The Painterly Garden of British Columbia’s Government House

Herbaceous border at Government House, British Columbia. Janna Schreier

Herbaceous border at Government House, British Columbia

I don’t think I’ve ever thought of a garden as ‘painterly’ before. Often words come into my head as I walk around gardens and I later look them up to see if they really are the most appropriate. The definition I found for ‘painterly’ was:

        characterised by qualities of color, stroke, or texture.

Deep, colourful borders at Government House, British Columbia. Janna Schreier

Deep, colourful borders at Government House

Yes, painterly definitely describes how it felt as I wandered through the gardens of Government House in British Columbia.

Entrance to garden at Government House, British Columbia. Janna Schreier

I knew this was going to be a very special garden as soon as I walked through the entrance to the garden at Government House

The garden brought to life all that I had read about the talented Gertrude Jekyll, one of the best known garden designers of the twentieth century. In Judith Tankard’s ‘Gertrude Jekyll and the Country House Garden’, she surmises that Jekyll, an artist herself, was perhaps inspired by JMW Turner’s paintings in selecting the colour schemes for her borders.

Government House, British Columbia. Janna Schreier

Soft, sweeping pathways bring an informal feel to the gardens

And taking in the borders of Government House, I could just imagine an artist, standing back from the garden bed, saying, ‘yes, just a touch of ripe apricot needs to be added just here. It will lift these damson shades tremendously’.

Painterly colours atGovernment House, British Columbia. Janna Schreier

Painterly colours and textures at Government House

The colours were truly tremendous. Possibly the best I have ever seen. I have seen plenty of stunning colour combinations in my time, but none quite so skilled. We all know that hot colours work well as a combination and I’ve seen an amazing example of this in the Cottage Garden at Sissinghurst.

The Cottage Garden, Sissinghurst, with hot colours

Hot colours in the Cottage Garden, Sissinghurst

We know that soft, pastel shades look fantastic together and I’ve seen great examples of this in rural New South Wales. And the white garden is another classic, again the most famous example being at Sissinghurst.

Bright border at Government House, British Columbia. Janna Schreier

Bright colours and strappy leaves give life to this bank at Government House

And it’s true that it’s harder than you first think to get these classic colour schemes to sing. I always think back to the first blue and white border I created and the terrible pinky purply blues that jarred as their first flowers opened.

Naturalistic planting at Government House, Victoria. Janna Schreier

Naturalistic planting in the richly saturated, late afternoon light

But the gardeners at Government House had not just perfectly ‘nailed’ a tried and tested colour scheme. They had invented their own scheme. One that you will not find in any garden design book. One so complex that it’s almost impossible to write down in words. One that can only be developed through the intuition of a true artist. One that can be appreciated by many, but created by only a very select few.

Shady garden at Government House, British Columbia. Janna Schreier

Shady garden at Government House

I dream of having a garden where I can plant it up, see it fill out and then play at adding my ripe apricot behind the damson blue. I’m certainly not a painter (although I do dream of learning), but I like to think my appreciation of colour is relatively developed these days . It’s so rare that I get the opportunity to stand back and paint though. I can ‘paint’ with plants in the nursery, but it’s just not the same. I want to see everything laid out in place, wait for it to intermingle and mature and then stand back and add my finishing touches.

Pinks, silver and burgundies at Government House, British Columbia. Janna Schreier

Pinks, silvers and burgundies at Government House

And whilst the anticipation of a developing garden is so much of the thrill of gardening for me, having moved house (and city) four times in the last decade I’ve never had that long term relationship with a garden. I’m always in the base colours phase of the painting, getting the structural elements in place and defining the overall concept. I only ever get to the tweaking and refining and moving from just ‘beautiful’ to (close to) the ‘perfection’ stage in the occasional client’s garden.

Pastel yellows and mauves at Governmnent House, Victoria. Janna Schreier

Pastel yellows and mauves in the herb garden at Governmnent House

I used to believe that a good garden designer ‘should’ get perfection first time around. But now I see that it takes time. The very best gardens have to evolve. And one day I will get past the ‘need’ to plant every species that will grow in my new climate and garden and focus more on perfection than on experimentation.

Naturalist garden at Government House, British Columbia. Janna Schreier

Naturalist planting at Government House

This garden wasn’t just about highly skilled combinations of colours though. It had a huge mix of styles and of plant types. There were areas where flowers dominated and areas all about foliage; there were formal rose gardens and informal rockeries; there were bog gardens and Mediterranean gardens. There were even Australian Callistemon, or should I say Melaleuca (watch for a name change on its way)?

