A Matter of Words by Patterson Webster

February 9, 2017

in Articles, General Interest

This is an important topic to me. I love words and I love to find words in a garden, as long as it’s not about a garden being a lovesome thing, or something about being nearer God’s heart. So let’s find good ones in gardens more often?

Patterson Webster is a visual artist whose amazing garden, Glen Villa, is located outside Montreal in Quebec’s Eastern Townships.

Anne Wareham, editor
Portrait Anne Wareham copyright Charles Hawes




Patterson Webster:

I live in Quebec, the only place in North America where French is spoken by the majority of the population. But while French is the majority language inside the province, within North America it is a small island floating in an English-language sea. To protect the language, laws in Quebec limit the use of English. Any sign in a public place must be in French. If English is used, the letters must be significantly smaller.

Living in such a linguistically charged environment is a mixed delight, stimulating and challenging. Navigating daily between the two languages, is it any wonder that I am acutely aware of how words are used outdoors?

Copyright Patterson Webster

Words surround us. They appear in the names of streets and stores, on buildings and bus stops, in ads on the sides of buses and in graffiti scrawled on every available surface. They are ubiquitous and the linguistic landscape they produce shapes the way we see and think about the world around us.

Copyright Patterson Webster

So why do words appear so rarely in gardens today?

I’m not thinking here about words that convey straightforward information – directional signs, words on maps, plant labels and so on. No, I’m thinking about words that matter. Words that tell us something about the context of the garden and the intentions behind it. That give us, lucky visitors, an insight into the mind of the one who made it. That spur us to look at our own gardens in different ways.  

Copyright Patterson Webster

Bosco della Ragnaia

Historically, words revealed the character of the garden’s creator. In the Italian Renaissance garden of Bomarzo, for instance, the garden owner bragged about his creation. “You, who have travelled the world in search of great and stupendous marvels, come here, where there are horrendous faces, elephants, lions, ogres and dragons.”

Bomarzo copyright Charles Hawes


At the 17th century Villa Cetinale, the wealthy Cardinal Chigi made it clear that he didn’t care what anyone thought. “Whoever you are who approach, that which may seem horrible to you is pleasing to me. If you like it, stay; if it bores you, go away. It’s all the same to me.”

In 18th century England, garden owners were more discreet but the words they used still tell us something about them and their attitudes towards their social and cultural environment. Quoting Virgil and Pope at Stourhead, Henry Hoare highlighted his education and his position in society.  Lord Cobham at Stowe declared his political colours, linking Englishness with the virtues of Rome in the inscriptions at the Temple of British Worthies. At Rousham, General Dormer eulogized his dog Ringwood, “an otter-hound of extraordinary sagacity.” (It’s hard to know what to make of this memorial: was Dormer a man obsessed with death, as some scholars say, or was he simply an Englishman who loved his dog?)

Copyright Patterson Webster


Sadly, few garden-makers today use words for any purpose. There are notable exceptions. In a Zurich garden designed by Dieter Kienast, the words Et in Arcadia Ego that form a concrete balustrade speak clearly about the relationship of the garden to the Alpine landscape beyond. At Little Sparta, Ian Hamilton Finlay’s garden in Scotland, serious and playful words reveal the artist’s mindset and link the site to other times and places. And those old stand-bys, memorials to well-loved animals, remain popular. One seen in a contemporary garden in New York state has an 18th century ring: “Candy Kid, a tangerine canary, mellifluous and saucy pet.”

The power of words lies not only in what they say but in what they suggest. Fruscio carved on a stone in an Italian garden brings the wind to mind; spoken, it makes the sound of the wind audible, no matter the weather. Picturesque cut into a board leaning into the water makes us question our understanding of the word and look at the landscape with questions in our mind. Look-out painted in red letters gives a warning as well as pointing towards a good place for a view.

Copyright Patterson Webster

Glen Villa

Words connect one idea to another, a place close at hand to another far away. When I name a feature in my garden the Asian Meadow, I link a part of my past, the years I lived in China, with the present day. Words on a bench at Veddw, spelling out versions of the property’s name from the mid 1500s to the mid 1900s, signal the current owners’ recognition that others before them have left their marks on the land.

