When gardeners mention layers, or layering, they are often talking about propagating a plant. Tucking a flexible shoot of a shrub underground and leaving it to form roots is one method of layering. Separated from the original, one shrub becomes two or more, depending how many branches were layered.
Layering can refer as well to different vertical spaces, from ground covers to perennials that are knee high, at eye level and taller, or to shrubs and trees that tower overhead. It can refer to a succession of bloom, how one flower overlaps with another, before fading as still a third flower begins to show its stuff. David Culp’s recent book, The Layered Garden: Design Lessons for Year Round Beauty from Brandywine Cottage, treats these types of layering in a enjoyable and informative way.
There is another type of layering, though, that gardeners think about less often, and that some may even ignore entirely. This is layering in time. For gardens with long histories, or for gardens in historic settings, this type of layering comes with the territory. At Ninfa, the Italian garden set within the ruins of a medieval village, layers of time reaching far back into the past provide structure, both to climbing plants and to the garden as a whole.
At Sissinghurst, the traces of history seen in the tower and the surrounding brick walls that date from Elizabethan times were a major attraction for Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, the couple who created this iconic 20th c English garden.
In North American gardens, surviving traces of history like those at Ninfa and Sissinghurst are less common but they can be found. At Ashintully, a garden in Tyringham, Massachusetts, the columns of the original house on the property still stand, although the house was destroyed in the 1950s. Rising up from a tangle of vegetation, these columns act like a timeline to link the present day garden to a not-too-distant past.
At Glen Villa, my garden in rural Quebec, the foundation walls of an old resort hotel that burned to the ground in 1909 add that layer of time ….
… as does an old mossy well, now partly hidden in the woods.
I’m extremely fortunate to have these traces of history all around me. They contribute significantly to the property’s special character, and while I’ve made no attempt to restore them to their original state, I’ve highlighted them whenever I can.
The American writer and cultural geographer J.B. Jackson wrote an essay memorably titled “The Necessity for Ruins.” His point was that genuine remnants of the past, rather than the reconstructed pioneer villages and cowboy towns with modern-day hitching posts that mimic the past, situate a landscape within a continuum; they show unmistakably that the past and present are linked in meaningful ways.
The passage of time is an essential element in every garden. The changing seasons, the growth and death of individual plants, the fallow times when ideas take root — these are the aspects of time that we as gardeners acknowledge and work with every day. The changes brought about in a garden simply by the passage of time can’t be ignored. But the layers of history that underpin the garden can.
To ignore those layers of time is, in my mind, to miss an opportunity. Unearthing the strata of time and making remnants of the past explicit features in the present does more than give a garden a gauzy romantic cloak. It adds depth. And I firmly believe this can be done in any garden, whether the signs of history are evident or not.
How? There are lots of ways. One easy approach is to use objects that carry the weight of historical connections and connotations. This approach should come with a warning label, though. For while a cupid in one context may be appropriate, the perils of the garden centre gargoyle and similar context-less items loom large.
Ordinary household objects carry the same dangers but can work well when used thoughtfully. These old doors were languishing in the garage of a house in Ottawa. Instead of throwing them away, the owners cleaned them up and positioned them on the hillside behind their house. Arranged as they are, to me these doors suggest a passage into another time. They make me feel like magic could happen, that I could walk through them, like the children in C.S. Lewis’s stories walked through the back door of the wardrobe, into another world entirely.
This little hockey gnome, spotted last June when I was in Toronto for the Garden Bloggers Fling, may be much less magical than the doors. Still, as a personal memento, he offers another entry point into the past. Or so I choose to believe. Because why else would the gnome be there, unless the owner was once a hockey legend, or at least a player who loved the game?
Using a gnome in a garden is risky, I agree, however tiny the gnome may be. Kitsch is lurking, and kitsch in a garden is something to avoid. But taking risks in a garden is not. Pushing limits can lift a garden out of the ordinary and make it more personal. Layering with time can add the heft of history to the aesthetics of any garden, making it richer and more substantial.
Or so I believe.
Do you agree? Do you think about the layers of time that play a role in your garden? Do you use or ignore them, and do you do this deliberately or has it happened by accident? Do you include old varieties of flowers or plants that have a particular relationship to the site? Do you use personal mementoes or objects that relate to your location? Or do you think I’m crazy to ask?
