Garden Tour: Balanced landscape design

For centuries, artists have loved to paint gardens. From Monet's lilies, to Van Gogh's fields of sunflowers; Renoir's sumptuous roses to Ruben's formal palace walks, from Gauguin's exotic flowers to Georgia O'Keefe's erotic ones; artists have been obsessed and inspired by the garden view.
Perhaps it is the tension in every good garden that makes them so inspiring. Every successful garden has a push and pull; a constant balance between the wild and the cultivated, the formal and informal, the hand of Mother Nature and the hand of man. That balance keeps us interested.
For an example of a garden with enduring attractions, visit the Royal Botanical Gardens on a fine day. You'll be sure to find one or two painters happily working away. But the private gardens of our neighbourhoods are also worthy examples of the best in balance and design.
The west Burlington garden designed by Environmental Design Landscape Contractors (EDLC) is a perfect example of the complex balance between the yin and yang of a classic garden. And it is a garden that, in spring, is at its glorious best.
The completed garden has won many awards and it is easy to see why. It is a true signature of what the design firm is well known for: classic style, naturalistic water features and a lush greenery that remains consistent with the firm's environmental principles.
The house backs on a ravine and is about 60-years-old. The gardens were in need of significant updating when the clients retained EDLC.
Jacob Tornvliet is one of the principles of EDLC, the Carlyle-based company that is the Double Winner of the 2010 National Awards of Landscape Excellence.  “The company has been around for about 55 years,” he explains.  “It was started by our father and for the last 25 years it has been run by my two brothers and myself.”
The family comes from a Dutch background and, as the name, Environmental Design, would suggest, the company has a focus on natural and environmentally sensitive design concepts.
Like many of their projects, this Aldershot garden has a naturalistic look.  “Our focus is to do the natural thing but also to provide the garden with the right context,” Tornvliet explains. “There is a need to chose the right context.  Ideally the garden should be the perfect marriage of what the client would like to see, the context of the home, and the architecture of the house. And then you need to combine that into the actual garden.”
The Aldershot property was an infill home in an older subdivision in west Burlington, an area laced with ravines. The home backed onto a large ravine that had been left in its natural state by the original developer.
“It is a large home, where the setting tends toward a casual natural setting, yet the architecture of the house tends toward the formal. So we married the formal with the natural, which always produces a bit of tension, but that is a good thing. The design for both the front and the back of the property ended up combining elements of formality and informality.”
The strongest feature of the front of the house is a high peaked facade, but a large garage was an element that needed to be minimized. The front garden is not overly large so the new landscape plan focused on the access to the front door, which would draw attention away from the garage.
“We designed a long linear walkway flanked with boxwood hedging, with clipped pyramids on the corners. Boxwood works perfectly for this purpose,” says Tornvliet, “as it is slow growing and can be clipped nicely to keep it small and accurately shaped.”
Along the hedged walkway, there is a formal water feature with a fountain. “This adds tremendous visual impact and a sense of space, and it is unexpected which gives it even more impact. It is easily seen from the street, it runs in winter too and is low maintenance. The owner keeps his koi in it all year round. It's located under a large magnolia tree that we kept from the original garden.”
The plantings in front are dominated by the boxwood hedging and the green lawn as neutral space.  At the far side is a wooden arbour with a gate that leads to the side garden area.  The landscapers had to deal with an old cedar hedge that had been there from the beginning. It had thinned with age, so they used it as the backdrop for the entry arbour and a lush perennial garden.
The perennial plantings included astilbe, hydrangeas, clusters of daphnes for spring colour, even some beauty berry with purple berries for fall. Big leafy coloured hostas and snakeroot, a tall perennial with a fragrant blossom, took up the back of the garden.
“It is a real mix of perennials and shrubs, fleshy ones with lots of volume that form a great contrast with the linear formal side of the garden. Like the rest of the space, this garden is designed to be lovely in all seasons.”
Stone steps lead to the side and back garden.
“The back garden was sort of the reverse of the front,” Tornvliet tells me. “There is lots of glass and windows, with a walkout that looked down on the back yard and gave a nice perspective to the garden, with the ravine in the background.  Here the natural was in more preponderance that the formal.”
They place a large naturalistic water feature here, with a formal patio and pergola cantilevered out over the pond so it would hang out over the water. The plantings were lush in the back as in the front, but more focused on greens as opposed to flowers.
There is a lovely layering happening, with a grouping of Douglas firs for a backdrop, then hemlocks that grow out of the ravine. There are lots of leafy shade-tolerant plants, hostas, irises, various ferns, and a large rhododendron that overhangs the water. The view to the water feature from the house is unobstructed. The back garden fits hand in glove with the setting.  It fits seamlessly with the ravine, complementing the natural landscape without looking like an imposition on it.
“The first thing that strikes people is how well the garden fits the house,” says Tornvliet. “People tend to call it a formal garden, but the informal perennials marry well with the formal elements.  The front garden is more formal than natural, while the back is more natural with some formal elements.
“The only real problem we faced was getting access to the backyard, which was tricky. Because we were not changing the footprint of the existing garden there was no need to get permission for changes from the conservation authorities.”
“The clients are very happy with their new garden.  She is an active gardener and eagerly plants the annuals every year while he loves the water features and the fish. The design has won several awards ““ numerous municipal awards, and a top maintenance award from Landscape Ontario, as well as construction awards.”
According to Tornvliet, it usually takes about three to four months to plan a garden, and that planning is usually done in winter.  Work starts on the project as soon as the ground can be broken in the spring and can take from a month to six weeks depending on the complexity of the landscape design.
It takes usually three growing seasons for a garden to fill in and to look the way it is intended.  Gardens are always dynamic and are always in need of tweaking and revising as plants mature and light conditions change.
From three to five years, the garden gets fuller, and then, from year five to about year ten, there needs to be revisions and changes made on an ongoing basis to keep aggressive plants from encroaching on others, or to keep shrubs from getting oversized.
Tornvleit emphasizes the importance of regular maintenance. “Gardening remains an art, an imposition of a human vision on a natural site.  You need to keep doing things to keep it the way you meant it to be.”
“A beautiful garden,” he maintains, “is a great mix of the formal and the informal that sets the house up well, and that works with both the house and the setting.  That's a successful balance, and a successful garden.”