One of the rarest kinds of garden in Canada is an estate right in the middle of the city—especially an estate that has all the elements of grandeur: allées, a woodland, a swimming pool, a fountain, water courses, a rill, a reflecting pool, a greenhouse, amazing focal points and, of course, graceful and elegant borders. We have found such a garden here in Toronto and it is a stunner.
This mini-version of Versailles not only delights the eye, it also gives us pointers on what to do in our own small (by comparison) gardens. This is an important exercise in gardening: seeing where you can raid ideas. “Creative stealing” is what I’ve always called it.
When you walk into this grand garden, you aren’t immediately aware of all its different elements. You feel an enormous sense of calm as though you’ve walked into another, better world. Then the garden slowly reveals itself—each element leading to the next in a series of unfolding pictures. (Every garden, even small ones, can benefit from this alluring device, with plants or screens to conceal part or parts of the space.)
One revelation here is how the designers dealt with quite an irregular garden site: 175 feet by 183 feet by 100 feet. To straighten out the eccentric dimensions, a rectangle 83 feet long by 50 feet wide was carved out smack dab in the centre and put on a north-south axis. This gives the space excellent bones, and also adds some formality to an otherwise loose perimeter. The result is symmetry within asymmetry, which is a valuable principle to apply to any difficult garden space.
This formal interior section acts as a connection between the house and many of the garden’s structures. The owners didn’t want anything too severe but needed the kind of visual calm a formal design affords. Here they find a feeling of romantic peacefulness—a necessary respite in their overburdened lives. From the living room, they look down an allée of crabapples to a glorious focal point: a fountain sitting in the middle of a sward comprised of half grass and half pea gravel. It’s a stunning effect.
The lesson here is framing: you may not have room for an allée but you can still frame a feature with two small trees and create an enchanting picture. When you’re putting in a border or installing a structure or even just adding a big plant or a birdbath, always check how it looks from every window of the house. These are the views you’ll be seeing year-round.
All the elements in a garden, including the hardscaping, should always relate to the house. The chosen material for this large space was mostly Wiarton limestone. Its subtle beige tone complements both home and plantings, and gives the paths, edgings, copings and terraces a consistent look.
The plant choices, too, feature a minimal palette of soft colours that flow throughout. The owner is mad for mauve, purple, lavender and any shade of blue. These hues are used in drifts, which register as an important component of the design, as opposed to a confetti-like planting, which may seem confusing. The homeowner puts it this way: “Think the same way you would in dressing yourself in the morning: you don’t wear red pants, a blue hat, an orange jacket, a red shirt and a green handbag, so why do that to your garden?”
The container plantings maintain the feeling of sensual drifts. Each pot is filled with just one type of plant and the overall scheme employs just a few plants in the same hue (in this case, verbena, lily of the Nile, browallia and heliotrope). This also fools the eye into thinking everything is larger than it really is. For spring, tulips are massed in parterres or combined with similarly coloured flowers in long borders. If there’s any divergence from this principle, it’s in the roses, but even there, the choices are very painterly. “I always say that if you were really lucky, you’d be a painter,” says the homeowner. “But if you couldn’t be that, you’d do your best to make a painterly garden.” By this she means having harmonious colours—they avoided strong reds and yellows, for example, and stuck to pale lemon, peach and pink tones—in a pleasing composition. Although this garden contains few rare or unusual plants, the total effect is hugely satisfying.
A garden of this scale is years in the making (it was basically a construction site for two and a half years) and can’t be done alone. John Parkes, horticulturist and gardener extraordinaire, has seen the family through thick and thin: “I arrived in 1991 to plant some bulbs and I’m still doing it. But it’s not a few bulbs any more; last year we planted 8,500!” He has been in charge of this manifestation of the garden from the get-go. Under his guidance, heavy-duty clay in the planting beds was replaced with a rich mix of sand, manure, leaf mould, composted bark and soil. With this as a base, everything in the garden thrived almost immediately.
Now, pyramidal pears and beeches have reached a generous size and act like punctuation marks all around the property. Their columnar shapes stand out against the looser forms of magnolia, dogwood and Japanese maples. Here and there are elegant surprises such as huge stands of voluptuous ornamental grasses. The contrasts in form and texture are dynamic—the garden almost becomes a dance, choreographed with swooping soft movements.
Garden design and interior design have a lot in common so pick plants the same way you would choose the right sofa for your living room—keep scale in mind. Here, two enormous crabapples were set near the house, which is very large. They not only anchor the house but also enhance its presence. Then the plantings go naturally in layers from medium-sized trees through shrubs, perennials and groundcovers right down to the Scotch moss carefully tucked between the stones to soften the pathways.
Other woody plants such as rhododendrons, Japanese maples and a stand of birches were chosen and positioned for their screening value—with great success. From the street, it is impossible to tell what goes on in this garden, and yet there’s no sense of it being a fortress.
A city estate may be far beyond most gardeners’ reach but we can dream and take inspiration—as well as some practical ideas—from such a rare and resplendent garden.
Make this garden your own
Plants to keep in mind