Sunday Opinion: Bel’occhio

My first exposure to Thomas Hobbs and his partner Brent Beattie was an article in the July-August 2003 issue of Gardens Illustrated.  The article featured their extraordinary nursery, Southlands, located in Vancouver.  One shockingly beautiful, full page black and white photograph of their century old English glasshouse full of tropical plants-I have never forgotten this photograph by Arthur Meehan.  I subsequently read every word of the essay, and remembered.  The 1.5 acre nursery seemed beautifully laid out, and stocked with an astonishing range of beautifully grown plants, and great looking pots and urns of every description.  I do think Gardens Illustrated is the finest garden magazine in print on the planet-I have every issue, and I reread them regularly.  Their interest in Southlands-better than well deserved.  I aspired to the Hobbs/Beattie eye for beauty many years ago; I am happy to report that Southlands is still there, thriving.

Rob usually takes a holiday in the winter; just a few weeks ago he went to British Columbia.  He made his first personal visit to Southlands. He tells me the nursery was packed with people-people who are passionate about gardens, and people who need beauty to live.  Though the Gardens Illustrated article was published 8 years ago, his photographs confirm that their committment to their place has not waned one bit.  How I envied him his visit.

Rob brought me a copy of Thomas Hobbs’ book, The Jewel Box Garden, not knowing I had bought a copy the year it came out in 2004.  My library could easily stand 2 copies of this book-it is that good.  Over the past few days, I have reread the book, given Rob’s visit.  This reading is different than the first.  The first time around, I was captivated by his use of tropical plants in pots.  Phormiums, agaves, bananas-his gestures were bold.  How he used plants made his point of view eminently clear.  Make every square inch of your garden beautiful-why not?    I admire any designer who has great confidence in their eye.  The confidence to construct a coherent world-down to the last preposition of their language.  Such is the sensibility that characterizes Thomas Hobbs.

This reading, I was struck by how well he writes.  I was also much more tuned into his writing about bel’occio. Bel’occio is an Italian word which literally translates as “beautiful eye”.  He makes no bones about the importance of an eye, a life that demands beauty.  “Not everyone recieved the bel’occio gene.  Those of us who did are the lucky ones”.  I have been thinking about this for a few days.  There are plenty of things I see in the landscape that are not beautiful.  I have no plans to create a forum to address that-I keep those thoughts to myself.  I am not a critic, I am a landscape and garden designer. 

 Sometimes I see things that in my opinion are outrageously ugly-but I try to resist putting my camera or my words to that.  Routinely I see popular ideas about the environment bandied about- without any demonstrably firm foundation in science.  Everyone is entitled to their opinion-I have no need to wade into that.  My idea for my life-create something beautiful. Talk about, illustrate, engender, participate in, felicitate, stand up for the beauty that a love of nature can endow.  My camera, my words, my design-these pursuits are fueled by my energy.  I have some rules about what I put my energy to.  I am interested in the natural beauty of nature, and in creating beautiful places, beautiful gardens, beautiful landscapes-beautiful moments.  My energy is governed by the demands of my bel’occio gene.  I think this is a good use of my life.

No one gardens because it is easy and fun.  No one plants and cares for a landscape because they have nothing else to do. No one puts their hands in the dirt without passion.  Growing plants from seed, growing vegetables to eat, planting pots or perennial gardens, designing and planting landscapes, -all of this is a natural result of the bel’occhio gene. Many thanks, Thomas Hobbs, for explaining this so eloquently.

At A Glance: Almost Ready For Spring

New Faces

 What’s new-we are on the verge of a change of seasons.  Is that new?  No, not really.  The change of the seasons, the full moon, the length of the days, the natural changing of the guard – not new, cyclical. My crocus are poking out of the ground right now like they do every year at this time.  It is their time to emerge, no matter the weather.  It could be a good year, or a wash for the crocus. Right now, I am watching a blizzard bury those buds out the window; I hope they survive the insult.  The forecast for tonight-a shudderingly chilly 11 degrees.  However there’s plenty going on inside that is new. Though I have had this Italian terra cotta frog for 15 years, he looks new, having had a much needed soak and scrub down.  

Though I can appreciate abstract sculpture in the landscape, figures and faces appeal to me more. Putti, cherubs and angels have a long history of representation in the garden.  Though I have always thought cherubs and angels had a religious connotation, the putti are usually mischievious and romantic figures. This antique limestone sculpture of putti is charmingly typical. The embrace is all the more charming for a garland of flowers.   Putti were a very popular subject matter in Italian art, especially during the Renaissance and Baroque periods.  Garden sculpture in the Italian style can be found in many western European countries.  My collection of terra cotta pots-classical Italian in style and make. This sculpture greatly predates the cast limestone works of contemporary ornament makers, such as Haddenstone, or Chilstone, who produce their version of these kissing putti.  

Should kissing putti not be your idea of a great subject for a garden sculpture, we have the companion piece.  These putti appear to be having a serious disagreement about something.  With representational sculpture, there is a story being told-a narrative.  The one is so enraged with the other, he is tugging at his own face.  One cannot help but smile at the level of frustration depicted here.  Both of these sculptures have been reproduced many times by different companies. The age of these sculptures imparts a patina to the surface which is as important as the subject matter.      

The face on this antique English garden sculpture is quietly and typically English in character.  The young boy is holding a rabbit.  Not seen in this picture-he is wearing nothing but a cape!  I am sure there is a story here; the English garden antiques dealer from whom he came called him “Rabbit Boy”; no other information was forthcoming.  His expression is serene; he will be easy to place in a special spot in a garden. 

