June 25, 2013
Learning to see: Beauty and the sublime

A crystal wonderland created by the late afternoon sun softly lighting the ice coating on this spirea.
My maternal grandparents lived in what appeared to a young girl as a magical cottage. Dwarfed beneath a canopy of ancient trees, and mere steps from the shore of Lake Ontario, the tiny cottage was surrounded by an English garden of sorts, the spicy scent of carnations still haunts my memory. A massive weeping willow offered shelter and a great place to serve afternoon 'tea' to the neighbourhood kids.


My paternal grandparents owned a small farm in St. Catharines, Ont. The farm road was lined with fruit trees, an informal alley, and a favourite destination for young cousins out for a walk after a family luncheon. My favourite place at the farm was the greenhouse. Midwinter, it was warm and smelled of sweet earth and spring. It was surrounded by gardens of gentle flowers that were unknown to me. To this day, a visit to a greenhouse is one of my favourite pastimes. The memories of those flowers and old-fashioned perennials inspire my own gardens today.

My experience is hardly unique. Julie Moir Messervy describes the importance of understanding beauty and what constitutes the perfect garden in her classic book, The Inward Garden. Clients who appreciate beautiful gardens, when prompted to share, often have their own stories about a place or experience that came to define their own understanding of beauty. The echo of this spirit from one's past helps to create meaningful, emotional ties to our current gardens. It is an essential ingredient in creating a distinct atmosphere or mood in the garden.

Since my immersion in serious garden photography, my sense of what I find beautiful, and even sublime, has evolved. The drive to search for the perfect 'shot' has taught me to look for beauty in the everyday world. Let me take you through the seasons to highlight some of the awe-inspiring moments that caught my eye.

Heavy posts and cord create a secret path to the sea.
Tall grasses anchor the sand to the shore.
A spectacular sea of daffodils calls out for attention and trumpets the arrival of spring.
  In the springtime, what could be more spectacular than a massed planting of daffodils? Their determined yellow trumpets seem to call for our undivided attention. Last spring, I strolled through Queen Victoria Park in Niagara Falls, where daffodils were planted by the thousands. After a long, dreary winter, their cheerful beauty visibly moved its patrons. Young lovers leaned against the trunks of ancient trees to pose for photos that would surely represent a moment of happiness to be treasured. Youngsters dressed in their Sunday finery were encouraged to sit on grassy islands among the sea of daffodils, their faces shining with delight among the golden blooms. Massed plantings are inspiring in their bold simplicity.

In late July, an early morning storm had blown across Lake Huron and settled over Port Elgin, Ont. Afterwards, I set out to explore the cottage gardens along the lakefront. In a naturalized area, a large planting of tall grasses anchored the sand to shore and created an inviting pathway to the nearby beach. A heavy cord suspended from wooden posts created the illusion of a handrail along the edge of the path. Crystal water droplets covered the blades of grass and acted as miniature prisms illuminated by streaks of sunlight. Gentle breezes stirred the grass, encouraging a graceful swaying that seemed to echo the rise and fall of the waves in the distance. Large, flat rocks were filled with tiny pools of water that reflected the changeable sky. Colonies of moss, newly refreshed by the storm and magnified by the water, created intricate tapestries on the rocks' surface. On this morning, Mother Nature was showing her skill at creating a natural contemplative space in the spirit of a Japanese garden.

Later, as I strolled along a nearby boardwalk, a canna lily stood resplendent above a dark green hedge. A ray of sunlight pierced the heavy clouds illuminating this single bloom creating a moment of glorious splendour. Often considered too tall and gaudily coloured for many home gardens, this specimen was a rich and brilliantly colourful shade of orange/red surrounded by rich green foliage. Given ideal lighting and background, many seemingly ordinary plants will offer spectacular and memorable displays.

In his book Designing With Plants, Piet Oudolf describes an autumn garden as sublime. He notes that 'sublime' is a word ready for revival. It was a word used by 18th century connoisseurs of landscapes to describe scenery that was majestic and awe-inspiring. He feels that plants such as the humble Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum) and the family of Miscanthus grasses are among the most sublime of plants. By late August, the early morning garden is frequently heavy with mist, it is as if a cloud has descended into the garden. The mood is spiritual and serene. If you are inclined to get up early and enjoy your coffee while watching the sunrise, you can sit at my kitchen table and watch the sun dissolve this mystical aura before your very eyes. I share Oudolf's love of mystical gardens and plants. Miscanthus sinensis 'Morning Light', flame grass (M. sinensis purpurascens), Rudbeckia hirta 'Indian Summer', blue oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens) and clumps of African blue basil create an harmonious blend of grace and colour that offers a transcendent beauty in this misty light. A narrow pathway leads your eye beyond the garden; you can almost imagine yourself in Camelot.

A narrow pathway included in a garden with fall perennial grasses and towering perennials also makes a magical place. You can experience walking through the plants, it is as if you are a child again, stepping through your grandmother's perennial garden. Walking along a pathway covered in towering plants is an experience we are never too old to enjoy, and is perhaps even better when experienced with a grandchild at your side.

Tall moor grass (Caerulea subsp. Arundincacea 'Skyracer') is one outstanding plant that creates a see-through screen. Last fall, a memorable scene was created when a bed situated along the fence at the top of the Niagara gorge and across from the entrance to the Niagara Parks Botanical Garden was planted with a row of tall moor grass. A translucent veil of graceful flower stems criss-crossed above rounded clumps that formed the base of each plant. The spikes moved gracefully with the slightest breeze and caught every ray of available sunlight. The effect was nothing less than magnificent.

Over this past winter, our area received more than our share of ice storms. After a particularly treacherous storm, I was home for the afternoon and ventured into the garden to capture the crystal wonderland on film. Perennial grasses such as Miscanthus and switch grass (Panicum virgatum) provided a golden base for the crystal ice to coat. A humble bridal wreath spirea had undergone a Cinderella-like transformation. Coated with ice and backlit by the low afternoon sun, the gracefully arching branches seemed to sparkle with joy.

I believe the accumulation of these special garden moments creates our understanding of what we consider to be beautiful: the fruit-tree alley, the sea of daffodils, swaying grasses on a beach, a single luscious bloom, the mist rising above a bed of towering grasses or the crystal ice coating on a humble spirea. It is not so much the event itself, your own experiences will likely be unique, but rather the appreciation of the special beauty in each of these singular moments that teaches us how to develop our understanding of garden beauty.

Theresa M. Forte is a garden consultant, columnist and photographer based in Niagara Falls, Ont.