Monday, March 25, 2013

The Toronto Botanical Gardens: Piet Oudolf's Entry Garden Walk

Piet Oudolf has done many high profile projects all over the world, but one that you may not have heard much about is the Toronto Botanical Garden.  That’s not really surprising since it’s a tiny project for Oudolf.  But for me, it’s a garden close to my former Toronto home and therefore close to my heart, and I have greatly enjoyed following its development since Oudolf was first commissioned for the job around 2005. In collaboration with local firm Martin Wade Landscape Architects, he managed to transform an utterly nondescript piece of land (I can’t even remember what it looked like before), to a fresh and complex garden.

The Piet Oudolf Entry Garden Walk at the Toronto Botanical Gardens, in January 2013.
First, I should explain something about the Toronto Botanical Garden, or TBG. You see, it’s not yet what you might think of as a botanical garden.  To date, the physical gardens cover only a few acres, and are actually only the entry gardens from the parking lot to the TBG building.  The TBG grew out of the Civic Garden Center, which was where the gardening community of north Toronto got together and hosted flower shows, garden club meetings and friendly educational events.  One day, an enthusiastic committee decided that it was time to get more serious and launched the Toronto Botanical Garden initiative.  They campaigned and raised funds, renovated the building, established a strong educational programme, and commissioned the entrance garden.  But the entrance garden is only a small start.  The TBG also sits at the head of Edward Gardens, a large former estate park that follows one of Toronto’s many creeks south through the city.  There is a lot of land available here, and if the TBG is ever to become a true botanical garden, this is the place it will have to grow into. But for now, we have an entrance garden, a Piet Oudolf one nonetheless!  

The garden showing its full glory in early fall 2012.
Martin Wade Landscape Architects were the main drivers of this project, and were responsible for the general layout and several of the individual gardens.  Oudolf’s contribution was the Entry Garden Walk, a long narrow walkway squished between the parking lot, the road, and the main building.  This garden consists of two fairly wide borders that flank a long straight path, with some small lateral shifts worked in for interest. Oudolf really had his work cut out for him in trying to achieve a satisfying and complex garden in this very exposed and narrow space. The plantings are done in his typical flowing prairie style, as one might expect, and were designed around the same time as the Lurie Garden in Chicago and Battery Park in New York.  

The narrow borders of the Entry Garden Walk.
The plant palette is recognizably Oudolf and suits the site and climate very well. It’s an open sunny site, and Toronto has hot dry summers and cold snowy winters.   Grasses like Deschampsia cespitosa (Tufted hair grass), several varieties of Panicum and Pennisetum,  and perennials like Echinacea (both white and dark wine colours), Perovskia (Russian sage),  Knautia macedonica, different lobelias, salvias, asters and many others are right at home here.  Although small, it’s a garden I have learned so much from.  Every time I visit, I notice a new and wonderful plant, which I must immediately add to my parents’ garden.  Some pleasant discoveries have included Calamintha nepeta ssp. nepeta,  which requires absolutely no care and always looks great, and Limonium latifolium (Sea lavender), with gorgeous, delicate sprays of flowers over much of summer.  But although I have used many of his plant selections as inspiration, I have not been able to copy Oudolf’s incredible sense of design.  Proof of this is that every time I go to the TBG with my parents, they stop to admire all sorts of plants and ask if we can’t add them to the garden. When I have to tell them they’re already there, I realize they just haven’t noticed them because they don’t look as good.  They might be growing as well, but they just don’t shine in the same way.

The garden in summer (early August), fall (early October) and winter (early January).

The Oudolf garden at the TBG has evolved a lot over time. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find older pictures to show the garden soon after installation, and all the pictures here are from 2012, six years after the garden was planted. You’ll just have to take my word for it that the composition has become much more intertwined and complex as the years have gone by.  Reading the TBG website, I have also learned that the maintenance of the garden included absolutely no deadheading for the first 3 years in order to allow plants to self-seed and form a “sophisticated meadow”.  Now the plants are selectively deadheaded or weeded.

The evolving sophistication of the garden.  Plants are interweaving on all possible planes.
Oudolf has also added some unexpected elements to his design, in partnership with Martin Wade. For example, against one glass wall there are three espaliered crabapples, Malus ‘Donald Wyman’, which are planted at an angle.  While this may be a common technique in Europe, it’s not something often seen on this side of the pond, and for a long time the TBG got a flood of comments about when the trees would finally be straightened out. 
The angled Malus trees planted against an etched glass fence are most noticeable in the winter.  In the summer, they form one layer of greenery together with the rich underplantings and a row of paperbark maples, Acer griseum.

At the entrance to the building, there are also several boldly shaped hedges of mixed Fagus sylvatica (European beech), Fagus sylvatica forma purpurea (Purple beech) and Cornas mas (Cornelian cherry) grown within large metal frames. A very neat concept, which immediately added structure to the entrance area before the hedges were grown.

Decideous hedges grown within wire frames make a dramatic entrance to the TBG building in all seasons.
Well, that is just Oudolf’s part of the garden, and it’s taken me a lot longer to describe than I thought for such a small garden.  I’ll get to the rest of the TBG entrance gardens in the next blog – although small, they are home to some bold new design approaches and interesting plantings.