blog-visit-1

Visiting Gardens

A group of serious gardeners will be visiting Glen Villa on July 2 and I’ve been busy getting the garden in shape. This takes time and effort, as every gardener knows, and the results never seem good enough. Particularly in large gardens, there is always too much to do and not enough time to do it. This year that is truer than usual: the late and very wet spring, not to mention extra clean-up from the January ice storm, have put me way behind schedule.

Adding to the pressure to have the garden look its best are the ideas I brought back from Italy and from a recent visit to some very appealing gardens in New Hampshire and Vermont. There are things I’d like to do at Glen Villa, changes I’d like to make. Looking around, I see how much better the garden will be when I’ve incorporated those ideas. I see the short-comings: the bare holes due to winter kill, plant combinations that need adjusting, dead branches that need removing, the wall that has to be repaired.

Some short-comings can be ignored, others can’t. Last year I installed a moss quilt on the bed in the China Terrace bedroom. Here is how it looked last week: moss draping beautifully over the side of the bed.

The moss bed on the China Terrace looks fine from a distance.

How nice, I thought. The few bare spots have grown over. Then I got closer. What happened? A skunk, maybe? A raccoon? Someone or something tore up patches of moss, exposing the backing underneath. I have extra moss, it can be repaired, but what a disappointment!

A wholly holey holy mess

At one of the New England gardens I visited, the owner said she had almost cancelled the group’s visit, since she felt the garden wasn’t tidy enough. All of us disagreed and told her that anyone with good eyes can overlook a few weeds to see what’s really there. And that’s true, up to a point. But too many flaws that are too obvious get in the way of vision, actual and metaphoric.

Sometimes the thing a visitor admires is exactly the thing the gardener was fretting about. Like these checkerboard steps. When I told the owner how much I liked them, she laughed and said she thought they looked pitiful — winter had killed most of the plants so there was too much gravel. And the new plants were too small.  I thought the balance of stone, gravel and green was pleasing.

Checkerboard steps are a nice feature.
Adding a narrow stone edge would finish them off more elegantly.

So I’m anxious about the impending visit. I tell myself that people will enjoy the visit anyway. And I hope they will. I hope they will ooh and aah and ask tons of questions about why I did this, or that. (Asking for the name of a plant is the most common enquiry. I understand why people ask; I do too. The answer is useful. But this is not a question that probes deeply. Or shallowly, for that matter. So I rejoice when I’m asked something different.)

My anxiety started me thinking about why people visit gardens. Is it to learn something? to get ideas they can use in their own gardens?  to enjoy an outing on a pleasant day? to see how other people live? Surely it isn’t only to find fault …

People who open their gardens to others are opening themselves to judgement. They are putting out on public view every choice they’ve made, every quirk of personality that their garden reveals. They are saying things about themselves and what they value. Which is all well and good if your values correspond to the norm. But when they don’t, the chances are that visitors will miss the point of what you are trying to achieve.

A perfect example of that is my initial reaction to a section of a garden I visited recently. When I saw this corner, I knew I didn’t like it. It was oddly placed, tucked into a squared off corner between tall hedges and I saw no reason for the circle of white gravel.

Like or dislike?

I passed by quickly, without considering my reaction. But I found so many things to admire in the rest of the garden that I returned for a second look. Luckily another visitor was standing there. She mentioned that the owner loved peonies, and that she didn’t want to stake each bush individually.

A tidy solution to flopping flowers

With better informed eyes, I saw that the owner had found a simple and rather elegant solution to a common problem. Her peonies were held erect without being imprisoned in cages. A lasso of black cord threaded through stakes kept them from flopping, and the gravel path provided easy access for cutting and close-up viewing. I still didn’t respond to the design, but at least I understood why it was there.

Over the years I’ve visited many gardens, and even those that didn’t appeal to me offered insights, sometimes positive, sometimes negative. I know that quick judgements are a mistake — yet despite knowing better, it is a mistake I make too often. I know that if I’m attentive, I will learn something valuable, and that listening to what the garden owner and the garden itself have to say will pay rich dividends.

Visiting gardens is a social activity and, most often, a very enjoyable one. But too much socializing gets in the way.  So when I can, I leave the crowd and go off on my own. I try to do what this man is doing: nothing. Does he like what he sees and is he assessing why it appeals to him? Is he determining what elements don’t work, what he would change? His posture gives nothing away. But this is unmistakeable: he is alone, standing still, silent.

Maybe he’s wondering when the visit will end… 

And that, to my mind, is a good thing. Finding a quiet place where I can be on my own is something I search for in a garden. If there’s a bench or a chair, I head for it. I sit, look and listen. And I hope that if I’m quiet, the garden will speak to me.

Just off the beaten track, a quiet spot.

When people visit Glen Villa, I usually begin by giving an overview of the history of the property and my connection to it. I want visitors to understand what I’m trying to achieve, the atmosphere I’m aiming to create. I give them some notes about the garden with a suggested route to follow. Then I let them loose, to explore and discover on their own.

Only rarely do I accompany a group through the garden. Doing so is frustrating sometimes, sometimes rewarding. The best experience is when a visitor asks a question or makes an observation or suggests something that sends my mind in a new direction. At one New Hampshire garden, the gardner-owner’s knowledge enriched my experience enormously. Not only did I learn a lot about plants, I learned a lot about her and what she values.  Knowing that helped me appreciate even more the garden she and her husband have created.

See how gently she is touching this plant? Clearly she is in love. 

Gardens reveal things about the gardener. Arriving at this location, I was certain this would be a plant-lover’s garden. It would be neat, well-tended, with attention to detail.

A table of plants and a well-edged lawn greets visitors to this garden.

So I was prepared for this…

A lovely mix of shades, shapes and colour in a hillside garden.

but not for this: a surprise in the woods that revealed something more about the gardener than tidiness and a love of plants.

A Japanese-inspired corner in a woodland garden: what a surprise!

In their silent ways, gardens tell visitors a lot about the garden maker. Do they give away too much? Not enough? Finding that balance is, for me, one of the hardest parts about opening Glen Villa to public view. And when visitors ‘get it,’ it is one of the most rewarding.

  • I suspect in a couple of years when the peonies fill in the path will be hardly noticeable, great solution! Then more options like stone or wood chips for the path! I like the checker board steps too and prefer them this way than over grown. Patios done this way are funny too after a few cocktails!

    • Drinks on an uneven patio… hm-m-m. Interesting. Not sure I’ll try it, though!

  • The moss bedspread is beautiful (making allowances for damage) but it’s a bit of a shame that this is no longer a flower bed 😉

    As for the man looking into the distance, he could have been placed there by the gardner; he is dressed in colours that blend with the stone wall, and he could almost be a decorative element at the end of it.

    Very enjoyable piece, as always – thank you!

    • Replanting the flowers every year became a nuisance, and the possibility of using moss to make a quilt was irresistible.

      As for the man, he was with the group I was a part of so definitely not a prop! But I agree, he adds an interesting element to the scene.

      So glad you liked the piece.