Garden artist Virginia Johnson’s path is quite simple and beautiful

I think everyone’s favorite place in summer is in a garden.

I like my garden to look lush and full, not perfect and always well tended. The climbing hydrangea on my pergola is beautiful right now; it starts blooming with white flowers and gets really thick. A lot of people might think it needs pruning, but I let it all overgrow a bit because I just love how it looks. I just love green, green, green everywhere. I love people in this environment, furniture in this environment.

I go out in the morning with my cup of coffee and look around, see how things are going, put water in the pots. What I love about gardening: You really look at what’s in front of you. You think of nothing else. “Oh, two new peonies came out today.” “These are looking emaciated so I’m going to cut off the tops of them.” “We got our first rose this morning!” And then tomorrow we have five.

In the summer I let things slide a bit and it’s nice to just enjoy it.

I’m a very easygoing gardener. I’ve spent the last few years planting perennials so I can have a garden that will develop on its own. I might have to weed two or three times in the summer, but I don’t go in there every day, or even every week, to weed with a to-do list. I don’t want it to become a burden like other things in my life.

I’m first at the Fiesta Gardens garden center on April 1st every year and during April and May I’m so eager to plant some new things and really get into it. My energy drops in the summer, I want shade, I don’t want to do a lot of gardening. I let things flow a bit, and it’s nice to just enjoy it. We might go away for a few weeks in August and I’ll come back and take care of it in September.

Virginia Johnson’s painting of her pergola from her book, Creating a Garden Retreat: An Artist’s Guide to Planting an Outdoor Sanctuary (Artisan)

It doesn’t have to be complicated. So I’m very picky about what I plant. My brain can’t handle taking care of a million tricky things, so I have a few different types of things and I grow them in bulk. I have two types of roses, climbing and annabelle hydrangeas, and two or three types of peonies. I love old fashioned flowers, things that remind me of gardens from 100 years ago. I have mainly one species of tree, a Frans Fontaine hornbeam by 12, plus four lilac trees, so I don’t have to think, “This one needs pruning right after flowering, but this one doesn’t.” I want things that prune can whenever they look like they need to be circumcised. I also gave up the lawn idea. Flowers are much easier to care for than a lawn.

I still consider myself very much an amateur. But I know so much more than when I started. Ten years ago I bought and planted a magnolia tree and it died about a year later. I couldn’t understand why. I never knew you had to water things, especially a tree. So I started asking more questions and getting acquainted with the question, is this an annual or a perennial? This is often not stated on plant labels. I think that you can achieve great success by simply asking, “Okay, how do I plant this?” at the gardening store, getting a few simple instructions, and following them. Suddenly my little 1.20 m tall hornbeams are 4.50 m high and so beautiful.

I still have areas in the garden that are pretty bare and that stimulates my imagination, it’s a project to work on. Will I plant some trees, will I plant vines? You’re constantly trying to create something beautiful, and that feels very satisfying.

Cultivating beauty is what guides me in designing this space. I narrowed down my favorite flowers, googled images of them and created a mood board.

Anemone, pear blossom and rose in Johnson’s beloved apricot palette. Painting: Virginia Johnson (Craftswoman)

Color and shape are what I’m looking for. Whenever I decide on a flower I buy three to five of them to plant together so there is some substance. I don’t want red, orange, yellow, purple, green and blue – I don’t want every single color. I love tone-on-tone, blush or apricot and white, but I’ve found that while I love pictures of white gardens, it’s far too reserved for me. I need more color than that. So I have medium pink and deep fuchsia peonies. And then hollyhocks in a deeper shade. At the moment I have planted a bouquet of light apricot roses but they look too white so I need to add some more color. I always build it up with color, just like painting.