This carved concrete dog is old enough to have acquired a great patina.  The dog has that stoic serious look that I love so much about my corgi Howard.  There are those dogs that have jobs, and take their job to heart like this retriever-and then there are clown dogs like my Milo.   

More than likely, this is an antique architectural casting that might have been a medallion on a wall or pillar.  I am guessing here.  The origin of this cherubic face-I have no idea. Lots of garden and architectural ornament was produced with no stamp or identifying marks.  We can often date an iron piece based on the level of corrosion, the composition or appearance of the paint, or lichens growing on the surface.  Some blackened limestone pieces can be dated to the Industrial Revolution.  But often the story needs to come from the imagination.  

 This vertical spouting lead fountain of a boy holding a fish is easier to trace.  Made by H. Crowther Ltd. in London, it is after the original by Verrochio, sculpted between 1435 and 1488.  The orginal is still on display at the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy.  It is another example of a figurative representation so popular with gardeners it is still made to the present day.   

A local sculptor is in the process of hand carving his third pack of hounds for me.  A steel and concrete core is finished with a hand carved mortar layer.  This hound barking up a tree is a perfect garden ornament, as it clearly interacts with the landscape.  The sculpture is very contemporary and pared down interpretation of the spirit of a hound.  

A bust is a sculpture representing the head, shoulders and upper chest of a person.  This particular carved stone bust is English.  Who is portrayed here, I have no idea.  A bust can be a powerful focal point in a garden, especially if set at eye level.  Making eye contact is one of those complicated things that living creatures do.  Any of these sculptures new to the shop, I would place in the garden at eye level, so the conversation could begin.

Susanne’s Roses


My post earlier today featured the best that there is going on outside here-that best is not so great.  It is still winter where I live.   So I went back into that stack of old pictures and projects looking for something a little less chilly and off-putting.  This landscape and garden I worked on intensively between 1986 and 1994.  A client with a beautiful house on a small piece of land-I cannot remember how we met.  But I do remember that she decided that a garden, and a great garden at that, was just what she wanted.  Though she was always clear about what she liked, she had not so much knowledge.  I not only designed and planted for her-I taught.  She wanted to know everything I knew about wildflowers, perennials, meadows-and most of all, roses.  I had a history with roses, fostered by Al Goldner.  A highly regarded landscape designer with a degree in floriculture-he put up with a young employee (that would be me) who insisted to him in 1985 that tea roses were overbred, disease prone, and marginally hardy prima donnas.  He had the confidence to allow me to order roses of my own choosing for Goldner-Walsh.  I knew he was giving me just enough rope to hang myself.

I placed an order for roses with Hortico in Canada.  I bought antique roses. Climbers.  Rugosas.  Species roses.  And a line of English roses-the David Austin roses. Everything and anything that was not a tea rose.  I vividly remember the day I pulled a company pickup truck full of bareroot roses up to the Canadian/American customs booth-of course they pulled me over.  Who knew I needed a phytosanitary certificate?  I spent hours on a bench next to a man in handcuffs-it was terrifying.  Eventually they let me go.  This was some years before Wayside Gardens began offering David Austin roses.  I potted up just short of a thousand roses, and brought them on.  I learned plenty about them, just taking care of them.  Though I was by no means a rosarian, I had a client who wanted any and all of them.  Susanne.    

There are those people you meet.  In the course of business.  In the neighborhood.  In the grocery check out line.  They encourage you to be better than you ever thought you could be.  This perfectly describes Susanne.  She lit a fire under me the likes of which happens only rarely.  Some days I would come to plant, armed with hellebore species I had stood on my head to obtain-and she would still be in bed.  I would march right upstairs (I had the run of the house by then) and roust her out.  Years later, her front porch was dwarfed by mature David Austin roses-Mary Rose to the left here, and Heritage, on the right. 

Her rear yard had about 15 feet of flat ground, before the earth dropped precipitously to the Rouge River.  That 15 feet of space-stuffed with roses.  They were lush.  She was lush.  My gardening life had an operatic quality to it, thanks to her.  Her entire property smelled of roses.  We grew roses with perennials.  We grew roses with asparagus, and grasses. We grew roses wherever we could. The we part was important there-the two of us gardened as if we only had 10 minutes to live.

Every walkway, every staircase-redolent with the blossoms, the smell, and the habit of roses.  Not one of them was a tea rose.  I could go over the names and the classifications, but that is not my idea here.  Though we also planted no end of unusual perennials, wildflowers, grasses, trees, espaliers and shrubs, the organizing metaphor of this landscape-for the love of the rose.    

The driveway garden-a mix of Rosa Rugosa Scabrosa, rosa glauca (formerly rosa rubrifolia) miscanthus gracillimus, and artemesia.  Petals on the drive-how I loved this. 

It has been so long ago that I designed and planted this garden, I cannot perfectly recall specific varieties from these old 35mm pictures.  But I do know my knowledge of roses burgeoned.  Susanne wanted to know everything she could about them-from me.  We both learned.

Her architect in Chicago built this rose arbor for her-I planted it.  This picture does little justice to that day some years later when I took this photograph.  Her passion-that’s what I see here.  I forget everything routinely-but I remember this day as if it were yesterday.   

Her home sat on a very small piece of level ground.  The back yard dropped off precipitously to the Rouge River.  I gardened this entire steep slope-species and wild roses, grasses.  Perennials.  Weeds.  The anchoring trees-yellow woods-Cledrastis. This garden on a steep slope about did me in-but it was wildly beautiful.  

All over that slope-Rosa Complicata. How lucky I was to have met Susanne.  This garden changed my my life.