How do you look at a collector’s garden?

A shady entrance to the garden of plantswoman Marion Jarvie

Marion Jarvie’s seasonal open gardens are a bit of an event among Toronto-area garden aficionados. But, although I’d seen pictures and even taken a class from Marion at the Toronto Botanical Garden, I’d never actually visited until we took the Toronto Fling bloggers there, the week after her May open garden (next will be Sept. 26 and 27, 2015).

Oddly, this is a garden that people seem to either praise or disparage. Why such opposite responses? It’s a question I mulled over during our visit – and what I thought about as I edited my pictures.

Marion Jarvie is often called a “plantswoman” – as I do in my opening caption – which most dictionaries define as a woman who loves and knows a lot about plants. We were about to discover that Jarvie’s “love” is expressed as a collection. An extensive one. Like hers, my garden is a bit of a living lab, where specimens I get a crush on are put out to sink or swim. But mine is tiny; about as big as Jarvie’s entryway. This is a large suburban lot. And it’s jam packed with diversity.
Brilliant sunshine at midday is the most unforgiving time to photograph any garden. But a first look at midday in a garden like this is overwhelming. It’s essentially a botanical garden on a small scale. And I think that’s why people fall into the two opposing camps about it. If you had a garden design mixing board with two sliders, the one labelled “Plants” here would be dialled all the way up to 11. Or 12. Or, heck, 13 or 14. The one labelled “Design” would be somewhere around 7.
Pam Penick of Digging has the right idea above, zooming in for a closeup. As I reviewed my pictures, I started using the crop feature more and more – trimming the edges with square shots or “golden” crops. It’s sort of like archetypal movie director in an old film does, narrowing the view between a frame of thumbs and forefingers.
With so much to look at, the narrower field helps reduce the “whelm.”
So how should you look at a collector’s garden? Maybe a mini botanical garden is like a room in a museum. You wouldn’t judge the museum collection by standing back and looking at the whole room. You’d step up to the display cases.
And you’d take a closer look at the specimens. You might even admire how they’re arranged.
Sometimes, you might take a step back to look at a single display case.
Or maybe a step or two. But then what? Look at the left of this shot, then look below.
Although a collection is seen as a group of things, it starts with a passion for the individuality of each object. Perhaps a collector’s garden is best viewed this way. Rather than looking at the garden and expecting our eye to move across or around it, this type of garden invites our focus to move in and out  – less wide angle, more zoom lens.
A collector doesn’t just want a plant to fulfill a design shape, colour or texture. They want to fall in love with it. Specifics matter. When you’re lucky, both wants align. What do you think? Does this makes sense to you?
Through the archway, you can see a row of plants still in nursery pots ready to be planted – something a blogger (I wish I could give you proper credit – shout out if it was you) once called “ladies in waiting.” I’d love to come back to take a closer look, and under more ideal light conditions. Luckily, I can.

Should we judge a collector’s garden by the same criteria as one that’s more designerly? Thoughts?


  1. Helen – I agree that cropping some of the images makes it easier to appreciate the inter0relationship between all of the plants in the collection. I loved the garden. It was a bit overwhelming, but I loved it nonetheless for what it was.

    1. I'm looking forward to going back and seeing it in other seasons. And I admire Marion's philosophy as a collector: If it doesn't work or you don't like it, turf it out! She's always editing.

  2. Not necessarily a garden to be copied, but one that shouldn't be missed. I am gobsmacked with the amount of work it is – so many of those treasures are not hardy at all and have to be wintered under glass giving Marion the fun of deciding where her little plants will reside each year. No Grande Allee, no acres of hardscaping for drinks and nibbles, just plants times ten to the power of 25 and a giant dose of Marion's personality, hard work and vision.

  3. I'm much more into design than individual plants myself, and yet I loved Marion's garden. I thought she actually did a nice job of designing her collection: using contrasting forms and color echoes, to name two techniques I noticed. It was a wonderful garden to walk through and explore. I would love to see it again under softer lighting conditions.

    1. And amazing to think about it — those color (or colour) echoes were mainly achieved through foliage colours. That's something I know you'd appreciate, Pam. My peony closeup above notwithstanding, there weren't too many brightly coloured flowers in that brightly coloured garden.

  4. Being more of a raised bed, veg gardening type of gal, I tended to look at the individual plants, rather than the whole. I only realized this once I started going through all of my pictures and the vast majority were of individual plants or plant groupings with few landscape shots (I'll know better for next time!)

    Perhaps that's why I truly loved (& envied) Marion's garden as it had so much to examine and there was a surprise around every corner.

    1. You were smarter than me, Margaret. My big flaw in photography often is trying to capture too much in one image. So maybe I should get more criticism than the garden designer here. Next time I go, I'll try to corral my natural tendency.

  5. I loved this garden and felt right at home there. I agree with Pam in that I felt it succeeded both on the design and collecting fronts, but I do appreciate your asking the question and entertaining opposing views. I felt a little like a scoundrel by bringing up the fact (in my blog post) that it was not appreciated by all the bloggers.

    1. I saw that in your post, Loree. You're not a scoundrel, you're honest. But our Fling bloggers aren't the only ones to have turned up their noses to some degree. I've heard it from members of the Toronto gardening community, too. For myself, I tend to be a fangirl for any lovingly maintained garden. So when I saw Marion's for the first time I was trying to dissect the objections. Wish we'd had longer there (and some cloud cover).

  6. I have worked for clients that were collectors and as a designer, that becomes a huge challenge. Like Pam, I too look at the whole picture in design rather than calling attention to the parts, unless it is a specific focal point of a design. I do like your comparison to a museum exhibit Helen. I agree with you, it offers a nice way to view and understand the smaller plant vignettes. You mentioned taking in more of the image or cropping to view less. Most gardens look their best with "edited" views. Good photographic framing can make a "bad" garden look wonderful. It is all in how the photographer views the scene. Like you, I myself prefer to show the larger picture rather than narrowing the view. It says far more about the design and what others can learn when viewing. I too was rather amazed at her garden. You can really tell someone that loves plants is in residence.

    1. I think there are different measures for assessing a garden. I know they talk about this in a very high-level way over on Thinkingardens, and can be very demanding critics. But I'm wondering if one general question that should be asked is: "What were you trying to achieve?" In Jarvie's case, the goal was to showcase her very diverse plant collection. When you consider that her collection includes many dwarf conifers, the vignettes she creates will be perforce on a smaller scale. So that changes things when you're considering the success of her design.

    2. I agree. The direction, style and character are factors in achieving a goal. To have a concept from the start is a way for designers having a place to start. Each garden has a designer, whether trained or not and can create wonderful gardens. One of my clients collected dwarf conifers. When you have many acres like she had, I had to convince her not the have 6 acres of tiny shrubs and trees. Another loved tree peonies and was constantly adding to the collection. This too had to include more than tree peonies. They had ten acres. Marion's garden had many different areas with a variety of plant material. She organized this variety very well.

  7. Thank you for the post on Marion Jarvies' garden. I lurk about on blogs and read every post I find about her garden. I'm a collector first and garden design comes second. Siting the plant on an acre of very diverse terrain comes first. We have dry shade, a nutural bog and full sun borders. Some times I get lucky and the two come together. When we have garden visitors it is most often about the individual plants. I think they find it difficult to absorb the garden as a whole. Loved your museum comparison. Best for last, Marion Jarvie is going to be a guest speaker here in Haliax at our garden society in the new year! I am over the moon! Thanks again.

  8. Beautiful! And I love the 'ladies in waiting' – I hadn't heard that before but we all tend to have pots waiting for planting in some corner!

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