In June, I had the pleasure of spending several days touring local gardens with a gang of 65 garden bloggers from across North America and England. Part busman’s holiday, part chance to see my region afresh through the eyes of others, the Garden Bloggers’ Fling was a really fun experience One of my favourite Fling days was our trip to the Niagara region, culminating with a walking tour of three gardens in Niagara-on-the-Lake. A pretty little town about 20 minutes east of Niagara Falls, NOTL is a tourist mecca for its flowery main street filled with shops, its restaurants and its neighbouring vineyards, but mostly for the annual Shaw Festival – six months of theatre highlighting the plays of George Bernard Shaw and other playwrights whose works touch on societal mores.
As we walked through the three spectacular town gardens that had just been featured on the NOTL Garden Tour,it occurred to me that each could have been the leafy set of its very own theatrical production.
Our first garden was a little bit of Victorian heaven, in which I could easily imagine Henry Higgins striding about, snipping at the boxwood parterres while Eliza Doolittle followed him, ogling the blossoms like the Cockney flower vendor she was while practicing her phonetics. “The rine, in Spine, falls minely on the pliiine….”. The formal parterres were arrayed around a Victorian armillary sundial, each square enclosing shimmering white peonies and a kousa dogwood. Beyond lay a perfect patch of lawn attended by four nymphs. Indeed, in ancient Greek mythology, Pygmalion (on whom G B Shaw patterned his play) fell in love with a statue – perhaps one that looked just like these draped beauties.
At the rear of the garden, behind a rectangular pool with fountain and four urns was a lovely Victorian garden temple in the most sublime mustard with khaki-green columns. On either side, more tiny, perfect buildings… guesthouses, perhaps?
All the furnishings had a prim Victorian air, including a cast iron cherub standing triumphantly atop a turtle, and a pretty Grecian-inspired urn in front of a cast-iron table and chairs.
There was about this garden an air of the folly, its elements designed to evoke a different era, a different world, a sophisticated escape. Indeed, as George Bernard Shaw wrote in Pygmalion: “What is life but a series of inspired follies? The difficulty is to find them to do. Never lose a chance: it doesn’t come every day.”
The second garden occupied a large, leafy corner in old town – a rarified woodland so shade-dappled and cool, it seemed to be on another planet from Queen Street with its heat and crowds and hustle and bustle. Our tour began in front of a large pink sculpture nestled between two young ginkgo trees. “What do you think it is?” asked the gardener, who was there to guide us around in the owners’ absence.
After several guesses from our group, she replied, “You’re all right, of course. It’s anything you want it to be.” And indeed, that freedom to interpret art and beauty in one’s own eyes (and ears) encouraged me to adopt a musical theme for this garden: the Rimsky-Korsakov opera Scheherazade. More on that later….
In the meantime, this is our first view of the fabulous swimming pool, surrounded by layers of foliage in rich, jewel-box colours. (I saw the owner a few weeks later and he said that he wished we could have seen it when all these trees were in spring blossom mode. I’m sure that would have been heavenly.) And I love the linear pool border with its fountains of ‘Gracillimus’ maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis).
Speaking of jewels, did I mention that I love turquoise? I do, especially used cleverly to echo the turquoise water of the pool.
And this! How cool (literally and figuratively) to have a shallow part of the pool in which to dabble your toes, without committing fully to a swim. The perfect place for Scheherazade to spin a tale like Sinbad the Sailor, while dabbling her dainty toes…
Or perhaps she could find a seat in a cool, shady glade like this.
The garden is filled with textural foliage, and in the damp spots there are yellow flag irises (I. pseudacorus).
Now climb the stone stairs…..
….and turn towards the covered terrace with its pillars and shimmering drapes…..
….and the infinity-fountain spilling neatly down the house wall into the garden, and perhaps you begin to see why I’m thinking of Scheherazade?
Because if this isn’t the perfect stage setting for a vizier’s daughter to think up a thousand and one tales to engage the king (and save her life) through all those Arabian nights…
….while reclining on velvet plum pillows atop a divan in candlelight, I can’t imagine what is.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Our final Niagara-on-the-Lake garden requires an imagined stage shift a few hundred miles away to the little town of Stratford and its eponymous summer festival featuring the plays of William Shakespeare. To find out why, let’s just head into this first enclosed garden, with its appropriate stage name mounted on the entrance gate.
Yes, it is definitely a green room. Cool, verdant and an enclosed sanctuary to calm the fevered summer brow.
Judging from all the rustic outdoor lamps set artfully beside benches and chairs throughout this waterfront property, the gardeners seem to enjoy it by dark. Thus, my Shakespearean theme: a bucolic setting for a midsummer night’s dream – and maybe a pretty splashy garden party, too.
Now, step through the unique vine-and-animal gate and the curtain goes up on a spectacular view of the infinity pool dropping away to the mouth of the Niagara River flowing into Lake Ontario.
There’s something very theatrical about this little seat pour-deux.
Walk around the swimming pool (more on that in a minute) and you get the final, jaw-dropping vista: Old Fort Niagara in New York State across the river. Built by the French on the site of a 1726 trading post at a time when they controlled the Great Lakes and the Ohio Valley, the fort was expanded to its current size in 1755 but fell to the British in 1759 in the Battle of Fort Niagara during the French & Indian War. The fort remained in British hands until after the American War of Independence, when it was occupied by American forces. During the War of 1812, British forces seized the fort, but relinquished it to the United States after the 1814 Treaty of Ghent.
Back to the swimming pool. Is this not the most beautiful setting for a midsummer night’s dip….?
….followed by a nightcap next to the outdoor fireplace, of course. For me, this concept of rustic outdoor parlor elevates the pool – which can often be difficult to work gracefully into a landscape – into a lovely setting with a surprisingly cozy ambiance.
The garden beds are not overly ornate, but could easily substitute in a pinch for the setting in Act 2, Scene 1 of the Bard’s play, where Oberon says to Puck “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, where oxlips and the nodding violet grows, quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine, with sweet musk-roses and with eglantine…”
Let’s just sit down here in this mossy chair and wait for the sun to set. Then we’ll turn on the lamp and watch the lights of the Toronto skyline twinkle far away across the lake. We may even nod off here – to sleep, perchance, to dream.