SUMAC GARDEN _ Small Urban Natures, Winnipeg

Our era of screens heightens the importance of physical spaces and activities where we can re-establish contact with ‘nature’. As the coronavirus lockdowns shutter public spaces, gardens hold open the possibility of immersing our bodies in the physical world. The unpretentious Sumac Garden reflects that ‘cultiver son jardin’ is possible or even desirable at a time of global pandemic.

The idea of Sumac Garden is an empathetic response to a specific contextual situation. A house in Winnipeg had been renovated for a family of six. After the work on the house was done, it was the garden’s turn. The key actors in this garden are the plants. Their multilayered compositions set the stage for diverse atmospheres and microclimates triggering associations to nature and paradise.

The branches of mature trees on the lot and neighbouring properties had formed an expansive canopy over the area. But a large elm tree infected with Dutch elm disease had to be felled, and this created a clearing bathed in light. We used a simple trick to structure the space and allow it to develop its own rhythm. Sumacs love the sunlight. Irregular hedges of smooth sumac were planted along the lines of light. These green figures gather like strange creatures around the house. The hedges provide privacy and take us on a journey through the four seasons of the Manitoba landscape. They define and separate all the functional areas without creating barriers or boundaries. It is a fresh interpretation of the ancient art of topiary.

We designed and built this garden together with the family. Grandparents, parents, and grandchildren were all involved. For years, the family stored old paving stones, concrete sleepers, boards and pea gravel on their property. After cleaning, the paving stones were installed at the front entrance. Planting areas for hedges and perennials perforate the hard surface to absorb the surface water. Other areas are covered with a permeable pea gravel surface. All plants seem to grow free and wild in this breathing ground cover.

Chatting to the owners over the summer, they told us how they linger in their garden, how they cultivate the plants, how they drift through the space looking at the flowers and leaves and constantly come across something delightfully new. The garden gives them a sense of security in the midst of uncertainty.


Gardens are ubiquitous phenomena and an archetypal concept of humans trying to coexist with nature. They offer homo sapiens the opportunity to creatively adapt themselves to new worlds, led by the deeply rooted hope to maintain values of culture, ‘feed’ everyday needs, and to create a place called home.

As designers we have to be attentive to the subtle experiential fabric of everyday life, while being modest and frugal. In an era of overexploitation and over-consumption of the globe’s resources we have to adopt new design attitudes. This forces a radical paradigm shift for designers towards a building culture of improvisation, repairing and recycling. The innocent garden remains as an exemplary and powerful medium to promote a socially, ethically and ecologically responsible culture in environmental design practice.

Project location: Manitoba, Canada

Design year: 2012

Year Built: 2012 – 2020




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