jean Vanaise. Here, over about ten years, they have transformed a one-acre town lot into a lushly varied garden. The transformation began when they decided to renovate and enlarge their house.  Before they began, the garden around the building was mostly grass plus a few bunches of flowers scattered more or less randomly. Not so today. Now their mini-paradise is set off from the street and

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The Upper Room in 2020

July 6th, 2020 | 19 Comments »
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The Upper Room is the memorial I created to remember and honour my mother. Designed to reflect the things most important to her -- her family, her religious beliefs and her dedication to Virginia and its institutions --  the Upper Room is a small formal area set amidst a natural forest on a hillside above our house. I wrote about its creation in a post you can find here, gave an update on the project here and showed how it looked in winter in a post here. Although my mother died in 2010, it wasn't until

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Planting the North South Arrow

June 25th, 2020 | 4 Comments »
plants in pots
Last week I wrote about the genesis of the North South Arrow, the new area we are planting at Glen Villa, describing how the concept for the area changed over time. Today I'm writing about the plants I chose and how I decided to arrange them. Jacques had warned me that the soil on site was a mix of sand and gravel that would need to be modified substantially if I wanted anything planted there to thrive. His advice was to dig up the top six inches and replace the

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