Thursday, June 12, 2014

A maker of gardens: Bernard Jackson

Tribute to Bernard Jackson at Memorial University Botanical Garden in St. John's, Newfoundland
 Although he's been my hero for ages, when I looked at this picture I realized I didn't have a clue what Bernard Jackson even looked like: this picture of the man in Newfoundland gave me a clue that he was dapper, and very English. What a treat it was to see his gardens, first in Newfoundland, and later in Truro.

The fine print...
 When Bernard  first came to St. John's in Newfoundland: his job was definitely was NOT to create a botanical garden let alone a monumental rock garden. But he did both during his tenure at the University. Although I've known of his accomplishments for years, it was only in the last few weeks that I finally saw both gardens and met the man himself. I had no idea they would be of such enormous scope and excellent design--or full of so many treasures. Alas, I only had a few stolen moments in the midst of a conference where he was speaking to visit with Bernard himself--enough to make me yearn for a real chat at greater length. I am enormously curious to know what inspired him, and how he went about creating these two spectacular gardens.I'd like to know how he selected such inspired professionals  to follow in his footsteps at both institutions.

More than just a rock garden
 Although alpines are obviously Bernard's passion (the rock gardens at both sites take up a lion's share of the space), there are other artful gardens at both sites--beginning with exquisite herb gardens! The very tardy spring (we had hard frosts two nights during my visit at the end of May in St. John's) had delayed the planting of annuals: this is a climate for alpines, my dear!

Twinflower emblem
 A bronze label in Newfoundland with the name of the garden. Although I did not hear the words "Oxenpond" come out of many mouths in St.John's (they've obviously experienced "rebranding", like some botanical garden near and dear to my heart.) They just call it "The Garden"...or Memorial University Garden. I think I prefer the quirky but very specific Oxenpond! Oh well...

Todd Boland and the crevice garden
As if building monumental gardens and creating botanical gardens weren't enough, Bernard is an amazing teacher. At both St. Johns and Oxenpond he has inspired successors like Todd who is not only an inspired gardener and teacher as well, but a hybridizer of rhododendrons, an author of several spectacular books and an indefatigable bird watcher who's amassing an enormous life list (and stunning photographs) of birds on trips all over the world. And Todd is a great host to boot! And as this picture proves, he's quite agile. The crevice garden, incidentally, is "post-Bernard"--Jackson may have created these gardens, but they've taken on a dynamic life of their own as he's moved on: the real mark of a master.

Alpine house at entrance of rock garden
The delightful alpine house at Oxenpond--you can see the edges of the rock garden at both ends: I was so transfixed walking through that I took far too few pictures, and they didn't do it justice: I have a few more from Truro, however: you'll have to take it on trust that these two gardens are two of the finest rock gardens in the world--not only in their artful construction, but the choice of rare plants, the siting and their powerful impact on the regional community. The world at large should be beating a path to check both of them out!

Bernard Jackson

The man himself: he is positively wrapped in British charm. Meeting him one quickly realizes just how and why Brittania rules the waves to this day: by sheer charisma and savvy.

Entrance to the rock garden
Everything about both of Bernard's gardens is exquisite: the rock choices (there are an abundance and variety of materials that are melded with such grace). What a grand, yet rustic entrance to a garden!

Trough garden
Real troughs! This one a gift to the garden from Jeff Morton in honor of his father-in-law. Jeff (see picture below) is a Professor, and one of the champions on staff at Truro who was likewise an exceptional host during our visit:he attended to our every whim and made us feel utterly at home.

Jeff, alongside a few of the enormous rhododendrons in the gardens surrounding the rock garden
Alas, this is not the place to delve into the saga of rhododendrons in Nova Scotia--a subject that deserves a book. But suffice it to say, Truro is apparently zone 4--one of the coldest spots in the province. Jeff and a few of his colleagues have an enormous vision for a botanic garden which I believe would elevate and honor this Agricultural College that is now merged with the prestigious Dalhousie University: any serious gardener would be enchanted by the place!
A corner of the entrance garden
I realize I am horribly prejudiced, but a well executed alpine garden seems to combine all the best traits of Oriental gardens with the color and panache of cottage gardening. Truro is as good as it gets, my friends. Better beat a path there soon!

Trough with Eriogonum ovalifolium in the entrance garden
I was astonished by the range and excellence of plantings at this relatively young garden. Dozens of spectacular dwarf conifers and unusual shrubs, and all the right subjects for seasonal color (Phlox, Dianthus, gentians, primulas--you name it). But like all great rock gardens, there are many rarities and challenging plants as well--like this trough chockablock full of lusty buckwheats--they've been growing them for ages here, and have obviously found a moisture tolerant strain: we need to get the seed of this strain out to more places!

Entrance to the woodland path
And there is an extensive woodland garden--the Meconopsis just starting to pop and lots of dwarf Ericaceae and treasures. You must simply go there, as I said!

 I'm not sure what was at the site originally in Truro--and my very few pictures here hardly begin to show the variety of sites, vistas and views throughout. The rock word is bold and yet effective. Great rock gardens like this, the Botanics at Edinburgh or Munich's Nymphenburg are really designed to be walked through: pictures never do them justice.
Another glimpse
Each glimpse is a whole new canvas, with its own assortment of plants. I love the distinctive rock work and lovely reddish stone throughout this garden--which so beautifully complements the fifty shades of green and gray of the foliage plants (hmmm. that should get you thinking...).

More glimpses
Like all great rock gardens, you are constantly torn between the enchanting vistas in the distance, and the compelling plants at your feet!

Yet another tribute
Even in the few minutes of our visit, I realized that there are few people as modest as Bernard: I can only begin to imagine how moved and honored he must have been to have received such signal honors at both gardens that he spearheaded. He of course richly deserves these honors, and much more. I hope this posting might pique your curiosity about him and his work if you've not met him: he's one of the giants of my art. I've spent a small part of my lifetime planting rock gardens built and designed by others, but Bernard has created and planted two masterpieces of the art and much much more!

And another herb garden
I end to say that Bernard's work was not "merely" rock gardening, but botanic gardening: and even more importantly, galvanizing and forging a dynamic community of some of the most enthusiastic and knowledgeable gardeners in our continent. I cannot begin to express my delight and inspiration that I have gotten from my (hopefully first--but not last) visit to the Bernard Jackson designed gardens of the Maritimes!


  1. I went to a technical meeting in St. Johns, Newfoundland (!) and really wish I had known about these gardens. There was some time for sightseeing, but I probably could have made time for these gardens. (But then I wouldn't have had time to visit the music shop and buy a "useless plastic object" with music from Danette Eddy, a St. John's fiddler.)

  2. Beautifully designed gardens with learning experiences for anyone, rock gardener or no. (But rock gardeners in particular would benefit from seeing the gardens.) Even just seeing the pictures gives all sorts of new ideas.

  3. Thank you for the wonderful tribute to Bernard Jackson. He is indeed an inspiration. We are so lucky that he chose Atlantic Canada as his second home.

    Duff and Donna Evers


Featured Post

A garden near lake Tekapo

The crevice garden of Michael Midgley Just a few years old, this crevice garden was designed and built by Michael Midgley, a delightful ...

Blog Archive