Our Private Garden

by Norbert Schoenauer (from Architecture Canada 9/66)

Confinement and definition of space are the most intrinsic elements of a small private garden. Without some sense of enclosure a "garden" does not conform to the real meaning of the Old-Germanic root of the word from which it is derived. Perhaps this realization more than anything else was responsible for the design ideas that eventually shaped the physical appearance of our intimate garden.

Four years ago the area of this garden was a crushed-stone parking lot open to the public lane but separated from the two neighbouring properties by low picket fences, the one to the right painted red and the one to the left, green. There were no trees or flowers and hardly any other form of planting with the exception of a small lawn and a cluster of ferns, the latter adventurers from one of the neighbouring gardens. The view offered a disheartening sight to a novice gardener.

The first stage in converting the open back yard to an enclosed garden was the construction of high unobtrusive fences. But the theme of enclosure was carried a step further by the erection of a number of wood and bamboo screens, similar in detail and height to the fencing. The garden was thus divided into a series of compartments, each linked visually with its neighbouring spaces by means of apertures between the screens (1). One window-like opening was left in each of the two fences facing the adjacent gardens not only in order to afford extended vistas but also in a spirit of neighbourliness which in this case did not involve the usual sacrifice of complete privacy. The garden's fragmentation into subspaces brought about a constant interplay of enclosures and openings (2). This maze-like arrangement, in turn, complemented the relatively small size of the garden simply by making it impossible from any given point to survey the total extent of the garden; moreover, since the screens and fences look alike, it became difficult to locate the true boundaries of the property.

In addition to the visual effect of continuity, the divisions also fulfill useful functional requirements. For example, one compartment serves as a patio for outdoor living, another is designated for car parking, while the residual areas are left for gardening with the added opportunity of creating distinct milieus in the various bays of the garden. The first area to be seen when emerging from the house is the patio (3). A considerable portion of this concrete-tile and brick paved area is shaded by a low pitched bamboo roof devised primarily to give protection when necessary from intense sunlight (4). Because of the absence of trees another means of shad ng had to be found, and bamboo matting, which permitted some sunrays to penetrate and thereby gave an effect not unlike to that of a tree, was chosen. Exotic plants such as Rosebay (Nerium oleander) and Orange tree (Citrus taitensis) together with a collection of various types of Geranium are kept in pots in this area. A Russian Olive tree (Elaeagnus angustifolia) is tucked in a corner of the patio, in an area paved with large pebbles. The screens and fences are complemented by a variety of climbing vines. The two Silver Lace climbers (Polygonum auberti) are spectacular during late summer and fall, while the more common Virginia creepers (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) and Dutchman's Pipe (Aristolochia sipho) are at their best during the first few months of the growing season. Creepers are also used against the house to soften the contrast between its brick walls and the garden; Boston ivy (Hedera helix baltica) and Wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei acuta) are the species used here.

Trees were selected which would be in harmony with the scale of the garden. In addition to the Russian Olive, an apple tree, a Sumac (Rhus typhina) and about sixty Chinese Elms (Ulmus pumila) were planted. The Chinese Elms were placed adjacent to the fences and in one particular location they were crowded together to form a miniature forest which in the spring, as anticipated, provides an ideal condition for the cultivation of wild flowers.

A well was placed near the existing cluster of ferns (5) and a bird feeder erected close to the living room window (6). Here and there chimney pots and stone adornments collected from some demolished homes in the vicinity were placed to add interest and scale to the various pockets of verdure. These objects together with the fences were important elements particularly at the beginning when the garden was in its infancy. In summer these objects have now lost some of their visual impact because they are no longer dominant in the garden setting; but in winter, when a snow blanket covers everything and the foliage is gone, both the "objets trouvés" and the fences are significant architectonic aspects of the winter garden-scape.

Of the various species of perennials planted, the most rewarding are the Heliopsis (H. patula) which bloom practically throughout July, August and into September
if the weather is congenial; their profuse yellow flowers give a cheerful note to the garden even on cloudy days. Another favorite is the dependable Geranium (7); pot-bound, these houseplants produce numerous flowers and are adm;rably suited for the patio garden.

In conclusion, it ought to be repeated that this is a small garden. Its total area including the parking space is about 1 660 square feet, which represents an area about the size of a front lawn of an average suburban home. Its width is only 27 feet, its median length 62 feet, but its height is infinite. However, given these dimensions it was possible to convert a back yard into a "spacious" garden which complements our home with intimate and agreeable outdoor spaces.


Town house (1962-1976) alteration and garden, Norbert Schoenauer, arch



55. Westmount: 53 Prospect.


56. garden (1963)


57. winter (1963-64)


58. winter (1965-66) new fence with window


59. basin and fern area (1965)


60. covered patio (1965)


61. covered patio (1965)


62. aerial view (1966)


63. garden view (1965)


64. heliopses (1969)


65. patio area (1969)


66. lush garden (1969)


67. garden view from living room (1969)


68. garden view in rain (1969)