Mono resident shares his experience in garden design

April 29, 2021   ·   0 Comments

By Peter Richardson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Picture a log cabin, recently completely renovated, inside and out. Then picture a tall bearded gentleman who would look completely at home in a Paris cafe and you would see Tony Spencer.

The first time I met him at his home in Mono, Ontario, even though it was early Spring and the growing season was barely starting, Tony’s magnificent gardens were evident.

He is a planting designer and his gardens are his pallet. However, they are not your conventional gardens by any means. Tony follows the design dictates of Dutchman Piet Oudolf, with his own intuitive touches thrown in and the results are breathtaking.

But before I get too far ahead of myself, let’s take a look at Tony’s early life. Born in Toronto, of British parents, Tony was a “lifer” at upper Canada College. He started there at age six and continued right through to his graduation from Grade 13.

From there, he went to Magill University in Montreal, to study English literature, but left after one year to, to move to Northern California, on his own. Tony relates this era to his Bohemian period and he landed in Santa Cruz, where he found a community of new age thinkers, alternate lifestyles, street people and eccentrics.

Throughout his teenage years and twenties, Tony played guitar which initially was what drew him to California. Jimi Hendrix, the Monterey Jazz festival and the whole California scene was the perfect catalyst for a young poet and guitarist. It was by his own account a transformational scene. With this new awareness of self and the world around him, Tony returned to Magill with a new found appreciation for learning.

Following his BA in English, Tony left Montreal and embarked on a journey of exploration, playing music and writing poetry, across Canada until finally landing back in Toronto, playing in bars on Queen Street. His musical tastes ranged from Hendrix and Beck, to world music and jazz and eventually he formed a power trio named Viewfinder, bass, percussion and guitar and played bars and clubs in and around Toronto. As time progressed however, gardening began to take over from music and Tony moved into his current interest in that.

All through his teenage years, he had helped his mother work on the small garden at their cottage in the Kawarthas and he had worked as a landscaper for a Toronto company, but it was his mother’s medical diagnosis of macular degeneration that really pushed him into garden design.

He wanted to create something for his mother to look at, while she still could, at the cottage. It was during this, that he was turned on to Piet Oudolf by a friend at a nursery.

Tony had never even thought of garden design and it really caught his imagination. He wanted to know how he could interpret Piet’s deigns into a cottage garden and so began his journey into plant and garden design.

With no colleges or schools where he could go to earn this modality of planting design, it became a matter of working it all out for himself. For almost ten years, he was able to experiment and do by trial and error, make mistakes and celebrate successes, see how his gardens evolved.

Tony’s designs are influenced by a plethora of elements. Coming down a walkway to the courtyard at the back of his home, there is a Larch tree that is growing out at an angle.

This is intentionally being trained that way. Eventually the branches will fall to the ground and obscure the structure of the tree. Tony explains that it is to replicate nature. Trees do not always grow straight and this is an intended tribute to that.

Things are always as you intend them in his designs, so a straight tree must be straight and likewise a bent one is intended to be bent.

Likewise, the hardscape is designed to compliment the plantings. Surrounding the tree, are a series of stones, holding back the earth and around these are mosses taken from his wetlands. Meanwhile on the outer edge the boundaries are defined by rusted steel edging, which matches the fire pit in the courtyard.

It is all by design. Some of the signs are very minimalistic, but others are more expansive, presenting a use of busy colour and plantings.

One of the gardens, by the pond, is a very wild and complex presentation of plants, it is composed, but wild at the same time.

The designs surrounding the property, range from tumultuous riots of complexity to an almost Zen approach to the fire pit and courtyard. Tony likens it to a breathing space sort of approach, where the more minimalist plantings tend to allow the viewer to take a breath before venturing on to another, more complex area.

The concept is attributed again to Piet Oudolf, expressing a need for a quite space before venturing into an explosion of colour and vibrance .

Today, Tony has reached a point where he is comfortable offering his design expertise to others, either through landscape designers, who could do the build or directly for existing gardens. In addition, Tony has recently been doing a series of internet and Zoom talks for organizations, such as the Ontario Association of Landscape Architects.

The Zoom conversations centre around the frontiers of planting design, in Europe and South America and other places, to inspire them and make them aware of the possibilities.

Tony also hop es so take his knowledge out on the road and give people a chance to get engaged themselves.

Meanwhile, Tony is still active with his writing. His company, Body English services various ad agencies and design firms, digital agencies and direct clients.

Then, he is slowly transitioning to the design work through his blog, the New Perennialist, he is organizing webinars to present designers from other countries to Canada and he is working on a book project.

Tony works very close with his wife Troy, also a writer with and advertising background. They exchange ideas and bounce them off each other or otherwise collaborate.

Sitting in the courtyard chatting with Tony, the sounds of the home surround you. There are numerous songbirds singing their notes and the two geese on the pond periodically sound their raucous calls as they fly off to wherever they are headed before returning once gain to the surface of the pond, amid the turtles and the ducks.

There is log bunkie next to the pond, where presently, Troy is writing and just above us, the northern sand garden is beginning to bloom and come to life, while the pond garden is already sporting the first daffodils and grasses. It is not at all hard to picture yourself enveloped in Tony and Troy’s dream world, as it evolves through the seasons and the passage of time.

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