The artist as gardener: “I look at my garden as if I were painting it”
When Virginia Johnson and her husband Louis Trochatos were property-hunting a little over a decade ago, she saw a garden as just an appendage to a house. Her husband felt the same way.
“None of us were gardeners,” says the fashion designer and artist.
The outdoor area that belonged to her Toronto home was only 7 meters wide and 24 meters long and uninspiring: “a nothing,” according to Johnson.
The small garden was typical of her Little Portugal neighborhood, which is on the west side of the city and is made up of narrow Victorian houses where outdoor space is in high demand. “It wasn’t fenced in, with grass spilling over into the neighbors on each side,” she says of the space at the back. “The front was an ugly evergreen tree.”
A decade later, the square is a lovingly tended oasis with shrubs, flowers and more than 20 trees. The transformation is the subject of Creating a Garden Retreat: An Artist’s Guide to Planting an Outdoor Retreat documenting the shift in Johnson’s attitude and telling the story of how she created her urban oasis.
“The artist in me shaped my garden in its tones, shapes and balance. I’ve always been interested in flowers for my textile designs, but not for gardening,” she says. In her book she writes that she “always looks at my garden as if I were painting it”.
She approaches plants like her textile design by first putting together a mood board and then figuring out which colors go together. “My life and work are based on color,” she writes.
“I look at it from my studio and then from home to make sure the plants have a nice balance.” She evaluates its overall composition and within it its different shapes, colors, textures and heights, but in an asymmetrical way. “I don’t want a perfect garden,” she says. “It’s just not me.”
While Johnson says there was “not one moment” when she became a gardener, she dates the transformation to the birth of her children Ben, now 12, and Georgia, 10.
“When you have children you are more tied to the house, whereas before I never had time to sit in a garden.”
Johnson has had quite a journey in her relationship with gardening. For years, she says, she owned a garden when she was single, but rarely set foot in it. Left to its own devices, a friend called it “God’s Garden”.
She knew even less than she cared. During her visits to London, Johnson assumed that the carefully designed flower beds and borders were accidental.
“I had no idea anything that was planted was intentional,” she recalls. “I thought that’s how it grew. I walked through your parks and gardens like Eaton Square and assumed all these plants were there naturally.”
Conserving her energies for her work as an artist and fashion designer, Johnson created and illustrated for clients such as Prada, Anthropologie, Liberty London and Kate Spade.
“I never did gardening because I was too busy working and then running my business. And I just wasn’t interested.”
The demands of a toddler and a baby began the transformation. Johnson fenced off the back garden to keep them safe and created a sandpit and tiny lawn. She cut off the evergreens at the front and was surprised to find how awful the bed still looked, and hired a landscaper to create a supposedly low-maintenance space. “It looks beautiful now, with hydrangeas, small pear trees, pachysandra and daffodils. However, it is very high maintenance,” she says.
The back looked all the more somber in contrast to the revised front, and Johnson began thinking about how to make it less bleak. She realized that the garden gave her more room for creativity than the house, which is a compromise between her and Trochatos’ differing views on architecture and furnishings.
“Louis likes modern things,” says Johnson. “He hates nooks and crannies, sees no point in bay windows and doesn’t like the used furniture I always bring home. At one point I thought we’d never agree on where to live because this street is full of Victorian houses that he hates.”
The couple were fortunate to have a 1920s two-story box for sale that suited Trochatos’ tastes. “It’s a compromise,” she says. “I’ll never have the big, sprawling house that I really want, so the garden became so important to me. It’s 100 percent my domain.”
It was, says Johnson, 49, a gradual process. The kids had their sandpit, so in 2013 she erected a pergola for “somewhere civilized” where the adults could sit. As she nested underneath, she realized she needed more privacy from the neighbors. That prompted her to purchase four lilac trees from Home Depot, the hardware store.
“At the time, I didn’t know that there was a difference between trees and shrubs,” she recalls. “I didn’t know anything about lilacs either. I just bought them because I liked them.”
The challenges piled up. After planting the lilac trees, Johnson realized she needed a screen for the other side. She took inspiration from the landscaper who redesigned the facade, but didn’t like her suggestions for a modern back garden — or the price tag.
Not enjoying the prospect of enduring gardening programs or sifting through books for design ideas, Johnson decided to take a step-by-step approach.
“I’ve always been a guy who stands on the back of a napkin. When I started my fashion design company, I didn’t have a business plan. I built it up bit by bit, doing illustrations on the side, until I could afford to pay myself wages.”
Whenever she saw a plant she liked, Johnson recalled doing her research first.
“I didn’t want to spend a lot of money until I knew about the plants,” she says. “And back then it still seemed to me that gardening should be free. Why should I spend money on my garden?”
Reading magazines, blogs and case studies of long, narrow city gardens convinced her that she needed to invest some money in the project. “I didn’t take offense when I realized I had to plant my own plants,” says Johnson. “I like to spend money, really too much.”
It was two more years before she decided to buy a set of hornbeams for the screening.
At this point, Johnson was looking for a combination of beauty and privacy. She bought a climbing hydrangea for the pergola to remind her of childhood vacations at her grandparents’ home near Toronto.
“It was a beautiful country garden and I realize my idea of a garden as a peaceful place dates back to that time,” says Johnson.
It was a learning process. In the early days, Johnson killed a magnolia tree because she was too shy to ask how to water the tree when buying it.
“I’ve found that garden stores aren’t good at posting labels on how to care for plants,” she says. “Yet so many people have to be hobby growers when they visit gardening stores, not knowing the difference between perennials and annuals, or whether they should bring plants indoors for the winter.”
Such setbacks have been overcome. After initially making slow progress, the designer has made much bigger strides in redesigning the space over the past three years. As her children grew older, the sandpit was removed and she built a work studio at the end of the garden. It unleashed a flood of plants including peonies, hollyhocks, roses, hydrangeas, pachysandra and daffodils. Hydrangea now completely covers the pergola and trees include juniper, hornbeam, magnolia and yew.
The garden is her urban oasis, she says. “It became my dream to create a beautiful garden. A magical, private space full of plants where I can sit with my family and friends or just have a coffee and read by myself.”
Lockdown stressed how important the garden has become to the family, although she says Trochatos, Ben and Georgia were less than enthusiastic gardeners than she would have liked. “I was hoping they would come out with their shovels a little bit more.”
The work goes on. Despite the wide range of plants, it remains less crowded
than she likes. She considers whether she should remedy the shortage by planting more juniper.
She has also concluded that planting a row of apple trees with their branches directed towards trellises was a mistake. “I’ll give them away. You just aren’t me. I find them too prudish and too labor intensive.”
She hopes the story of her garden will inspire others. “It’s not intimidating and creating a garden is accessible to anyone,” she says. “It wasn’t about creating the perfect garden; it’s about a voyage of discovery.”
She feels like she still has “decades” of learning ahead of her, she says. “It’s very exciting for me.”
In the short term, a more urgent task awaits. “My mother gave me a found envelope of hollyhock seeds that my grandfather saved in 1976,” she says. “I don’t know if they will grow after all this time. But I will definitely try them.”
Creating A Garden Retreat: An Artist’s Guide to Plant an Outdoor Sanctuary, by Virginia Johnson (Artisan, £18.99)