One of the first projects I tackled after we moved into Glen Villa in the late 1990s was what has become the Yin/Yang. A low, circular stone wall on the Big Lawn was full of overgrown highbush cranberry bushes. (I wish I had a photo to show you, but I don’t.) I loved the bushes with their brightly coloured berries. I loved the birds they attracted. But they were too tall. The relationship between the wall and the shrubs was out of whack. Way out.
I considered pruning them to lower the height of the bushes but decided that removing the top three or four feet involved a ladder that would frighten an astronaut. So I dug up the shrubs and cleared the bed entirely.
Over the following winter I searched for a planting scheme that satisfied me. On other parts of the property I was adding elements that reflected the history of the site or our family’s personal stories. Could I do something similar here?
There was no shortage of history to work with. The low stone wall and the taller crumbling one near by were remnants of the old resort hotel that gave our property its name, Glen Villa. It was a huge hotel that attracted visitors from all over North America. The circular stone wall was a turn-around point for the horse-drawn carriages that delivered guests to the hotel’s front door.
A close-up of the same image shows a young woman in white sitting on the circular wall, while other hotel guests sit in chairs on the lawn or gather nearby.
How could I reflect the hotel’s history in plants? I tried to figure out what was planted in the circle originally but the image was too fuzzy to tell. Another postcard showing a planter on the lawn suggested an alternate approach. But did I really want a structure like that standing over the wall with vines twining up it?
I went back to sketching and dreaming.
I’m an (occasionally) organized person. In a file marked Yin/Yang I came across a sketch of possible design ideas and plant possibilities. Since the hotel was a late Victorian construction, I considered using flowers that Victorians would have loved. Victorian exotica, I called them. I thought of arranging plants of different colours like slices of pie, or bands of colour set one inside the next like a child’s stacking toy, or some variation on the horticultural clocks that municipalities used to plant. I played around with ideas about height and colour, wondering how the circle would look if the plants became taller as they moved towards the centre or the colour became more intense.
The lack of reality in my dreaming reflected my level of inexperience: I thought I could plant anything I could imagine, and could keep it looking as orderly as a drawing. I knew far less about plants than I thought I did. How otherwise could I have listed Equisetum as a possibility? Did I think the soil in the circle, often baked dry, would keep it from invading nearby damp ground?
An asterisk beside one drawing, my rough sketch of a yin and yang, indicates that it was the design I chose. More than forty years ago, during the Cultural Revolution, my husband and I lived in China, and using the yin yang symbol was a way to recognize that part of our family history. Plus it was a simple design, much easier to implement than any of the more complicated ideas I had drawn.
My friend Myke says he suggested the yin and yang design, and that may be true. He definitely suggested the plants I used the first year, annuals that emphasized the idea of opposition that is intrinsic to the Taoist philosophy behind the design. I followed his advice and for some years used taller and shorter plants in hot and cold colours, Celosia ‘New Look Red’ and silvery Dusty Miller.
A few years later, I installed a stainless steel strip to separate the two colours and clarify the design. To make it resemble the Taijitu symbol more completely, I added a small steel circle inside each half with plants of the opposite colour. Standing on top of the nearby stone wall, the yin yang shape was clear. But by the end of the summer, the bit of red on the silver side looked very odd indeed.
After a few years, I got tired of planting the space every year and began looking for perennials that could do the job. I chose blue fescue (Festuca glauca) and red brick mulch — an unusual combination that I knew many people would question but one that suited my purpose. I liked the additional point of contrast, one side alive and growing, swaying in the breeze, the other side just sitting there, doing nothing. And since the wall was crumbling more every year, I added a bluestone coping to hold it together and to give the circle a cleaner, more contemporary look.
Do you know that garden saying, that the first year a plant sleeps, the second year it creeps, the third year it leaps? The Festuca didn’t wait for year three. It exploded. Early in the second summer it looked bushier than the highbush cranberries had ever been, although considerably shorter.
The solution to the exuberant growth seemed simple: divide every clump and then keep the clumps buzz cut, short front and sides. Which I did. For a year things looked ok. Not great, but not too bad. I thought perhaps I’d cut the fescue back too severely, so I let it grow. But by mid-way through last summer, it became obvious. Nothing was working. For whatever reasons (surely not because I’d fallen behind on the weeding) the grasses weren’t growing. The mulch looked tired and there was no contrast in height from one side to the other. The effect I was going for just wasn’t there.
This year I’ve changed things yet again. Last week I dug up the few remaining clumps of grass and planted Artemisia ‘Silver Mound.’ I may need to trim the clumps to keep the them plump and round, but I hope that once a year will be enough. (Can anyone confirm this?) The red brick mulch remains — minus the yellow sedum that I will continue to pull out in handfuls — but if it continues to look tired, I will spray paint it a brighter red.
To add more contrast in height I’ve put a tall tree in the ‘dot’ on the silver side. Not a regular tree but the top of a dead one that I’ve painted red. It is sharp and spiky and contrasts well with the soft foliage of the Artemesia.
Evaluating the Results:
The contrasts between the two halves of the Yin/Yang keep multiplying. I started with contrasting colours, but over time I’ve added other differences: high and low, hard and soft, spiky and round, dead and alive. Are there other contrasts to consider?
The steel strip dividing the two sides defines the space and is holding its shape well. The proportions of the ‘dots’ to the space as a whole are right now that I made them larger. Is the dead tree too tall?
It is too early to know whether this variation on the theme will be effective a year or two from now. I am concerned about keeping the Artemisia trimmed well enough to maintain the dotted (dotty? Some would say that applies to me more than the plant.) effect I want.
The bigger question is, does the idea work? Some visitors shudder when they see the Yin/Yang. Even if I explain how I’m telling the story of our family throughout the garden, connecting it to other times and other people, they shake their heads. It isn’t pretty, they say. And in any traditional sense, this is true.
But does this matter? (Remember Fletcher Steele’s counsel: “The worst vice in a garden is to be merely pretty.”) Making something pretty wasn’t my intention. If it were, I might have climbed that astronautically tall ladder and trimmed the highbush cranberry down to size.
Still, I have to ask if intentions are enough. And when do I call it quits? If this version of the Yin/Yang fails, will I change my approach entirely? What other ways can I think of to represent history inside a crumbling stone circle?