My favorite gardens are personal. Having a landscaper design a garden for you sure can be beautiful, and sometimes that’s the way to go when you have no idea how to start. But I think it’s nice when a garden is as personal as interiors. My grandparents had Annabelle hydrangeas and I remember my grandmother just loved the name Annabelle for a girl. Mine reminds me of her. Or a friend came by yesterday and brought me a fern cutting from her mother’s garden. It’s so special to share something that didn’t cost money, it’s just a growing thing. It’s such a lovely gesture.

I think small gardens are the most beautiful. I’d rather not have a big garden because you feel exposed. I want to feel like I’m in a little hidden secret garden. I have a friend whose front yard is tiny tiny tiny and she’s had everything overgrown and deleted lights and some nice vintage chairs and it’s just magical.

A dreamy dinner in the garden. Painting: Virginia Johnson (Craftswoman)

I love rusty old things, anything with history. As for the furniture, we have a modern Ikea arrangement, but everything else is old or gotten from a friend’s garden when they downsized. I have some lovely old rust colored planters that are really heavy. I took it from Kijiji from a guy whose father owned an antique shop. I also found a wrought iron patio table and eight chairs from a woman who was moving into a condo. They’re black, which I love because they kind of retreat into the garden. We placed three chairs on the front porch and the rest on the back, as well as an ornate Victorian white wrought iron chair that came from an auction site. So we always have a lot of chairs when friends come over – I feel like they’re little invitations to sit down.

I love staying at the boutique Palihouse hotel in Santa Monica – the gardens have small clusters of tables and strategically placed plants so you’re close to other people but you’re alone. It’s my favorite thing in the world, this feeling that you can go out and be by yourself for 20 minutes, read or have a coffee, but then my kids can go out with friends in the back corner and we can be in different areas. There is room for everyone.

My friends always love it when I invite them out to the garden for coffee. I’m not a big chef which always puts me off entertaining indoors because I feel like I can’t offer people what I should. Whereas you can actually only drink coffee outside or I bake banana bread. If the house is a disaster, it doesn’t matter. I find the entertainment bar is lower, and you don’t have to have everything perfect.

You just throw down a tablecloth and dust off the cushions. I like to make things pretty and colourful. So I have a couple of Indian block print tablecloths that I bought from various places and it makes everything stand out immediately. I don’t use plastic plates; We bring out china plates and it’s fine, nothing breaks. I place small pots of herbs from the garden on the table, or cut a few roses and scatter them around to create a very low key landscape. I pick some mint or rosemary to add to cocktails or lemonade.

There is no more beautiful place.

– as Rani Sheen was told

Shop Virginia’s garden supplies

Creating a Garden Retreat: An Artist’s Guide to Planting an Outdoor Conservation Area by Virginia Johnson (Artisan), $32, Indigo

I hope that if like me you don’t know where to start or are wondering if you should hire an expert, you will find that designing a garden offers endless flexibility and can be anything you want it to be .

Womanswork Rose Gloves, $69, leevalley.com. Photo: Lee Valley

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These are great because when you’re dealing with roses, the thorns don’t scratch your arms. Lee Valley calls them “Rose Gloves,” which I love, while the brand calls them “Gauntlet Gloves.”

Felco Shears, $86, amazon.ca. Photo: Felco

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I once hired a gardening crew to help me with the weeds and five young women showed up. I noticed they were all wearing holsters with Felco pruning shears. I envied them for just knowing what to do. I was convinced that the secateurs played a crucial role.

Volcom hat, $24, sportinglife.ca. Photo: Sporty life

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All my clothes became garden clothes. Vintage army pants, t-shirts, straw hats.

Panacea Watering Can, $25, Canadian Tire. Photo: Canadian tire

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I like a watering can with a vintage look.

Virginia Johnson tunic, $295, virginiajohnson.com. Photo: Virginia Johnson

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I wear tunics of my own design in the garden as well as those I’ve bought on my travels. My husband will say, “Do you care if there’s dirt/paint/cracks in there? But not me. It gives life to the garment.

Lee Valley Set of 3 Gardening Tools, $109, leevalley.com. Photo: Lee Valley

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How can we hope to get better if we don’t have the right tools?

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