Veddw Seat copyright Charles Hawes


Words offer evidence of our emotional connection to a particular location or person. A sign identifying part of a stream as Nanna’s Narrows tells me that the garden is used and loved by multiple generations. The single word Austin in a Texas garden displays the owner’s attachment to the place where she lives.

Copyright Patterson Webster

Words also offer a way to make explicit emotional responses to our surroundings. Tree Rings, a sculpture I made to honour an ancient maple tree, shows respect in the three words that sum up the life of the tree: Seed, Shade, Shadow. Webster’s Column, my sculpture celebrating my husband’s 50-year career as a newspaper reporter, columnist and editor, is inscribed with quotations. He selected them, and his choices say as much about his personality as they do about journalism and journalists. (My favourite is Benjamin Disraeli’s quip about journalists: “Today they blacken your character; tomorrow they blacken your boots.”)

Copyright Patterson Webster

Glen Villa

Where a word is located affects how we see its surroundings. Laid flat on the ground, a word directs our vision downward, limiting for a moment our range of view. A word posted at eye level or suspended from the branch of a tree directs our vision outward, establishing a visual dialogue between what lies close by and what lies beyond or above. A word in the distance, barely readable, entices us to go closer.

The material used for a sign affects our response — words in marble convey a different message than the same words printed on plastic. At Broadwoodside, a garden outside Edinburgh, the Biblical warning, The Writing is on the Wall, is cut into terracotta plaster. Inspired by the humour, I reproduced the words at Glen Villa, my garden in Quebec. But instead of being cut into plaster, at Glen Villa they are in bright neon. Snazzy retro versus cool classicism: the impact is different.

Glen Villa

The size of a sign and the letters on it affect our behaviour. In the garden at Glen Villa, a trail leads from an old farm field to a clearing in the woods that serves as a (not terribly accurate) sundial. A dead tree in the centre of the clearing is the gnomon or pointer, and off to one side is a bench with the words In Transit/En Route. Sited along the trail are signs that ask simple questions: Where are you? Are you here? Are you here now? The words, written in a small run-on script in English and French, take an effort to decipher. They force even the fastest walkers to slow down and, perhaps, to consider seriously the question asked.  

Copyright Patterson Webster

Glen Villa

Words can mislead, of course. Knowing I lived in China, most visitors would assume that the China Terrace at Glen Villa is named for the country, while in fact it refers to pieces of broken porcelain I discovered on the site. Deliberately misleading words can be a source of humour. Playing off the idea of mislabelled plants, the tags hanging from eight identical trees in a courtyard at Broadwoodside label each tree with a different name. In the same garden, the Latin inscription on a stone bench turns out not to be Latin at all but a set of words that have to be spoken to make sense. Taking the time to figure out the joke adds to the pleasure of being in the garden. It makes it more fun.

Copyright Patterson Webster


Which brings me to the subject of the language used. At The Laskett, Sir Roy Strong’s garden in Herefordshire, an inscription in Greek appears on the pediment of the Victoria and Albert Museum Temple. Sir Roy describes his garden as autobiographical and his choice of a Greek inscription signals his scholarship. The inscription is not translated, either in the garden or on the garden’s website. If you ‘get’ it, fine; if you don’t … well, the problem is yours. But since most of us who visit The Laskett don’t read Greek, we feel excluded. The connection Strong makes is lost to us. And this seems a pity.

Copyright Patterson Webster

The Laskett

(Edward Gibbon made his choice of language a matter of propriety. “My English text is chaste,” he wrote, “and all licentious passages are left in the decent obscurity of a learnèd language.”)

Even when we can read a sign, we may not understand it. At Little Sparta, Ian Hamilton Finlay’s garden in Scotland, words and the ideas behind them are often obscure. We may be puzzled when faced with an epigram from the French revolutionary St. Just, or a scrawl on a bust of Apollo identifying him as a terrorist, or the single word Claudi inscribed on a bridge. As visitors to the garden we have a choice. We can shrug with indifference at Finlay’s prompt, as the Renaissance Cardinal Chigi did to the reaction of his visitors, or we can stop and think. Why did the artist put those words there? What connections was he making between the garden and the larger world? What threads can we follow now, on the spot, or later, with reflections of our own or with Google’s help?

