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Thursday, June 11, 2015

Gardening with Brush Strokes - the Marion Jarvie Garden in Toronto

Marion Jarvie is a noted gardener, instructor at the Toronto Botanical Garden, and long time member of the Ontario Rock Garden and Hardy Plant Society. Her yard was one that we visited as part of the Garden Blogger Fling 2015.

As soon as I walked onto Marion's 1/2 acre lot where she has gardened for 40 years, I could see that this was something different. I'm not even sure that the term "garden"  - with it's images of happy puttering - even applies here. I felt like I was stepping into a painting.

And it wasn't just that it was beautiful, which it is, or even the  most beautiful garden I've ever been to, which it isn't, it was the precision and thought of the plant materials that made it different. It is like a painting by the old masters, where the artist spent a year on getting a hand depicted correctly.

Walking through Marion's garden I could actually see the brush strokes. Extraordinary when you consider that her plant collection is very heavy on interesting specimens.  Other gardens where the gardener is focused on individual plants lack the flow and color schemes that Marion has been able to pull off.
So what's her secret? Ruthlessness! When she considers a plant placement she looks at it from all sides to make sure that it fits in and compliments other plantings. If it doesn't it is planted elsewhere. If new acquisitions cause a plant to look odd or not at it's best, it's yanked out and moved.

Some might consider this type of gardening as too rigid, overly planned, even "precious". At this juncture in my life, I totally relate to what she's doing and appreciate her effort. Since moving to Texas I've worked for two start-ups - and the CEOs of these companies do just what Marion does. They have an end goal and if you can't fit in, complement the rest of the team, make the business better and faster - you're out. After spending the bulk of my career in banking where dead wood rules, I find this approach invigorating. It's fun to run with the big dogs and Marion's garden is definitely ahead of the pack.

And, oh, the plants!  The shear volume of what she's got packed in is really overwhelming.  I walked by the same spot three times and saw something new with each passing.  I nearly missed seeing one of my favorite wildflowers - Shooting Star (Dodecatheon meadia).

But not just plants made my day.  Her pond was full of pollywogs (amphibian tadpoles).  This black damselfly makes a dramatic study in contrasts as it rests on the chartreuse leaf of a Japanese Maple. 

I also really liked her liberal use of Clematis - both the full flower and nodding bonnets of the species varieties.This trio of the tree trunk, allium, and clematis against a chartreuse background gives you a sense of what I mean by a paint stroke.  Can't you just feel your brush dabbing into a mound of mixed purple and then applying it with a single stroke? Really marvelous and an inspiration.  Going through the garden upon my return I sharpen my eye and look for slackers. 


  1. It really was a nice garden, but I did not know she was an instructor at the Botanical Garden. Good to know.

  2. I'm never going to be hardcore enough to yank plants if they're not doing well - I guess I might pull it if the plant needs something that it can get elsewhere in the yard, but to just be like "yep, I though this was going to work, it doesn't - out it goes!" I don't think I could do it.

  3. Great post! It's an incredible garden, isn't it? It was fun to see the Flingers' reactions upon seeing the splendor of the garden for the first time. It's so wonderful that Marion opens the garden to the public for free a few times each year.

  4. I loved this garden and felt right at home there, what with her plant collector ways. Oh, and plus there were Agaves!

  5. I love the combination of Purple.

  6. I enjoyed learning more about Marion's gardening style and vision. Thanks for asking her the questions I didn't think to!