Design Experts

Inside design: Liz Primeau

Inside design: Liz Primeau Author: Style At Home

Design Experts

Inside design: Liz Primeau

All roads lead to the garden – at least for Liz Primeau, founding editor of Canadian Gardening magazine and author of My Natural History: The Evolution of a Gardener ($29, Greystone, 2008). In her graceful memoir, the life of a woman and the life of a garden are inextricable; as Liz blooms and grows, so too does her garden.

Style at Home: In your book, you recount how a green onion sandwich inspired your gardening journey. Tell us more.
Liz Primeau: My agent was the first to ask what started me down the road to gardening. It was like a door opened, bringing back a flood of memories. I was transported to my childhood in Winnipeg: I saw me and my mom sneaking out into the garden at dusk to steal green onions. I felt the bond between us. There was also taste, smell and colour in that memory. My whole childhood was associated with the outdoors – exploring and roaming. My whole life, really, depends on a love of nature.

S@H: There’s a quote in your book about all nature being a garden....
LP:
Yes. Horace Walpole, an 18th-century writer, said that landscape designer William Kent "leaped the fence and saw all nature was a garden." Kent and Lancelot "Capability" Brown started the highly influential natural landscape movement of the 18th century. They realized you didn’t need the formal, controlled gardens prevalent among the French nobility. They were trying to return gardens to nature. (Although they also created vistas of huge lawns and really influenced our love of front lawns.) I truly believe that all nature is a garden, and a garden is nature – your little microcosm of the natural world. I mean, I could sit outside for hours watching the ants and learning about their world.

S@H: In your book, you wrote about young gardeners wanting instant gratification. That’s antithetical to growing a garden, isn’t it?
LP:
Wanting lots of colour right now is a youthful desire that's very normal when you're young. But gardening helps teach you patience – if you’re listening and willing to be open to learning that lesson. You can't make plants grow any faster, so you have to be willing to go with the flow and to let go of those things you can't control. With a garden, you experience various levels of appreciation and understanding as you move through your life.

S@H: You’re candid about suffering from anxiety at one stage in your life. How did your garden help heal you?
LP:
At one point, I had trouble going out of the house. The garden helped calm me down. Connecting to the earth and reconnecting to memories of warm summer afternoons as a child grounded me – quite literally.

S@H: Lately, there has been a movement toward heritage plants. Is that something you support?
LP:
The obsession with heritage plants is a fashion, but a healthy one. In the '80s, we became fanatics about our gardens, relying on chemicals to achieve a level of perfectionism. In the '90s, we became more aware of the
environment
and the potential harm from pesticides.

S@H: What foils most gardens and gardeners?
LP:
The desire to create a garden that looks better than everyone else's. That competitiveness is selfish and is the wrong path. The true purpose of a garden is to make yourself happy and, by extension, others, too.6 steps program
Like most gardeners, author Liz Primeau began in pursuit of perfection. She has, however, learned the error of her ways. “The garden is not the place for control freaks or perfectionists,” she says in her latest book, My Natural History: The Evolution of a Gardener ($29, Greystone, 2008). Over many springs and summers she’s learned to embrace “nature’s caprices” and to move with, not against, the inclinations of the seasons and weather. That was an epiphany that led Liz to develop her six-stages theory of gardening – a progression as natural to the maturing of a gardener as the seasons are to the maturing of a garden. Which stage are you at?

Stage 1: I want it all, now
I want as much colour as possible and don’t want to wait for perennials, so I’m planting huge swaths of annuals.

Stage 2: Discovering a love that lasts

I’m beginning to appreciate the subtleties of perennials, which don’t need to be replanted every year, but bloom for shorter periods and require some planning on my part.

Stage 3: Going for the green

I notice that blooms aren’t the be all and end all. Foliage and texture enhance my garden, too.

Stage 4: Gardening by design

I realize that for all the perennials and widely textured greens, my garden lacks cohesion. I need to create a solid framework with a well-conceived plan.

Stage 5: Barking up the right trees

I’m starting to understand that trees and shrubs provide an architecture that’s essential to my well-planned garden.

Stage 6: The winter of our content

I no longer dread winter. I’m learning to love the starkness of the trees, the grey moodiness.
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Inside design: Liz Primeau