Little Sparta is a tough garden to understand and it’s easy to feel intimidated by the depth and breadth of Finlay’s allusions. For some, this limits the garden’s appeal. This, I think, partly explains why words that add to the experience of a garden are so rare nowadays. We lack a shared cultural history. When a message is difficult to understand, too often it’s the garden maker who is said to be at fault. When the words are in Latin or Greek, the garden can be dismissed as elitist and the gardener as a snob out of touch with today’s world.

To some, words in a garden may seem redundant. Intrusive even. But garden-making isn’t a thoughtless enterprise. It is done with purpose, to some particular end. Excluding words is ruling out an opportunity.

Walking through the woods at Glen Villa, visitors come to a place where the path divides. At the junction a sign is nailed to a tree trunk painted yellow. Two Roads.

Copyright Patterson Webster

Glen Villa

Some people will recognize the quotation, others will not. Does it matter? Is it important to recognize the source to understand the allusion? Does knowing the source enrich the experience?

I believe it does. But I also believe it isn’t essential. The connections I make when I see the words Two Roads inevitably begin with Robert Frost’s poem. But from there, my thoughts head off in different directions, depending on the day, as I choose one path or the other. The path chosen by the person who doesn’t recognize the quotation may lead to destinations I never imagined.

And that’s a good thing. Words ask us to see the garden through the eyes and minds of many people, not merely through our own. They enlarge the garden’s mental ground, broadening it into a collaborative process that includes rather than excludes.

It’s a matter of words.

Patterson Webster.  website 

Pat Webster portrait

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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

sheppard craige February 21, 2017 at 3:46 pm

If anyone is interested, the Italian word fruscio has the accent on the middle syllable. Thus: “froo-SHE-oh”.



Pat Webster www.siteandinsight.com February 22, 2017 at 6:02 pm

Thank you for the pronunciation guide, Sheppard. I can hear the wind in the trees, and can easily call to mind the view over the sunlit section of Bosco della Ragnaia. A nice remedy to a cold and grey day in Montreal.


Sarah Coles February 15, 2017 at 11:46 am

A brilliant piece, which got me thinking of Montaigne’s room with maxims adorning the rafters (I wanted to do that with our bedroom but my partner vetoed the idea), of certain Thai monastery gardens with plaques in Thai and English saying things like GOOD TO FORGIVE, BEST TO FORGET, of the Peddars Way in Norfolk where every few miles the hurried walker is stopped by an inscribed stone, beautifully carved, which has to be slowly deciphered. I want a stone in my garden with a message I already have on on a mug, I GARDEN THEREFORE I AM.

Yes, please Anne, put all your pieces in a book.


Pat Webster www.siteandinsight.com February 15, 2017 at 3:43 pm

The Peddars Way is new to me but the signs remind me of the Burma Shave old ads that used to line highways in the U.S. One of these days I may do a series of signs along another trail through our woods in imitation of the Burma Shave rhymes… but only if I can find an idea that inspires me. Something about time passing, maybe.

Your mug message reminds me of a quote from Yogi Berra, the great American philosopher: “Love in the most important thing in the world, but baseball is pretty good too.” Only I substitute gardens or gardening for baseball.


Paul Steer February 14, 2017 at 11:20 pm

My little garden on the side of a coal mined hill has 3 words in it – soil, soul, toil. The soil is a mix of the boulder clay left behind by the glacier that carved out the valley and the coal spoil of mining. The soul is the integrity of those who worked this land to fuel the industrial revolution. There once was music here which emanated from this former band room and now the music is in my soul as I sit in this space. The toil speaks of the hard labour to carve the fossilized plant material out of the ground, now I carve living plants into a garden.

I hope this isn’t too didactic.



Pat Webster www.siteandinsight.com February 15, 2017 at 3:39 pm

Not didactic at all, rather quite moving.


