Gardens - Featured Gardens

Perfect symmetry in a Montreal garden

Bethany Lyttle
Photography by
Angus McRitchie

An elegant outdoor space effortlessly balances a formal framework with an informal attitude

Garden stats
Size: 550 squared metres
Orientation: East
Location: Westmount
Conditions: full sun 
to dappled shade
Growing season: April to October
Focus: texture, achieved with fibrous begonias, Wizard Sunset coleus and New Guinea impatiens; flowering shrubs like lilac, witch hazel and azalea; ‘Green Velvet’ boxwood hedges; roses, such as 
‘Jens Munk,’ ‘Martin Frobisher’ and 
‘F.J. Grootendorst.’
Zone 5

When it comes to garden design, most of us know what we like. Or at least what we don’t. But what’s a landscape architect to do when he 
discovers that a client’s vision is a contradiction in terms? Stuart Webster of Webster Design in Montreal recalls: “When this client told me he wanted a ‘formal informal’ garden, I was a little taken aback. Strictly speaking, formal gardens differ greatly—and deliberately—from informal ones.”

In broad terms, while formal gardens mimic the strong architectural lines of a building, informal gardens are an attempt to mimic nature—with all the curves, contours and irregularities that implies. “How would I implement two competing styles without one displacing the other?” Webster wondered. “And how would I prevent the look from becoming muddled?”

The site for the gardens was the yard of a historic home in Westmount, Quebec. The imposing three-storey house, blocky and voluminous with a brick exterior, several balconies, porches and a deck, made a very strong statement already. Perhaps in an effort to counter this, meandering beds of cottage-style gardens had been planted over the years. “However, in a formal garden, plants must be viewed as an architect might look at wood, bricks or tile,” explains Webster. “They need to be seen as structural elements, not organic flourishes. So a change was in order.”

To create a garden that emphasized symmetry and geometry, Webster began with a central water feature. In keeping with a formal garden, plants would be controlled in their placement, colour and relationship to the lines of both the house and the fountain. “But the further from the water feature, the more relaxed the plantings would be,” says the landscape architect. “Looser, more natural-looking configurations of plants and shrubs would satisfy the owner’s desire for a not-quite-formal garden.”

The formal was balanced with the informal approaches, as Webster altered the grade and flow of the yard. “The lawn was sloped and was planted with daylilies, periwinkle (Vinca minor) and peonies. To give it more elegance, we terraced the lower half, then balanced it by creating a gently rolling upper half.” A water garden encompassed by  a circular wall now serves as one side of the terrace, while beyond that lies a flatter, more usable space.
To emphasize the geometry of the garden, particularly from above (the home’s three levels and multiple balconies provide a plethora of aerial viewing opportunities), Webster integrated boxwood hedges and limestone paving stones, which he used to make stagger-stone pathways and borders. He also added a sundial as a dramatic focal point, its curves echoing those of the water feature’s wall. Together, the natural stone and architecture of these elements provide a framework and structure for the plants and shrubs.

Less formal flowering shrubs, including azaleas and witch hazel, lilacs and serviceberry bushes, were worked into the garden design, as were perennials like peonies and daylilies. “We wanted to ensure that there would be interest during all four seasons,” says Webster.

The colour in the plantings helps to draw the eye to the north-south and east-west axes of the garden’s layout, as well as help give the garden its formal appearance. But as your gaze moves out to the yard’s boundaries, a naturalized perimeter takes shape, meaning that maintenance there is minimal. “Formal gardens require constant attention,” says Webster. “Fine for a smaller area that would serve as a centrepiece, but beyond that, we wanted the homeowner to have plenty of time just to enjoy his lovely surroundings.” 

Photo: Limestone pavers were placed with careful attention to create linear, very structured pathways. Grass, not mortar, unites the stones, which direct the eye to areas of interest throughout the garden.

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