During my elementary school years we lived in what most people viewed as an undesirable area, in a small townhouse across the street from a graveyard. Our neighbourhood was incredibly diverse and many of our school friends had recently come to Canada from other countries, which I jealously thought was so cool. But the beautiful diversity of this neighbourhood was about the only thing beautiful to be found. Until my mum came along.
My first gardening memory is of planting bulbs on a cold fall afternoon in our new house when I was about seven. Mum had dug and prepped the beds in advance and she helped us plant the bulbs and then cover the beds with piles of the fall leaves we had just raked. It must have been so messy and chaotic with four children. In the spring, Mother’s Day meant the beginning of the gardening season was upon us, and every year, mum and dad would come back from the nursery with flats of impatiens to go into the foundation beds, mum had spent hours digging and amending.
I remember how people would stop and stare at the flowers, often asking mum about them. This would be followed by a cup of tea and a welcome into the community. I know that as she reads this, mum will be saying,”Pfft, it was just some flowers, some little impatiens, they weren’t anything special.” But even simple beauty is a gift to those that see it, even if, and perhaps especially, it is nestled in a neighbourhood of addicts. Her gift of humble impatiens communicated that beauty are dignity are for all, that all are worthy. It also meant that there would be hell to pay if a stray toy or soccer ball assaulted her garden!
In later years we moved into new homes with bigger yards. The gardens got bigger and even more beautiful as mum let loose. She has an artist’s eye for colour and she likes to take risks in her garden (she’ll deny this when she reads it, but it’s true!)
Even when I hated certain plants (cough, spirea) I always appreciated the way her gardens looked effortless. She constantly experimented and was always transplanting, dreaming, and watering in the garden. I remember people slowing down as they drove past our house as they admired the hibiscus in the circular driveway bed underneath the crab apple tree. Sometimes, they would even start wandering around the front yard, on their own, on an impulsive garden tour. Friends of ours got married in one of our back yards, with others calling wedding dibs on another garden of hers, years later.
I had hoped to share more photos of her gardens with you, but most them are packed away in albums in her basement on the other side of the country where she lives. Alas.
I learned a lot by osmosis from mum. Her gardening is very intuitive and hospitable, as it invites the visitor to keep exploring. She creates beautiful spaces without artifice and will refute complements to this day. I didn’t spend nearly (or any) time helping her in the garden, so it is surprising to both of us how formative her influence has been. She taught me to respect what already is, to edit carefully and not to compete with nature. She collaborated with the places in which she gardened, understanding intuitively this fundamental principle in landscape design theory. (The fancy designer words for this are genus loci, which is latin for 'spirit of the place.')
Mum was always getting creative. I remember when she put an old paned window into a garden bed, decades before people began upcycling. Her style was a cross between English garden and a traditional garden. Her gardens didn’t have the full laissez-faire of an english garden, but they were much more gracious than a traditional garden.
It’s funny how much the description of her garden is also the description of her. Her gentleness and invitation, her ability to welcome the stranger and friend alike. I find myself projecting her on to her garden, anthropomorphizing it as garden and gardener blend together. I can only hope that her influence both on me and my garden design runs deeply.