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(Peter DeMarco for the Boston Globe)

Montreal gardens say things

Email|Print| Text size + By Peter DeMarco
Globe Correspondent / September 3, 2006

MONTREAL -- Two scantily clad lovers recline happily in a garden of zinnias, purple loosestrife, and sweet alyssum , unaware of the Peeping Toms in trench coats spying on them through the trees.

A scandal in the making? Hardly. The lovers and their voyeurs are mannequins, and the garden they inhabit is just one of the creative and frequently provocative exhibits in Montreal's new outdoor garden show, International Flora.

A garden show with a sense of humor? That sums up Flora, an exhibition that is as irreverent as Boston's New England Spring Flower Show is traditional.

Organizers took 49 backyard-size plots encircling a scenic waterway in Montreal's Old Port and let artists, landscape architects, and horticulturalists run with their ideas. In one garden, willow trees rock back and forth on giant mechanical see saws. In another, visitors bounce on blob-like green chairs as if riding enormous frogs.

Some gardens feature optical illusions. One has a fun-house mirror. Others have horizontal waterfalls, rooftop flower beds, sun-powered kaleidoscopes , and, of course, mannequins.

``I know when I travel I always try to have a peek in people's backyards," said Malaka Ackaoui, whose landscape architecture firm designed the ``I Spy" garden. ``We thought that the idea of spying was a fun idea to have in the garden."

Raquel Penalosa, International Flora's artistic director, asked participating designers to create spaces akin in size to city gardens, about 200 square yards. She offered general themes for them to follow -- the pleasures of outdoor living, the paucity of urban green space, the struggle to create sustainable development -- but her main guideline was simply to be different.

``We're trying to change what people expect when they see gardens," Penalosa said of the exhibition.

My companion and I knew none of this when we stumbled upon International Flora while biking through the city a month after it s June 16 opening. Truth be told, I had to be persuaded to go inside .

It turned out to be the best $13 I spent in the city. We lingered for three hours, admiring the innovativeness and beauty of the gardens, all the while making mental notes of dozens of ideas to try out some day in our very own avant-garde backyard ( though maybe not the mannequins ).

With its bronze statues, triumvirate of fountains, and lounge-chair reflection pool, the first garden on the tour, ``Solamente una vida " or ``an outdoor room," had all the richness of California's mountainside Getty Villa Museum.

Nearby, we happened upon delightfully quirky Garden No. 18, the ``Blue Stick Garden ," composed entirely of wooden sticks arranged in tight rows like stalks in a cornfield. Painted blue on one side and orange on the other -- the colors of blue poppies -- the garden's color magically changes before your eyes as you turn the corner.

``It's the notion that there's climatic change at work in the garden," said Claude Cormier, a Harvard-trained landscape architect whose firm created the garden for an exhibition three years ago. ``As you move into the garden you think it's blue. At the end, the whole thing is changing on you," like a blossoming flower.

Our favorite, though, was Garden No. 37, ``Between Earth and Sky." At first glance, the display looks so simple: about 50 orange, yellow, red, and pink Plexiglas disks balanced atop tall steel rods, each one like a plate on a stick. Then the sun peeks out from behind a cloud, sending rays through the discs that cast colored polka dots on the white stone underfoot.

``The garden changes depending on what time of the day it is," said creator Juliette Patterson, another Harvard alum. ``You can actually track the forces that affect the garden: water, sun, wind."

Patterson's garden cost about $40,000 to build, but she maintains that the basic elements would be relatively inexpensive for anyone wanting to try their own version at home. The Plexiglas disks cost about $20 apiece; the steel rods were $30 each at Home Depot; the crushed gravel was a few hundred dollars.

``Ideas are out there in the world," she said. ``You putting them together is the part that's creative. But it's not necessary that you have to be a designer to do it."

Penalosa echoed that sentiment. This exhibition -- and similar ones, such as London's Chelsea Flower Show -- is a lot like a fashion show, she said. Some designers offer slight twists on conventional themes, others completely reinvent concepts. You take from it what you like.

And if you really like what you see in Montreal, you'll probably be able to buy it. International Flora runs through Oct. 9, when the gardens are expected to be auctioned off. A whole new slate of exhibits is planned for next June, when Flora returns for its sophomore summer.

Contact Peter DeMarco, a freelance writer in Somerville, at demarco@globe.com.

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