An Artist’s Garden

Musician/composer Maribeth Solomon makes a garden.

Maribeth Solomon?s Plants for an urban courtyard

Maribeth Solomon composes music, plays multiple instruments, draws and paints watercolours. And, maybe, it takes a professional (musician, composer) to recognize the right moment in which to call in a professional to help design a garden. The yard was a hopeless mess?filled with brick, railroad ties, a pond and an octagonal plastic swimming pool as well as being swamped with overgrown roses, daylilies, weeds and detritus from a major renovation.

When she and her partner Robert Schwartz (lawyer) bought their 1905 mid-Toronto house in xxxx, they decided against what they saw as the prevalent style of the day?the English cottage garden. ?We wanted something modern, clean, unusual but not jarring.? Maribeth says ?Filled with a wide variety of sophisticated, informal plants.?

It was important to have elements that would flow from the old part of the house into the new and then outside.? ?I wanted to sit at my piano in the living room? she says ?and look all the way outside and rest my eye on something stimulating and beautiful. Robert wanted to be able to see a seasonal vista and relax in the relative privacy in our own space.?

So they consulted with Lance Kaprelian, the architect of their renovation. They asked him to sort out what was needed to enhance the addition he?d created with the all-important transition into a garden, and design new outbuildings as well. ?We looked at lots of very regular and formally structured hard modern gardens but I wanted something undulating and Lance kept using the word ?diaphanous?.?

Everything was removed except for one corner containing a flowering crab, a corkscrew hazel and a Japanese maple as well as a mound of old bricks from the back of the house. ?We had a wonderful time considering materials that would bring the outdoors inside such as a wall of grey limestone (Pietra Serena Stone) that juts from indoors outside. It?s perpendicular to the exterior wall but serves as a partial space divider inside and the pleasure I derive from looking at this thing can’t be overstated.? Her objections to it originally are still a minor embarrassment. ?What a Philistine!?

Like many wonderful compositions, this garden was a collaborative affair. Kaprelian brought in Landscape Architect, Haig Seferian to design the hardscaping (including the brilliant stone work) and to help with plant placement. Kaprelian designed a garden shed and two fountains, one fabricated of aluminum and slate close to the house masking the sound of the air conditioner;? and the other at one end of a pergola. And both experts would probably say that Maribeth was instrumental in the overall design.

Among the many fascinations of this urban courtyard garden is the clever placing of the stepping-stone walks, providing a thoughtful little stroll with many different visual moments. And though the size of the garden is 50 feet by 50 feet, each element is so perfectly in scale with the others that it seems at least three times larger than that. And the details:? every one is sensitive and gorgeous. A light can stop you in your tracks or a door or a fountain.

For instance, in one corner the pergola with a wall of water at one end provides a seating area seemingly isolated from the rest of the garden. The slatted structure glitters with light and shade playing on the water. This waterfall was inspired by Martha Swope?s Cumberland Street Garden in the middle of the city. But they wanted something lighter airier and ended up with plastic- covered wire with the water streaming down one wall through a circulating pump. It is simple and cunning, and almost ethereal in its effect.

The shed in the opposite (west) corner is also in keeping with the contemporary style of the garden. It suggests a meditation hut, a sauna, a practice room or a playhouse, depending on whether the viewer is a Buddhist, a sensualist, a musician or a little kid. It is, in reality, an efficient garden shed with a floor constructed of the old bricks saved from the house.

It is plants that make a garden and Maribeth has capitalized on every available square inch to achieve a wide range of colours, shapes and form with a superb very personal collection. ?No cheddar cheese here.? she says to indicate her absorption with unusual trees and perennials.

She needed to provide screening from neighbours and found weeping beeches did the trick. But her choices are made by not only by what colour she is adding or what function the plant has to have, there is also the dictate of her own quirky imagination. For instance one favourite combination is a dwarf weeping cherry with a humongous ornamental grass, Miscanthus giganteus ?which forms a sort of Diane Arbus vignette with the tree too small and the grass too tall.? The whole garden is full of references like this for her.

While I was interviewing her, a magnificent tree peony opened fro bud to full flower before our eyes as though to complete the magic of a moment sitting by the whispering of the fountain. When an artist does a garden, the garden appears to respond intensely. And this one has constant vigilance not just to what is happening but what it means, and how to keep its perfect scale. Though it has a polished look to it, it?s not finished. You can feel her itching to move things, to add, to subtract, to make it more?diaphanous.

Maribeth spends a lot of time now doing exquisite watercolours, something which came from gardening rather than her music. ?The garden gave me more of a visual approach to things.? she says, ?It opened me up. The colours come from garden. I don?t have to be good, I don?t have to be anything.? Of course she?s just as good at watercolours as she is at gardening. And this collaborative team has created a garden that can only be described as a piece of modern sculpture.

Maribeth Solomon?s Plants for an urban courtyard

  • Acer palmatum ?Sangokaku? the coralbark maple with crimson bark and chartreuse leaves outlined in red satisfy my Crayola-loving inner colour wheel.
  • Betula nigra, River birch I love this atmospheric tree and it doesn’t die a sad birch downtown death.
  • Fagus sylvatica purpurea I like the stunted twisted beech which will get very tall and be a great screen on one side.
  • Corylus contorta: I like my dead corkscrew hazel and my new living one too.
  • Aristolochia elegans (or macrophylla) is my favourite vine.? I love it for its foliage and 3D nature.
  • Thuja filiformis dwarf threadleaf
  • Cotinus coggygria ?Royal Purple? because I love them in Mount Pleasant Cemetery.
  • Her underplanting includes:? hellebores, Ajuga reptans ?Chocolate chip?? Euphorbia, sage, salvia, goatsbeard, cranesbill and a particularly nice Chinese tree peony.
  • Vines include honeysuckle, clematis and climbing hydrangea.