House hunting for new digs about three years ago, homeowner and novice gardener Sheila Hockin clearly remembers her first tour of the midtown Toronto home she ended up buying. “I felt like I was in a tree house. I was enchanted by this little forest in the backyard,” she recalls. Picking her battles, she first gutted the interior, making certain there were unobstructed sightlines to the backyard she was falling in love with. She then tackled the garden, enlisting architect Lisa Rapoport of Plant Architect to help with the challenging space.
At first, Hockin admits she doubted Rapoport would even want to take on the project, as her ideas of what to do with the space were traditional, and there were some definite obstacles. “The garden was pretty rundown. It fell away from the house dramatically with a steep slope down into a ravine park. Even though it’s south-facing and bright, it was largely shaded with trees,” Hockin says. But at their first meeting, Rapoport reassured her that this garden was chock full of potential.
They decided that fighting the garden’s slope or shady ways would be futile. Agreeing to protect the native ravine ecosystem at all costs, they also wanted it to be low maintenance. Next, they addressed the poor existing flow from top to bottom. Rapoport was determined to create both a visual and physical contrast between the upper and lower spaces of the garden, so she designed two main lounging areas with a “bridge” between them, as well as a centre plot. In crisp contrast to the loose, soft, leafy garden, Rapoport chose modern, simple materials. “Our palette was architecturally driven and very industrial in nature, with lots of steel and stone.”
Located at the top of the garden, the first lounge area was designed to be a very structured extension of the indoor living room. Featuring a gutsy steel and wood-slab floating bench that hovers around the perimeter of a stone patio, this communal space is accented with handsome black steel planters that abut the upper stone staircase and hold simple free-form metal stakes for a variety of climbers such as clematis, Japanese hydrangea vine and Virginia creeper. It is an ideal spot for socializing, reading or just enjoying the view. “I sit here quietly and look at all my trees. It feels so peaceful,” says Hockin.
Encouraging guests down toward the lower, more casual lounge and dining area is the stunning, reflective bent-aluminum “bridge,” or staircase of eight wide stairs. “We designed the staircase to be engaging, and to allow you to sit and hang out among the trees,” says Rapoport. Flanking the steps is the centre plot, where a smattering of trees offers the feeling of walking through a forest. Finally, down below is the simple patio area.
“We reused stones from the front garden, and the steel-framed, open-slatted fence provides privacy but also allows a framed view of the park beyond,” explains Rapoport. The fence also doubles as a frame for a makeshift movie screen on nights when a projector is set up outside. By creating these two outdoor rooms, Rapoport figures she has added about 30 per cent more living area to the home.
But perhaps the most exciting elements for Hockin in this process are the 12 (mostly) native trees she invested in. She and Rapoport chose paper birch, Eastern redbud, shagbark hickory and paperbark maple for their textured bark and winter interest. “I had this immense feeling of pride when they were planted. I am so much more aware of trees now,” she says. These trees were at the root of the planting strategy, and help to stabilize the slope and prevent erosion. A carpet of ferns, moss, foxgloves, creeping phlox, foamflowers and many other native perennials provide dimension along with spring colour and fill in the garden’s floor.
When asked about the success of the garden, Rapoport says, “By treating the slope as a place for tree-canopy growth rather than a problem we had to fix, we’ve managed to design a retreat-like space that relates to the forest. It’s not fussy, it’s not tight—it’s just right.”
For Hockin, the results are more personal. “This garden and especially my trees are taking on a personality all their own,” she says. “I’m really looking forward to watching them grow.”