Artists and gardens seem to have a natural affinity for one another. For centuries the garden has been a rich source of inspiration for artists. Some, such as Vincent Van Gogh and Georgia O'Keeffe, were content just to use fruits and flowers as subject matter, while others, such as Claude Monet, were almost as passionate about gardening as they were about painting. For these artists, the garden was a living canvas, the plants and flowers their palette. In the picturesque seaside town of Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia, three artists, each with a passion for gardening, have created horticultural masterpieces of their own.
Beds brimming with riotous colour greet you as you enter Carol and John Whitcombe's backyard garden. A hodgepodge of annuals, perennials, herbs and vege-tables borders a deep stream that cuts across the middle of the yard. Roses-climbing ('Viking Queen'), rambling ('Minnehaha'), floribunda ('Arthur Bell', 'Sea Pearl' and 'Lilli Marleen'), Austin English ('Lilian Austin') and grandiflora ('Queen Elizabeth')-keep company with cannas, poppies, hostas ('Fortunei', 'Fortunei Hyacinthina', 'Francee' and 'Wide Brim') delphiniums, phlox, bellflowers (Campanula carpatica ‘Blue Clips') and campion (Lychnis chalcedonica) in the lush beds. An attractive arrangement of boulders, surrounded by heath and heather, lines stairs curving down into the garden, and a small footbridge leads across the stream to the back of the 25-by-43-metre property. Here, a variety of shrubs and fruit trees surround a large vegetable garden.
Carol and John moved to Mahone Bay from Winnipeg via New Mexico seven years ago. When they first bought the attractive little house on Main Street, the backyard was completely nondescript. A few weeks after the couple moved in, a torrential downpour caused the banks to crumble into the stream, so new rock retaining walls were built. To soften the effect of the walls, Carol and John built beds along the banks, planting roses, creeping phlox and creeping Jenny to cascade over the rocks.
From there, the garden just evolved, although not quite the way Carol would have liked it to. She prefers a restricted colour palette, similar to those used in her luminous watercolour paintings of lilies, roses, tulips, rhododendrons, poppies and peonies. "I would pick two or three colours at most to use in a certain area," she says. Her ideal is an all-white or all-blue garden with just a dash of yellow or soft orange for contrast. "My way of gardening is to plan everything out, work out the colours and heights of plants," she says. John, on the other hand, has a less methodical approach. "He'll plant one of these here and one of those there, while I like to group everything so you've got a big mass of one colour." However, since John, a retired marketing director, does most of the work in the garden these days, Carol is happy to let him make most of the design choices. Although, if you look carefully, you'll find one or two beds dominated by whites and blues among the colourful profusion.
Carol views the garden as an almost sacred place, one that inspires creativity. She'd love to be able to paint in the garden, but her realistic style requires a certain amount of control over the watercolours, something for which sun and wind have no regard. Instead, she sketches and photographs among the beds before beginning a painting. The time spent in the garden "just nourishes my soul," she says, "so I'm ready to sit down and paint."