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Just a few minutes drive north of Ottawa lies the Gatineau Hills, the Precambrian rocky overlook to an enormous ancient lake bed. It is at once both fecund and fragile, and for me, the epitome of what I hope to one day create as a garden. Laced with hiking trails, the landscape reveals with ease the essential nature of the landscape (despite the visual distraction of the city) that I live in, its underpinnings, its plant and its animal life. I take no objection to those who wish to create an ordered, even arithmetic, gardenscape. But for me, to create that unique blend of a hint of natural order in a sea of chaos and reactions that is a natural landscape, remains a life long goal.

It seems to me that we far too readily clear away last season's growth, chance fallen limbs and wind born leaves. We miss the beauty of that random, constantly changing and evolving environment. At the same time, we rob the minutiae of living creatures of their natural home, the same creatures which toil to make us fresh fertile soil, which give us that balance of "good and bad" that make pesticides and herbicides unnecessary. And in doing that, we rob our gardens of many of the other creatures we seek to attract.

But designing a natural landscape is not to simple as "abandoning all hope" and allowing the brambles to grow! Nor is it even replicating an existing "found" environment. The goal is still to create a natural environment for humans to comfortably live in, and despite the intrigue of chaos, in fact, order is an essential, calming, reassuring element. Thus I find as I walk, I am attracted to the more ordered of the elements of what I see. Perhaps it is what I can remember, what I have learned to "see" and therefore can see.

Whether we are aware of it or not, we first begin to divide our visual environment into horizontal and vertical elements, and then in a higher order of perception into fore-, mid-, and background. The latter is of course relative to where we stand, and is therefore perhaps best described as the continuum between open and obscured - or simply, how far we can see on the depth line from our eyes.

The very simple concepts of the two dimensional universe appear to reverberate in a deeper part of our psyche, producing strong emotional and physical responses. Evolution has perhaps left much of our consciousness in our hunter-gatherer past. Beyond words, few would disagree about the uplifting emotional response to wandering into a stand of tall, straight trees with a soft low undergrowth shot with dappled sunlight. The National Geographic would undoubtedly slip in the word "cathedral" somewhere in the sentence!

We define our physical space in relation to our own size, and in turn respond emotionally to that relationship. A vertically strong, open environment, can be uplifting because we can see what's coming at us - friend or foe! Throw in human-height brambles and a tangle of large fallen trees and limbs that restrict both our vision and our ability to move, and that height becomes oppressive. Take away the light, and it becomes foreboding. Small wonder our pioneering parents cleared forest, brought in light, and worshiped the almighty lawn!

Which brings us to the second building block, the horizontal line, the grounding, the underlying structure of safety, permanence, and if overdone, boredom and predictability.

All three elements can be developed by either hardscape or plant material, and are, in most

gardens, exemplified by both. However, (and this may be the best distinction between a garden designer and a gardener) the designer tends to emphasize the former, the gardener the latter. The truth is designing a garden with only a minimal hardscape requires much greater patience, and these days few customers are willing to wait. Some gardens, like some wines, are better and better with age. They tend to be the ones in which the future visual roles of the plant life have been well and imaginatively calculated, and for which the original hardscape was developed to age well with the rest of the garden's elements.

There are more than a few gardens around that, after 15 or 20 years, that are not much more than rotting decks, fences and trellises crushed by over grown, over planted and over sized plantings. Don't get me wrong - some of those gardens are mine! I succumb as easily as the next guy to desire to get the quick visual fix offered by structures and close plantings of fast growing stock! But hey, that doesn't mean I can't have higher ideals, eh?


And although I can rhyme off many exceptions, I am beginning to believe the best thing to do is to go out and seek the best location for the garden of your dreams, rather than trying to create it against the grain, so as to speak. On that point at least, I have a good record. It is more likely that I will create a garden that fits with the land that is there, rather than empty my wallet and bring in the bulldozers and fork lifts. Still, it would be simpler (and more effective) to move to the hills with the exposed bedrock, bubbling springs, ancient trees and infertile acidic soil that I obviously love!

 
The next step was the planting of the major shrubs and evergreens. In northern climates, this is especially important to view as a separate activity - they provide not only the backbone of the garden design, but in early spring, late fall and all winter long the only visual evidence a garden exists.

For the evergreens

we chose mostly dwarf varieties so the house would not be overwhelmed, and always varieties which are receptive to heavy pruning. Our intention is to keep them, by their nature or ours, fairly small specimens. Our "tree" ended up being a Japanese maple, which at six feet, is close to its mature size. In total, we only purchased 12 new plants - which, honestly, is very good - for us!

Its natural antithesis, a completely rocky landscape, can also exist in a fairly flat environment. However, if your garden does not already contain exposed bedrock (or have it very close to the surface), trying to use this idea in your garden requires the transport of many large flat smooth rocks, as well as the determination to bury most of these quite far into the soil. Often in these naturally occurring circumstances, the water is quite shallow and is found in fairly shady locations. The large rocks will heat up substantially in the sun, and evaporate the water in both natural and manmade locations. If the water is recycled in the garden version, algae will undoubtedly become an aggravation. And again, in the natural version the water is most often a reflective surface, rather than a growing medium.

A third option, the natural spring, allows for a lot more options for most gardeners. Water tables do follow topography to a degree, but they can also be quite illogical since the topography they react to is the underlying bedrock, its porosity, and to a great degree the amount of soil moisture.

However, while the slope can be very gradual, they all must flow somewhere. In my local landscape, their beds have all been created predominantly by spring runoff, and therefore are small flows in a much wider and deeper bed than their small size would indicate. They are heavily populated by rock, mostly rounded , but with some sharp edges fresh from the previous winter's effects. The rocky bottom and sides are the cracked upper surface of the underlying bedrock, that must be close to the surface for the spring to exist. In the garden version, always use local rock - which has broken down to give you the unique qualities and colour of your garden soil. It may seem subtle, especially if you (or nature) has added a greatly deal of dark humus to your soil, but we must be able to perceive the subtle difference, because local rock always rings true, while imported looks more artificial. And final observation is true for all pond approaches which incorporate rock as an occasional or integral part of the pond/waterfall/stream construction. Most of the rock should be buried into the ground. Many gardeners, unless rock is easily and cheaply available, tend to emphasize each and every precious lump! but in nature few are fully exposed, and those that are show the other effects of the natural forces which have exposed them - wind or moving water. Large quantities of sharp-edged , fresh coloured rock are rarely found in nature - and then, usually at the bottom of a very steep cliff!.

Well, the dog is panting, and so am I. Time to return home, sit by the edge of my pond, and dream some more about the ideal garden and the ideal backyard pond.

We're delighted with how our new streetscape has worked out. Using predominantly large-sized plant divisions and transplants from our back yard and neighbors gave us a garden that looked three years old the day we finished. We do tend to use the front of the house much more than we had previously, and the house feels like it's set in a garden, rather than just having a garden in the back. And - the unexpected reward - it gave us a whole new project to think about. That driveway stretching to the back of the house may keep the water out of the basement, but it does break the flow between front and back gardens!