Melaleuca/Callistemon at Government House, British Columbia. Janna Schreier

Callistemon representing Australia at Government House

But all these plant and garden types worked perfectly together, forming a unified whole, as all great gardens do. The really impressive thing that I found out afterwards, is that these gardens are maintained primarily by volunteers. It would be an extraordinary place to garden–I can quite imagine having plenty of willing volunteers–but what is surprising is that with so many hands, it all comes together so perfectly.

Rose garden at Government House, British Columbia. Janna Schreier

Formal rose garden at Government House

Roses at Government House, British Columbia. Janna Schreier

Such texture to these roses at Government House

I’d love to meet the Head Gardener of Government House. I see him (or her) with a paintbrush in their hand, directing the volunteers with true inspiration, everyone knowing that the guidance would yield nothing short of magical results.

Lobelia tupa at Government House, British Columbia. Janna Schreier

Lobelia tupa, or Chilean Cardinal flower, made a real statement at Government House

In the meantime, I will dream about putting the finishing touches on my own garden one day. It’s quite likely I never will; I always love to experiment and there’s always a new plant to try (whether it really fits or not). But dreaming is so delightful a pastime; often it’s the dreaming and anticipation that is the very best bit of all…

Deer at Government House, British Columbia. Janna Schreier

The only area of the garden that was struggling, had the guilty parties right there. Oh, the two babies were cute, though! I did forgive them their nibbling.

17 thoughts on “The Painterly Garden of British Columbia’s Government House

  1. Catherine says:

    So much of this painterly effect comes, I think, from using plants where the flowers are held well above the foliage, creating dots, vertical dashes or clouds of separate colour. Much more difficult to achieve when you use shrubs – unless they have a very prolific flowering moment, as with the Callistemon/Melaleuca. I must say, that pink, burgundy and silver combination made me say ‘wow’ out loud!

    • jannaschreier says:

      Yes, when I first moved to Sydney I couldn’t understand how the majority of my plants could be smothered in flowers and yet looking into the garden I only saw green. Colour has so much more impact when it is separate (and above) the foliage and, as you say, the intensity and forms can then look just like painting strokes on a canvas. The kangaroo paws I planted earlier this year are doing a pretty good job of providing me with this effect (especially as I have, amazingly, had non-stop flowers since January) but I’m still yearning for more!

  2. Adriana says:

    What another great garden, I love this. Thanks Janna for this insightful post. I always approach my gardens that way too but I thought I was a bit odd, because unlike so many designers, which I am not, I can’t create an instant garden. It takes me about four seasons to get any garden bed ‘right’. I like to put layer over layer and even then I am never totally sure this is the last one. The good part about this approach is that your beds are forever changing and developing – and you can adapt the planting as your mood allows. Problem with this approach is you do need to stay more than four, preferably a lot longer, years to see it in all it’s glory. I was fortunate to spend 12 years in one garden and my heart is still there!

    • jannaschreier says:

      How fantastic that your approach gives you a different look each year and is flexible to those changes in heart that we always have. I guess in effect it’s not dissimilar to what happens in my garden; the difference is that you seem to plan to build it up, layer by layer in this way, whereas mine tends to be the result of a complete lack of discipline! Maybe I need a break from garden planning at the end of the day, when I’m considering my own garden, or maybe that’s just an excuse for my impromptu plant buying! Either way, leaving behind a garden that you have poured love into for 12 years; I can’t even imagine how painful that must be. Gosh.

  3. Louise Dutton says:

    Agreed this is indeed a very special garden. It must be extra special when you are in it! I also said “wow” out loud when I saw the pink, silver and burgundy garden……

    • jannaschreier says:

      I’m so pleased you and Catherine could see how amazing that bed was. It was breathtaking, but I wasn’t sure the photo really captured how stunning it was. Admittedly, walking around, I was saying ‘wow’ out loud around every corner, but that was an especially good bit!

  4. Suzanne Marsh says:

    What magnificant gardens. The silver garden is certainly breathtaking and I can see what Catherine means about the flowers being held above the foliage. No wonder people want to emulate such plantings in their own gardens.
    Like Adriana I tweek my plantings over time, and sometimes end up with quite good garden pictures, but I’m very undisciplined. I love to experiment with new plants, especially WA natives. So many new ones are becoming available now. I’ve gardened on my patch of deep infertile sand for almost 40 years, followed fashings and then discarded the entire lot. My emphasis is now…”is it sustainable?”…and with your input via your blog Janna I think I’m starting to achieve a reasonable outcome. So I also dream of putting the finishing touches to my garden but (lol) know it will never happen. Happy gardening.

