garden for all seasons
The Westmount gardener reflects on the richness of Oudolf
By Caroline Jondahl
Remember the time, a less complicated environmental time for sure, when gardens were cultivated as places of order and beauty. Everywhere, lawns and flower beds of various blends, colours and sizes defined as a mark of the times. Unquestionably, this was the accepted norm. That terrain of thought has changed, and our vision with it. Gardens are central spaces, not only for their pleasing qualities but in how and whether they enable healthy, sustaining eco-systems.
In natural ecosystems, lush with perennials, local grasses and organic diversity, plant and non-human life flourish in the life and death cycle of co-dependence and harmony. Our challenge now is to understand nature’s wisdom – with its apparent unstructured wildness and complex flow. If we can exploit its methods, urban gardens thus conceived and planted would thrive – in contrast to decades of misconception by gardeners and the horticultural industry.
The tension of order and disorder inherent in natural settings are all too rare in conventionally cultivated spaces, but Oudolf intentionally works this in.
Dutch landscape designer Piet Oudolf is a visionary whose signature designs have transformed the gardening culture worldwide, brilliantly challenging conventional thought. Gardening conscientiously for over thirty years, his informed and bold approach is guided by the constant ebb and flow found in natural environments. The intermingling of grasses, perennials and woody plants create contrast, and most importantly, perpetuate growth cycles through spontaneous self-seeding and replacement. In the many award-winning projects he has designed, the effects are breathtaking, calm and full of surprises. The tension of order and disorder inherent in natural settings are all too rare in conventionally cultivated spaces, but Oudolf intentionally works this in.
His gardens are distinctive in yet another way in how they expand and redefine beauty, particularly in autumn and winter when late performing plants reach their maximum growth. These plants in tones of browns, yellow and rusts, with seed heads and dying foliage, once seen as compost, are to be appreciated in Oudolf’s poetic conception. Even in winter, synonymous with chilling temperatures and snow, stalks and foliage transform into sculptures peering out from mounds of snow – and wonder is evoked when we overcome conventional perceptions of what a proper garden must be. In Oudolf’s words, “The skeletons of the plants are for me as important as the flowers.”
Oudolf’s practice has another consequence, critical to enhancing vulnerable species of fauna and flora. These highly integrated ecosystems reverse the destructive trend of depopulation of non-human species. Bees, butterflies and insects are attracted – and the cycle of pollination and regeneration tilts favourably toward restoration.
Such a vision makes sense to Westmount gardener, artist and scholar, Angela Silver, whose garden reflects Oudolf’s naturalistic philosophy. At its foundation, she endorses the inherent intelligence of a dynamic ecosystem and over the past several years, Silver’s passion has resulted in a highly distinctive garden. On de Maisonneuve, the family home is celebrated by many for its unconventional presence. Mauve-coloured Russian Sage; pink, orange and white-toned Echinacea; towering Scottish Thistle; Japanese Anemone, elegantly tall stalks with delicately-coloured blush cream petals; puckishly-named Pink Turtle’s Head, are just some of the perennials grouped judiciously with different varieties of grasses and other carefully-selected woodland foliage.
‘Oudolf’s practice has another consequence, critical to enhancing vulnerable species of fauna and flora. These highly integrated ecosystems reverse the destructive trend of depopulation of non-human species.’
This is a bold and thoughtful garden – a pollinator garden, quite distinctive in Westmount’s gardening culture. This is a complex process requiring commitment – time, desire to learn and experiment, and patience – which Silver has in shovelfuls! The rewards of conceiving and planting such a dynamic living environment where change is constant are multiple. Along with the gratification of seeing the work of her labour, there is another significant reward: that of becoming a habitat for butterflies, bees, insects and other invertebrates – ultimately attracting the attention of another species – human beings!
Silver is struck by an unexpected outcome – the sense of community this most unique garden has sparked, clearly resonates with others. Arguably, a much loved and shared pleasure among neighbours and others, strangers until they are drawn into the beauty and mix of tall grasses and varieties of perennials. They cannot just walk by in their private way; the garden and gardener are sought out for praise. Whether it’s the woman who, in the full heat of a summer’s day, looked at Angela and exclaimed, “Your garden is sensational. It’s the best in the city, and I love walking by.”
‘Silver is struck by an unexpected outcome – the sense of community this most unique garden has sparked, clearly resonates with others.’
Or the couple one evening when I was about to water as I sometimes do when the family is away, neighbours on Redfern, stopping to chat during their mid-evening stroll, who affirmed this sentiment: “Oh, it’s amazing! We walk by every evening. What she has created is now a lush garden. Such a calming and beautiful space, we look forward to at the end of the day.”
And more recently a man stopped smiling and said, “There should be fewer lawns and more of this. Its wildness is wonderful.”
Glowing and spontaneous responses such as these – also from the very young, are testimonials to the garden’s delightful character. “Purplicious!” exclaimed one child.
At any time, morning, afternoon, or evening, people pause; they look, smile, nod – and engage. Such spontaneous, appreciative conversations are a daily part of Angela’s life as a gardener. People are awed by its beauty, its difference, and do not resist the urge to comment on her constant work. Her days are defined by digging, planting, replanting, watering, and contemplating in her quest to nurture each plant that it may thrive.
It’s well beyond what she could have imagined; she cares about each and every living entity in her garden. Visibly delighted that the bees, butterflies and insects are flourishing – as they do when gardens are redefined and transformed as more than just lawns and flowers, Silver, a native Nova Scotian, has been transformed too. It is not only in the digging, but also by the people, compelled to connect, dialogue in surprising and lovely ways.
‘There should be fewer lawns and more of this. Its wildness is wonderful.’
While there is no one way to cultivate a garden – for enjoyment, the beauty of flowers, or a larger vision such as the pollinator garden – the latter with its triumvirate of beauty, structure and plant intermingling, sustains all species through its naturalistic and ethical approach. Like Piet Oudolf’s extensive work in creating public and private gardens, Silver’s garden, too, is informed by a different sensibility where structure, textures and colour schemes align with the possibilities of the seasons and most importantly, enhances the life of all beings.
Images courtesy of Caroline Jondahl, unless indicated otherwise
In the past few years, Caroline Jondahl has moved from manicures to digging earth and increasing her experience with pollinator gardens in the urban landscape. Committed to the Dutch-inspired perennial and plant diversification movement spearheaded by Piet Oudolf, she’s hoping to cultivate interest in this biodiversity-rich practice. She is a Member of Westmount Healthy City Committee.