A Purposeful Garden
Misha Dubbeld’s gracious Mono garden is a testament to 20 years of love and labour. With all that she’s learned, her latest project is conceived on a grand scale.
When Misha Dubbeld first visited the Mono farm she would go on to purchase in 1995, she spent about two minutes in the red brick farmhouse and headed back out to walk the property. It was the open spaces that were the main allure to the budding gardener back then – and have kept her enthralled ever since.
“I’m so tied to this particular piece of land,” she says.
From spring to early fall, Misha spends a good chunk of her waking hours outdoors, up to her elbows in dirt, the bushes she’s pruning and, yes, the compost she’s spreading. For someone who hated gardening for her mother as a child, Misha has embraced it as her life’s passion.
If, as American gardener and author Sydney Eddison is credited with writing, gardens are a form of autobiography, Misha, now 60, has been laying down a fascinating personal record of the last 20 years. As she embarks on a radically different garden design in an empty field north of the house, Misha is busily adding new chapters every season.
Her first incarnation, however, was as an overwhelmed neophyte, an apprentice of the garden itself. Unlike her Toronto garden which was always in shade, this one was dominated by swaths of full sunshine.
The place began as a weekend property for her, her husband and their 12-year-old daughter, so it was a busy time. (“I heard somewhere that if you didn’t introduce a kid to the country before 13, they would never like the country. I think it worked, but not for the first few years!” she says.)
There was a fairly new perennial garden there already, one which she watched bloom that first summer. And there were a number of grace notes already well established, including an espaliered pear tree, which hosted a robin’s nest when it was photographed for this story last spring.
“It took me a few years to learn the garden,” she says.
One element that was well established was a collection of massive outdoor sculptures, which came with the farm and which she incorporated into her designs, moving them when necessary.
Such whimsical, yet sturdy sculptures as those by New York artist Ilan Averbuch added design heft from the beginning. Three of his enormous iron, wood and lead pomegranates, for instance, punctuate a meadow north of the driveway to the west of the farmhouse.
While Misha reveres them as art and age-old symbols of fertility, she also loves telling the story of a local strawberry farmer who mistook them for berries and offered a few hundred dollars for them, “so he could put them up at the gate to his ‘you pick’ operation.”
It wasn’t until five or six years after she bought the farm that she found herself really ready to make some “major moves,” as she calls them.
“I was maintaining and adding, and, yes, I was keen,” she says. “Then the problem is things start to get overgrown and you divide them. And you think, Where can I put this? Where can I put that?”
Misha had reached the limits of the existing gardens just as she was gaining a head of steam. This is a turning point many gardeners may recognize – a form of manifest destiny sets in. What to take over next?
“Things start to look too repetitive, too much the same, and a mumble-jumble. And you think, Oh, I’d better make a plan,” she says.
Misha eyed her lawns and gardens, revisiting what she’d learned studying landscape design in her 30s: Start with trees, shrubs, hedges and other architectural plantings.
“You have to address the bones first. You can’t just say this is a pretty plant and plump it here. You need to think about the structure first,” she says.
She installed a formal row of crabapple trees parallel to her laneway on its north side, with a long, uninterrupted carpet of pale pink geraniums tucked around their trunks.
The move so pleased her, Misha decided to repeat it three years later with two more rows on another patch of lawn on the south side of the driveway, east of the house. “A very unimaginative person I am – but the first row was so successful.”
What’s more, these rows of crabapples fit her fondness for the idea of a farm – the three rows of crabapples are her orchard.
At the same time, Misha transplanted rafts of white and pink peonies from her Toronto garden – which “contrary to most people’s thoughts, are very easy to transplant.”
She planted them in waves or “rivers,” as some gardeners call them. Misha also likes to think of them as a sentence. “Usually there’s a period at the end of the sentence and the sentence is made up of one other thing. Or a few different things saying something similar. Maybe a purple flower repeated five times and another shade repeated five times.”
Echinacea, hardy geraniums, daylilies, irises, obedient plants, Centaurea, delphiniums and poppies have all been planted en masse here over the years.
“That’s a strategy for a big garden. It’s also a personal strategy. I don’t like seeing one of this and one of that. It looks dinky.”
Likewise, Misha created a north-south hedge of cotoneaster to the west of the house for balance. Like the peonies, the plant material was largely what she already had on hand.
In a garden this size, it helps the budget to grow your own, she says. “Most of my hedges are hedge cotoneaster [Cotoneaster lucidus] because they’re easy to propagate,” she says.
Thankfully, Misha says she enjoys the physical work needed to maintain and expand these gardens. And she has the patience to puzzle out how to layer for texture, colour and blooming season.
