In the Garden:
Middle South
September, 2011
Regional Report

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From this bird's-eye view of Butchart's Sunken Garden, I recognized the basic rules for combining plants with panache.

Making Sense of a Bird's-Eye View

I've been on the road again, and as usual, I squeezed a garden visit into my travel schedule. This time the destination was Seattle, but a side trip took me further afield to Victoria, British Columbia, and The Butchart Gardens, located just north of the capital city.

This was my first visit to the highly-lauded Butchart and I was gobsmacked by its dramatic beauty. I had seen pictures, of course, but was still taken off-guard by the strong emotional response I experienced when I saw the garden firsthand.

The Sunken Garden, a reclaimed limestone quarry, was of special interest to me. Not only because it's the centerpiece of Butchart, but because I too face the challenge of steep slopes in my new garden.

I've spent hours contemplating how to landscape the backyard once our home alterations are complete. Terraces can tame the hillside and stairs can provide access, but the garden will remain difficult to see from inside the house and any indoor perspective will always provide a birds-eye view.

I've stood at my home's back windows many times in the months I've lived here, puzzling how to make the space as beautiful from above as it will be at ground level.

Standing at the rim of Butchart's Sunken Garden, however, my mind began to race a mile a minute. Suddenly the solution didn't seem so hard. What I recognized in the garden below me were the most basic rules for mixing plants, only applied on a much larger scale.

Anyone who's ever designed a mixed container garden knows to juxtapose plants that contrast in size, shape, texture, and reflectivity. Successful combos mix tall and short, columnar and round, bold and lacy, and glossy and matte, as well as other variations of form, flower, foliage, and bark.

From my elevated perch, I could see Butchart's Sunken Garden satisfied these objectives with a pair of upright evergreens, many round-canopied trees, a sheared oval shrub, a weeping blue atlas cedar, and a plethora of cascading ground covers, such as ivy and cotoneaster.

And even at a distance, the landscape was easy to read. Large blocks and sweeps of color, rather than a tad of this and that, offered the same cohesiveness I would expect to find (up close) among herbaceous plants in a well-made bed or border.

In fact, the scene was so precisely and perfectly contrived it looked as if I was peering into a terrarium or a tiny fairy garden, and it was easy to imagine the umbrella-toting patrons as small dolls that could be picked up and moved at will.

Here's another interesting tidbit I observed from the rim of the quarry: though the garden is not selective with color, at a distance the cool colors (blue, purple, and violet) receded while the warm colors (red, yellow, and orange) dominated. The vibrant-hued flowers, echoed by the richly-colored foliage of a variety of trees, created a stunning color harmony that made my spirit soar.

And that, perhaps, was the most important reminder of all. There are as many types of gardens as there are gardeners, and success can be measured in a hundred different ways. The best gardens, however, are always the ones that make you happy.


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