James Golden February 12, 2017 at 4:28 pm

I’ve thought about use of words in the garden often and I like Pat’s broad approach illustrating many different ways they have been used. If I did it, I’d want the word or words to spark a pause and, if lucky, insight, but so far have found it too difficult to use words without seeming pedantic or self-consciously didactic. It takes a skillful eye and clear intent to pull this off successfully. And it’s a risk. You may find you’ve diminished the experience of the garden rather than added to it. I’m particularly attracted to Ian Hamilton Finley’s use of words at Little Sparta (a garden I’ve never visited), though even there I sometimes find the vaguer references and the abstruse personal mythology off-putting, if not annoying. Perhaps being there, I would think differently.


Pat Webster www.siteandinsight.com February 14, 2017 at 4:57 pm

James, I agree, it can be difficult to find words that aren’t overly whimsical, mawkish or didactic. It took me many hours of thought to come up with the three words I used on Tree Rings, the sculpture honouring an old maple tree, but when I finally did I felt a real sense of satisfaction. I’m still searching to find words to respond to your recent post on melancholy.


Robyn Haynes February 12, 2017 at 4:14 am

Lovely post! When you come to a fork in the road … take it.


Ben Probert February 11, 2017 at 9:38 am

I always think that the very popular one about being ‘nearer to God in a garden’ is a subtle warning about health and safety, namely that if something goes wrong with your machinery you could be meeting your maker sooner than you think…!


Pat Webster www.siteandinsight.com February 14, 2017 at 4:53 pm

A new interpretation … definitely makes me smile.


Sheppard Craige February 10, 2017 at 4:54 pm

Let me explain the illustrated quotation from the Bosco della Ragnaia: “What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questionning”.

This remarkable statement was made by Werner Heisenberg, the 20th century german physicist. No doubt it refers to his famous Principle of Indeterminacy. But it can apply as well to us mere gardeners, as we go about doing what we do.

The italian word “fruscio” noted by your reviewer also appears in a grove of The Bosco della Ragnaia. It means the sound of the wind in the trees above.

Sheppard Craige
Bosco della Ragnaia

Sheppard Craige
Bosco della Ragnaia


John Schucker February 11, 2017 at 12:28 am

Yes, a wonderful new word for my Italian vocabulary. I love it’s onomatopoeic qualities. Italian has many such words, like sussurare (to whisper), chiacchierare (to chat). I struggled for months to remember the word for watering the garden or a potted plant (annaffiare) till an Italian friend suggested I look at the onomatopoeic quality lent by the double consonants as illustrating the sound of gently flowing water. I am also glad that through this blog I have been introduced to Il Bosco della Ragnaia. I’ve only glimpsed quickly at the website, but I look forward to spending some time to discover what seems like an extraordinary achievement.


Helen Battersby February 10, 2017 at 3:48 pm

Patterson is always a thoughtful and insightful writer. I have yet to see her Glen Villa, but look forward to doing so – someday soon, I hope.

Words, to me, are inseparable from life. I appreciate their power – whether the beauty of simple letterforms, words taken out of one context and juxtaposed with another, or writing that makes me think. A garden is a human construct. So, to me, there’s no reason why words should not be among the raw materials. I’ve written about this on our blog.


annewareham February 10, 2017 at 3:58 pm
John Schucker February 10, 2017 at 3:10 pm

First off, thank you Anne for yet another thought provoking posting and, of course, to the author who has so carefully considered this topic. There is certainly more than one way to define a garden (as discussed on this blog more than once, I believe), but a garden, by at least one definition, requires the human element, extending as far back as the ancient myth of Adam and Eve in the Judeo-Christian traditions and possibly much further back in time in others which I do not know. And what could be more human than language? In my own rather conservative landscape garden, I struggle to include even the simplest of manmade elements except for a couple of benches and the simplest of sculptural shapes or even pots that provide a justified focal point. A dear cat is buried in my garden beside a large, naturally rectangular boulder which was unearthed during a construction project. Many years ago, a tree service felled a large dying ash tree which struck the boulder, artfully cleaving it in two at an exquisite angle. For me, this became an apt memorial for this cat whose nearly 20 year old, much beloved sister will join him there someday. But a thoughtful and well-meaning friend, understanding deeply the great loss of a dear pet, took it upon himself to give us a naturally polished, round river stone, not more than 6 inches across, inscribed with the words “Virgil, always in our hearts.” This very small tribute, conveying a true sentiment would have easily disappeared among the ferns and leaf litter over time, and yet I felt the need to bury it, just out of sight, beneath an inch of soil. Somehow the addition of words pushed things into the realm of the overly saccharine. I love the English language and, just a couple years ago, I began a love affair (a small obsession, actually) with Italian. I was happy to learn a new Italian onomatopoeic word reading this: fruscio. Yet, as a musician, I appreciate when words are superfluous in conveying imagery or emotion. Even most of the vocal music I listen to is in a foreign language and I very often have just a general idea of the meaning of the words sung. Even in this case, the words are not always essential to me. I suppose, for me, the use of human, verbal language in a garden has associations at two extremes: one is that of grandiosity as found in public places and monuments and the other is of mawkishness as in Anne’s reference to “lovesome.” I think words will remain hidden in my own garden, but I can appreciate in others the use of this added layer of expression and this article has helped to open my mind to the many possibilities.