    • jannaschreier says:

      How exciting that you are getting lots of new WA natives becoming available. Angus Stewart is doing a lot of breeding on the east coast, but it takes so long for a full robust process and I’m not very patient!
      I’m so with you on the ‘is it sustainable?’, and becoming more and more so. It can’t be ‘right’ to just keep on watering things for their entire lives (again some element of that impatience coming through, I think!). I want plants that want to be in my garden.
      I’m so glad you commented as I wanted to thank you so much for lending and trusting me with your very special book. Isn’t it amazing? I want to write one for Sydney immediately. Will come back with more thoughts (and blog posts!) on it when I’ve finished it, but thank you SO much, Suzanne.

      • Suzanne Marsh says:

        Janna I’m so glad you’re enjoying the book. I wasn’t at all sure it was what you were expecting but it seems it resonates with us both. I hope we get the chance to discuss it some day and I look forward to reading your thoughts on ‘sense of place’ in future posts.

        • jannaschreier says:

          I’m not sure it is at all what I thought it would be but it has opened my eyes to a whole new area. I am writing copious notes! I’d love to (in fact, I think I need to!) discuss it with you when I’ve finished it.

  5. kate@barnhouse says:

    This is an absorbing subject for me, though I’m not an artist or a designer, the use of plants to provide colour, texture and form can be much like painting a canvass. Ideally, I think, the ‘painting’ changes with the seasons to produce different but equally pleasing effects. Personally, I love the desaturated colours of a thoughtfully planted garden in winter just as much as the fanfare of high summer.

    Perhaps, this is where contemporary perennial planting & sustainable design has come so far … I wonder what Gertrude Jekyll would make of the gardens of Piet Ouldolf or others?

    • jannaschreier says:

      You’re quite right, Kate, our painting canvas changes not just over the years as we make tweaks but each and every season (/week?). I also love this dynamic aspect of gardens.
      It’s a really interesting thought about Gertrude Jekyll. Hmmm. I have the feeling that she wouldn’t think all that much to our new perennial gardens. It’s easy to see it as ‘progress’ but I think it’s also about fashion and evolution and that is hard to fast forward. In her time, exotics were probably still more exciting, whereas now, local species and planting styles seem to be holding more and more appeal. But I sense we had to go through that novelty phase to appreciate more naturalistic scenes today. I’d be interested to know what others think on this.

      • Adriana says:

        Gertrude Jekyll’s gardens were innovative for her time (and have stood the test as well) and today our new wave perennial designs are also innovative. I find that although I love the older styles of great designers such as Jekyll, I see more of the ‘painterly’ in the naturalistic, impressionist style of today. If you look at a photo of Piet Oudolph’s gardens it is like looking at a Monet painting – others copy of course and some are definitely as good, others pale comparison. I read recently that Piet Oudolph was becoming disenchanted with the way his designs have become derivative with so many gardeners and designers and that it has become a ‘fashion’. I am paraphrasing here but that was the gist of it. I was a little shocked at first – but when I stop and think about it, I can imagine Monet’s reaction to the new wave of impressionist painters that came in his wake (and rode on his coat tails), but never quite captured his greatness. Great garden designers, and I mean the ones that actually come up will new ideas: whole new waves of design – totally utterly new perspectives, must also feel frustrated when their designs are so constantly emulated that a ‘new wave’ becomes ubiquitous and mundane – ordinary. Thank goodness for these new thinkers though – they keep us mere mortal gardeners intrigued and excited. And I think even though Gertrude Jekyll may not have immediately (perhaps) liked our 21st century naturalistic planting designs – I think she would’ve seen the creative, artistic genius of it. As any great artist would.

        • jannaschreier says:

          It must be frustrating to see ‘bad copies’ of your idea, but equally without copies, your impact is much diluted and it would be even more annoying if others took your idea and were better at it! Yes, you would groan and wonder if everyone really appreciated the true artistic basis of it, but I am sure, deep down, most love the attention. You’ve got to take the bad with the good!

  6. Adriana says:

    Of course! What I was trying to get at was not so much that we shouldn’t copy, but that there a very, very little true ‘genius’ in garden design. The genius is in those that actually ‘think -up’ entirely new ways of creating a garden or landscape and the rest of us can only copy. That is why Jekyll would’ve appreciated Oudolph — she would’ve recognised the ‘new thinking’, she would’ve known that this was a new approach not a copyist.

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