“Ultimately, it doesn’t have very much to do with the end product. For me, it’s the making of the gardens that is the great joy.”
Once a mostly weekend warrior, Misha now spends four to five hours a day in the garden, weeding, pruning, planting and plotting new ideas, seven days a week from late May through September. She tackles heavy work, like moving rocks and trees, on her tractor. (She also has the help of a gardener friend four hours a week and a farm helper for fencing, trail mowing and the like. “I couldn’t do it without them,” she acknowledges.)
Despite the hours she puts in, Misha says she’s not a fusser. She won’t coddle a plant that clearly isn’t thriving. And she’s quick to point out that the geraniums under all those crabapples are like “living mulch,” covering up fallen and rotting apples, and keeping the roots of the trees cozy.
After the broad strokes come what Misha calls “the moments,” the eye-catching pairings visitors will notice in her garden, like pale alliums poking through purple smoke bush [Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’] – an idea she is quick to credit to a friend. At their best, these successful combinations and layers can seem like a garden’s way of thanking their creator.
“There’s that moment at the end of the day when you’ve worked really hard and the light is slanting down across everything in a way it doesn’t always do, and you go, ‘Oh, my God.’ You’ve got this glass of wine in your hand and you say, ‘That was a great day’s work. And it looks great.’”
Serendipity does not lurk around every corner, though, as Misha fully admits. There are misfires.
Case in point: She had wanted to enclose a goddess sculpture with more hedge, “because I didn’t love her so much.” But as the spruce growing around her got too tall for the job, Misha says, “I thought it would be cute to have a little garden there. It turned out to be too cute. It was a little self-conscious and twee. As I’ve gotten older I want bigger moves. I don’t want little detail anymore.”
That’s certainly one way of describing Misha’s latest project – carving an expansive new garden into the open field north of the house.
One major structural move, a set of stone steps leading to the field, predated the new garden, but seems to a visitor like a premonition.
Misha is a collector of stone and rock, the kind of woman who will ask her husband for a stone wall as a major birthday gift instead of jewels or other treasures.
She’s been hauling the rocks deposited on the sides of her fields by farmers who cleared the land more than a century ago. “They’re laughing in their graves: Who is this stupid woman?”
Misha had a stonemason lay down some of the rocks as steps on a pathway up a slope in the north field. Over the years the field had been home to a riding ring, but not much else.
The steps looked great, but she was left with two mounds of dirt flanking them. She hastily plunked down some containers of gold juniper, spirea, cotinus and allium. “I turned around and thought, That looks pretty good.”
Still, they “led to nowhere. They led to a fence.”
Now, the steps lead to a burgeoning garden she’s been working on since 2011.
It is anchored by a curving, multilevel stone wall designed to mimic the shape of a plant and its branches if seen from the sky. Although it’s unlikely ever to be viewed from that vantage point, the big concept unifies the free-form design. Out from the wall are early plantings of ornamental grasses, Korean firs, white firs, limber pine, Serbian spruce, sumac, and other hardy picks Misha hopes will endure in this windswept, open space. She’s working with “mostly sand, lousy soil.”
“All gardening is optimism,” she notes. “But this is optimism on a large scale.”
As she throws herself into the task, Misha is trying out the style of one of the landscape designers she admires most: Dutchman Piet Oudolf, known recently for his fluid plantings of grasses and scrubs that usher visitors along the length of the narrow former rail track known as the High Line in New York City.
“It’s like a French cook learning Japanese cooking. It’s a whole new vocabulary of ingredients and techniques,” she says, admitting that once this more experimental garden is finished, it will be hard not to loop back and alter her original work.
Inside the house during a visit this past fall, Misha is invigorated as she shows me pages and pages of Oudolf’s calming and natural, yet grand designs. She also opens up a portfolio of ethereal cross-section sketches she’s made of the varieties of grasses and perennials she is planting. This is her way of studying their heights, root systems and profiles alongside one another. A plant police lineup, if you will.
The big idea: Creating nothing less than a new kind of garden for this climate zone.
Misha figures she has ten good years left as a gardener, and she’s chosen plantings that both grow fast and can thrive without inputs such as compost. She says she will even let this garden go at some point. “Let it naturalize. I’ll work on it as long as I can and then I’ll say, ‘Okay nature, have a good time.’”
She’s installing trees that are three to four feet high right now, hoping that by the time she actually wants to put down her trowel (as impossible as that is to imagine), some will be 20 to 30 feet tall.
“Watching these mature will, I hope, be one of the joys of my old age.”