Art in the garden: letting go at Brillig Manor

jabberwocky bird brillig house

The Jabberwocky bird at the entrance to Brillig Manor could pass for an unusual piece of modern sculpture, but in fact it’s a hint of what’s to come.

I know this is easier said than done, but I think we should let ourselves go a bit in our gardens. We’d have more fun, we might release more tensions, and we’d end up with more memorable gardens, like the one at Brillig House.

I appreciate as much as the next person beautifully tended borders and well-designed pathways, but the gardens I remember years after scouting them for Canadian Gardening magazine and its eponymous TV show are the ones where the gardeners strayed from the rules and let their instincts take over. I was especially intrigued  with those that were  unique to the point of being wacky.

For instance, there was the woman in Halifax who employed a porcelain toilet as a planter; with ivy flowing over the sides it had a surprisingly classic look. A Winnipeg gardener copiously painted old milk cans and washtubs with colourful flowers and moved them around the beds to fill empty spaces when the real flowers faded. Then there was the Berkeley, California, gardener who set cobalt blue bottles over the ends of the limbs of a mature tree in her backyard. It fairly glowed in the afternoon sunlight.

“What kind of tree is that?” I asked before it registered that they were real bottles. “It’s a blue bottle tree,” she replied, deadpan, then explained that it’s an old tradition–the bottles trap evil spirits who are attracted by the lovely colour and can’t get out.

Which brings me to my point, and another California gardener–Darlene Graeser, whose phantasmagorical garden I visited on the Westlake Village Garden Club Annual Garden Tour in California in early May. Darlene’s garden is called Brillig Manor because it’s inspired by Lewis Carrol’s nonsense poem “Jabberwocky” in Alice Through the Looking Glass, which begins “Twas bryllig, and ye slithy toves/ did gyre and gymble in ye wabe…”

Actually, it’s not only Darlene’s garden—her husband, John, handles the plants ( the garden smelled hypnotically of lavender and rosemary on that warm sunny day) and Darlene does the garden decor. In their other lives, he’s a dentist and she’s a clinical psychologist. What do you make of that?

Darlene has a third life, too–as an artist. And the interior of  her house is a fantastical as her garden. We couldn’t stop ourselves from peeking in the windows. Check out her website to see all her work, which includes jewellery, too.

But words can’t do this garden justice, so here are some photos of the garden at Brillig Manor. I hope they inspire you to let yourself go in your garden.

brillig front 1 The entrance garden is deceivingly  simple, with gravel mulch punctuated by low grasses,  and a footbridge over a stream bed. Then you wonder about the huge mosaic-tiled balls, and notice that that the stream bed isn’t water at all–it’s also made of colourful tiles.

The  agave  looked a little odd, too.  I wanted to straighten it up.

 The front door is classically lovely, with etched glass doors and a tiled entrance pad.  What’s different is the ribbon of limestone that runs right across the front of the house. front door Discreet yet stylish, we thought. Then we rounded the corner to the covered patio at the side of the house.  WOW! patio This is where the window peeking began–that’s me at upper left.There was so much to take in I almost overlooked the painted sofa. painted sofaSomeone told me Darlene had John lie on the sofa so she could draw his outline, then she sat at the other end so her silhouette could be drawn. Then she painted the figures on the fabric. After that we–my son Joe was with me, as well as my husband, Chris, who took the pictures–we wandered and gawked.  And did more window peeking. window peeking bum and gravel garden tools

We saw some unusual plantings ….






And  the colourful area where some garden tools were stored.






There were lots of comfy places to sit in the garden…one was made out of an old bathtub

sofa….and many pieces of statuary to look at .
statuary 2           dog statuary           







statuaryy 1

And of course there’s a pool–this is California, isn’t it?

This pool is different, however–it has a beach edge, which beckoned me to walk in and cool my feet. I resisted…Guess I’m not quite as unhibited as Darlene.


I’ll never forget the Graesers’ garden, but the Westlake Village Garden tour had five very different spreads to view, including a huge one done Provencal style, and a smallish suburban one that featured California native and Mediterranean plants.

If you’d like to take a tour and feel inspired, go to my Photo Gallery page.