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La Dolce Vita

On the hunt for a home in 2002, Lynn Raitt took a step inside her Casa Loma-area house, saw straight through to the back garden and fell in love.

“I definitely bought this house for the garden and knew when I bought it would be my forever house,” says Raitt, who runs her own company, Lynn Raitt Home and Garden Design ( ). “When you have that determination, everything you do makes it your oasis. You aren’t saying you love something but want to save it for the next house. You do it now.”

Although Raitt’s previous home didn’t have the same pull on her, it did bite her with the gardening bug. “I spent most of my adult life living in apartments,” she explains. “And when I bought that first house there was a neglected patch of earth about five-by-20 feet, and being a designer I wanted it to look beautiful. I started reading about different plants and what goes where … what will it look like in three years or 10 years. It was a real challenge but sparked my passion.”

Walking into this house, she knew exactly what she wanted to do in the garden. “I even saw the finished product in my head,” Raitt says.

She didn’t have the money to do it all right away, so put down some paving stones to create the garden’s outline and started building structure in the flower beds — with woody shrubs and evergreens — and filled in with perennials. “This garden even looks fantastic in the winter; if a garden doesn’t look beautiful in winter, it’s not much of a garden.”

Visually, it borrows heavily from Italy, a country Raitt is passionate about. Her first visit as a student at Croydon College of Art in London in the earl ’70s. “The Italians are so animated, they walk everywhere, they take their meals slowly and together. They love to cook, the food is fabulous and fresh, they buy local and they buy every day.”

“I must have been Italian in a past life although you wouldn’t know it from the hundreds of lessons I’ve taken and still can’t speak the language but I do have an affinity for the country, the food … the people and how attached they are to the land. In the countryside, everyone is still a farmer, because even if you have a small patch of land, they’re using it, planting lemon or olive trees.”

Inside her home, Raitt aims to recreate the Italian aesthetic of life revolving around food, family and friends. Her kitchen is a “cook’s kitchen. I love to cook, and I love to see the look on friends’ faces when something tastes amazing. And there’s a little theatre there, too — stone walls behind the stove that lend some European antiquity, beams on the ceiling like what you’d see in a Tuscan farmhouse. Concrete terrazzo countertops.”

On the patio, a big wooden dining table seats 10 and a small round table seats another four. It’s not unusual for her to host dinner parties out there for 14 — as late as November if the weather holds up. An amiable melange of mismatched wooden chairs, large terracotta or metal planters, rusted iron containers spilling out ferns, lattice screens hung with clay sculptures contribute to the European al fresco feel.

For sure, the minute Raitt comes in the front door, she feels like she’s in a “different place, not in Toronto. I’ve created my own little world here (with) the romance of Europe.”

That other place where you can get away — the creation of a world of your own — is what Raitt believes each of us craves. But how it’s manifested changes with each person. “Mostly, though, there is a cosiness and warmth that you get with an oasis, whether it is texture or colour. It’s a place for you to pursue your passions, where you can be yourself, a place that allows you to be you.”

For Raitt, an oasis isn’t just for looking at, it’s for being in. And her garden is no exception: “After digging in the dirt every day, and interacting with all creatures great and small — including two feral cats who loved my garden and came to love me, too, because of it — I have learned about the extraordinary planet we are blessed to inhabit.

“I have loved every minute of the 14 years it’s taken to get to this place, my shelter, my oasis, my sense of self.”

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