I’m in complete agreement, Pat. Though I’d draw the line at the cherub and the gnome. My garden has nothing other than rock and the hillside slope to related to the past cultures that occupied the place. I did add a circle of red painted logs, which I’ve come to like very much. (Inspired by the Japanese-inspired red vertical logs at LongHouse Reserve (Jack Lenor Larsen’s garden on Long Island), which I saw in a photo probably 25 years ago.) The circle may suggest the Lenape, who used to live in our hills. But it’s a subtle connection and not necessary. When I added a stone circle of native stone, I made the mistake of putting a fire pit in the center. Everyone ignored the stone circle and commented on the fire pit, which I quickly removed. It’s hard to draw the line between what is appropriate and what is “off-key” or worse, kitsch.
I agree, James, it is hard to draw the line between appropriate and off-key, and the line can vary from place to place and time to time. I am familiar with images of your circle of red painted logs and have always admired them. I’m also familiar with the logs at LongHouse Reserve. It’s not surprising that they were an inspiration — they are inspirational and were the thing I most wanted to see when I visited LongHouse last year. I saw a similar arrangement of red logs in Henk Gerritsen’s book, An Essay on Gardening and found that they also added substantially to the spirit of the place. Your comment about the firepit makes me smile. I can easily understand why you removed it.
Oh, I do agree, it is part of the family tree so to speak! Those links to the past help the garden evolve into the future with whatever methods one cares to use! Everybody must have a “Secret Garden”!
Links to the past help the garden evolve into the future: I like that sentiment, Robert.
I agree–I only wish my family did as well. I wanted to save a door from our old house when it got replaced by a more energy efficient, practical door. I didn’t know how I would use it in the garden but was sure something would come to me. However, there was really no place to save it until inspiration struck, so it was thrown out. And when we renovated the upstairs, I wanted to save the newel post from the staircase. I did save that until we moved to a new house, and found it outside in a pile of stuff to be burned. It is frustrating when your family perceives “old stuff” as junk.
Old stuff can be junk, or treasure. Generally I’m a discarder, like members of your family. But when it comes to things that, even in a far-fetched way, could be used in the garden, I’m a saver. The newel post sounds like a perfect thing to save and re-use. I hope it didn’t get burned.
This is fascinating. In my garden, it is the plants around the edges of the garden that provide clues to the past — the trees with multiple trunks that show the land was logged in the past and the clumps of common juniper at the edges of the woods that are a sign this was once used as pasture.
Trees do show what came before. Scattered around our property are trees that have grown around barbed wire fences. The fences are long gone, the barbed remains. Are you familiar with the book Reading the Forested Landscape, by Tom Wessels? Each chapter is like a little mystery, with clues in the landscape to show what came before. A friend passed it on to me and I’ve read it several times, always learning something more.
In my garden, layers are multiple, both recording the landscape and the use of my little plot of it over the past century. I’m especially fond of all the plants that show what the last owners preferred and enjoyed; they lived there for over 60 years and it is still very much their garden, though she has died and he has moved into a small apartment in a town nearby. She loved fuchsias, so even though they’re not a particular favourite of mine, her fuchsias will continue to play a role in the garden, as will his vegetable garden and green house.
In a sense, the husband maintained the garden as his wife left it when she died 5 years ago, so there’s a sense of her being very much present in the garden though I never met her. In a sense it carries memorial connotations, and I’m happy to keep her memory in my garden going forwards, though there will be some changes to make it mine as well. I like a house and garden with a memory of past owners…
Fuchsias aren’t one of my favourites, either, Søren, but I like the idea that they will continue to play a part in your garden because of their association with the previous owners. Remembering and honouring what came before seems particularly generous of you since you never met her. Bravo.
I’m very fond of ruins myself, and Judy is an aficionado of gargoyles. I like this idea of using objects to layer a garden’s past. In a sense, that’s what all my native plants are doing – the prairie plants don’t really constitute a prairie, but they are a reminder of the prairies that once existed nearby. I like the idea of using more farm tools as ornaments as a reference to the truck farms and nurseries that covered our neighborhood about 80 years ago. Also, our town was the national hq of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, so maybe an old ax …
Using plants to layer a garden’s past is a great idea, Jason. As for the ax, I’m sure you can work it in somehow. A sharp-nosed woman with odd-shaped legs?
I like ruins, too, but I live in a newish subdivision that was built 14 years ago so real ruins are in short supply. But I do have broken pots sunk into the garden that are covered in moss and that meets my need for a memory of another time. They remind me my garden is aging and settling into itself and it’s a comfortable feeling.
I like that idea, that your garden is “settling into itself.” There’s something missing in a garden that doesn’t do that.