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?