Pat Webster www.siteandinsight.com February 14, 2017 at 4:52 pm

A thoughtful (in both senses of the word) response, John. I’m glad to know that the piece opened your mind to possibilities. I agree, saccharine words are to be avoided like the plague.


Charles Hawes February 10, 2017 at 11:52 am

This is such a good piece. And prompts me yet again to think that we really must find a way to get a collection of thinkingardens articles into print.
It seems to me that we might start with the garden maker. If words, writing, poetry are important to the maker then it seems natural that they may wish to bring them into their garden. But it is not the norm to do do, and most of us are conservative in our behaviour, so we don’t. Also, we are tied to a very conservative idea of what a garden is – a place for plants. Hopefully places such as Little Sparta, IL Bosco Della ragnia, and, clearly, Pat’s garden can offer a liberation from our rigidities. Perhaps it is when we share our gardens with the public at large that we need to offer the visitor some support if are words are difficult to interpret. But you can have too many words! For me, Little Sparta overwhelmed, as did East Euston where there is simply too much garden. And please let’s not strew our gardens with plant labels. Unless you aspire to be a botanic garden or have an exceptional collection.


Pat Webster www.siteandinsight.com February 14, 2017 at 4:48 pm

Charles, I really like the idea of a collection of articles from Thinking Gardens. A best-seller, for sure.


Marianne Ahrne February 10, 2017 at 11:01 am

I have been toying with the idea of erecting a runestone or use the surface of an existing flat stone in my garden to connect it to the many local runestones, the nearest one two streets away. But I’m not handy with a chisel so I’d would have to have it made by a stone cutter and it would be too expensive. I thought of copying a stone at Sigtuna that was commissioned by a viking who was still alive. Most stones were memorials to dead relatives. But few visitors would be able to understand the text so I would have to provide a translation and make the whole idea too pretentious.


annewareham February 10, 2017 at 11:09 am

You can paint on to stone.


Angela Barton February 10, 2017 at 10:53 am

Some lovely photographs and I wouldn’t mind the odd word, beautifully crafted, in my garden. Perhaps words like ‘flowerbed,’ ‘writing room,’ (I painted this on a large piece of slate I found on a beach) or ‘herbs.’ But like Mike, I prefer a garden of flowers, grass and seating areas.


Pat Webster www.siteandinsight.com February 14, 2017 at 4:47 pm

Angela, I think you can have a garden that combines flowers, grass, seating areas and words. They don’t rule out each other.


Mike February 10, 2017 at 10:12 am

Oh no, keep language out of the garden – it already dominates everyday life. The garden for me is a haven of tranquillity away from the tyranny of language. Vita Sackville-West spent much of her life pursuing her ambition to become a poet (in print) when all the time her garden at Sissinghurst Castle was a poetic experience without any need to recourse to language.


Katherine Crouch February 9, 2017 at 1:31 pm

thought provoking. I shall now go into my tatty little garden and see what words I could display that would not be obscure, pretentious or twee…..so far I can think only of Little Sparta and nailing ‘Siegfried’ on my washing line. I cannot resist a pun.


Pat Webster www.siteandinsight.com February 14, 2017 at 4:45 pm

Puns are good. I’ve tried the Siegfried line on several people who didn’t get it. Then I start humming.


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