VTLA Studio


Thoughts on Spring

March 20, 2016

Spring brings memories of a tour with my mother and sister to visit the famous gardens of England at a time, as a young designer, when I was first learning my plants and exploring what it meant to sculpt the land, create outdoor spaces and to care for a garden. We left Toronto in the snow, arrived in London with the magnolias and camelias in bloom and walked up an down the epic perennial borders of Sissinghurst and Great Dixter, the three of us calling out botanical plant names, fusing them to memory and making sure no distinguishing feature of placement, foliage and form was missed.

It was strange then to hear the European visitors using the Latin names as they remarked on the gardens. We didn’t do that in Toronto, but I learned that the proper names provide more accurate species description than the common name and avoid misunderstandings between growers and designers. Like learning a new language, for me learning the botanical terms open up new doors of understanding; Alquilegia canadensis speaks to plant origin, Rosa rugosa speaks to colour and Hemoracallis really is a much more interesting word than daylily.

Spring also reminds me of my first job in the landscape business. Acme Environmentals, started by Neil Turnbull and Bill Hewick, was a design/build firms interested in bringing European ideas into Toronto’s residential garden design scene. Driving through wealthy Toronto neighbourhoods in container trucks full of spring annuals and forced blubs loaded in the pre dawn, I was a participant in the creation of a certain garden aesthetic. I was also in a perfect position to study seasonal change, learn the timing of tree and shrub blooms and be part of the garden construction process that formed my early design opinions and a knowledge of which plants grow where.

In those days, an early sign of spring for Ontario gardeners was Canada Blooms, the annual interior horticulture and garden design show. In the year they introduced their mini garden spaces, inviting young designers to present in 10 x 20 ft plots, I presented ‘Gift’, an all-white garden installation featuring birch trunks with their canopy wrapped in hot pink taffeta and a massive mirror to emphasize the reflection of materials and the perception of space. I stood in front of my garden each day hoping to engage someone in my ideas but reactions were mostly blanks stares – people more interested to see tulips and cherry trees blooming in March. Nevertheless, the judges showed interest and presented me with an award for “Most Outstanding use of Space”, a category I later discovered was newly created to acknowledge the ideas I was talking about.

The emerging bud of spring is an annual reminder that change is both possible and inevitable and a lot has changed in landscape design culture. As my own design practice evolves into 2016, I welcome new collaborations with clients, fabricators, growers, students, architects, communities and builders and I look forward to a continued role in the evolving culture of landscape in Canada.