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Credit: Gillian Reece

While some believe the way to achieve a great garden is to pour their life savings into it, Marion Espin offers proof of the wonders that can be created simply from the heart of a truly committed gardener.

On her ordinary Victoria lot, Marion has created a romantic haven brimming with roses, vines and steadfast perennials. No fortune on garden ornaments or exotic plants was spent here, yet this enchanting sanctuary is notable for its whimsical and imaginative touches.


Above: Rosa ‘Compassion’ adorns the wall of the house. When Marion bought the old house in August 1991, the property consisted of much paving, poor grass, a few desiccated roses and one beautiful cedar tree. Today’s lushly planted landscape, complete with distinct garden rooms, is the result of her artistic vision, as well as her enthusiasm for first-rate plants, and ability for making the most of found materials. A winter of thought and planning preceded Marion’s first step toward creating her paradise. Working entirely on her own, she began by pouring concrete for paths and edging for the crushed-rock paths through what was to be the yellow garden and the rondel.

Marion’s eye for design detail shows up in the repeated use of moon-gated arbours leading into the gardens. The first gate opens into a small garden room with a path circling the raised pond. Rosa ‘Autumnalis’ (Rosa ‘Princesse de Nassau’) adorns the second moon gate, leading into the next garden room. “I’m always raving about this rose,” Marion says. “It is floriferous, vigorous and the foliage is a lovely pale green that never gets black spot or mildew or aphids.” In this next garden of soft yellows and touches of blue, the use of colour echoes is particularly evident in the plantings of Sisyrinchium, golden oregano (Origanum vugare ‘Aureum’), Jerusalem sage (Phlomis), yarrow (Achillea ‘Moonlight’), pale-orange red-hot poker (Kniphofia), lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis), lambs’ ears (Stachys byzantina ‘Primrose Heron’) and daylilies (Hemerocallis), all of which complement the house’s soft-yellow exterior. Moving on, paths criss-cross a traditional circle of posts and ropes based on an Edwardian rondel rose-garden design.

Exuberant plantings of old-fashioned favourites – foxgloves (Digitalis grandiflora), lambs’ ears, rose campion (Lychnis coronaria) and penstemons fill the quadrants. This circle theme is continually repeated throughout the garden. To create a “courtyard” garden beside the house, Marion hired a bobcat to remove most of the paving from a previous four-car parking pad and had a drain installed. In the remaining gravel base, she laid a path of used concrete pavers and cobblestone, and positioned pots and more pots of heat-lovers against the house.

A highlight is a handsome terra cotta planter painted a grey patina, framed with a trellis, and topped with a willow arch. All the wood surfaces are stained the soft-grey colour Marion used to unify structures throughout the garden. “You need repetition, as well as contrast, in the garden.”

circular theme, marion espin, garden in victoria The circular theme is repeated throughout Marion's garden.

Marion’s signature touch of twinned clematis and roses – the David Austin rose ‘Sharifa Asma’ in front of Clematis ‘Ernest Markham,’ and Rosa glauca with ‘Sealand Gem’ clematis – along with Rosa ‘Buff Beauty,’ ‘Adélaïde d’Orléans,’ ‘Sombreuil’ and ‘Charles de Mills,’ climb trellises and spill over fences. Bare stems at ground level are hidden by hardy geraniums and such lungworts (Pulmonaria) as ‘Spilled Milk.’ “Books always suggest lavender at the base of roses,” she says, “but lavender likes it much drier than roses.” Rather than rebuild the existing perimeter board fence, Marion added height by attaching trellis work. “In my childhood it was waste not, want not!” When her son replaced the broken birdbath top, she used the pieces to make a circle at the junction of a path, where its textured finish blends nicely with the gravel and paving stones. The west fence backs the red border, featuring ‘Eddie’s Crimson’ rose – “It only has one bloom period, but is so beautiful when in flower that it is worth it” – and a combination of ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Diabolo’ PBR), a purple beech, red penstemons, the burgundy foliage of Euphorbia dulcis ‘Chameleon’ (spurge), the reddish stems of joe pye weed (Eupatorium fistulosum), and the hot-pink David Austin rose ‘Brother Cadfael.’ Centring this garden is a large circle of crushed rock with an armillary sphere on a pottery plinth, and backing it is the pale-yellow north wall of the house, clothed with the climbing hydrangea that took four years to establish but now is vigorous with an abundance of lacy flower heads. Leaving no possible planting space unused, Marion turned the narrow passage between the separate garage and the property-line fence into a leafy bower. Espaliered peach and pear trees grow against the garage wall and the enclosed space traps the scent of an enormous Damask rose, ‘Madame Hardy.’ The passage along the back of the garage is even narrower – less than two metres wide – but with arched trellises fastened to the walls, the fence obliterated with climbers clematis, Fatshedera and cotoneaster, crabapple trees overhead, and the heady perfume of Rosa ‘Zéphirine Drouhin’ in the air, one is lured down the path toward a mirror mounted on the wall of a small potting shed, giving the impression of a further garden beyond. Marion has incorporated three mirrors into her garden and says the key is to angle them to reflect the garden rather than the viewer’s image. “The whole effect is spoiled if you see yourself walking towards the mirror.” “My garden, to me, is peace and enchantment,” Marion says. “I’m out every day looking for what’s newly opened.” Here is the mark of the true gardener – one whose heart, rather than her wallet, is involved in the evolution of her garden.

show of blooms, marion espin, garden in victoria Every corner and cranny is host to a show of blooms.

Marion’s Design Tips

  • Narrow the garden path toward the horizon to give an impression of length in a small space.
  • Use pavers in gravel paths to produce different effects. Pavers laid in a diamond pattern will make a path look longer than pavers placed squarely.
  • Leave pots empty. A handsome pot makes an excellent focal point at the end of a path. Or, the pot can act as a counterfoil to show off a plant’s stellar form, as Marion has demonstrated by pairing a classic blue-grey urn with the robust foliage of Hosta ‘Sum and Substance.’
  • When you fill pots, use something dramatic. Marion suggests the unusual tufted look of a pineapple lily (Eucomis bicolor) for a startling effect.
  • Achieve repetition in the garden by echoing colours, both in flowers and foliage.
  • Be aware of texture as well as colour. By combining hostas with ferns, Marion creates textural contrast between smooth and frilly elements. Choose foliage first, then the flowers.
  • Improve dull walls. To add interest, build a trellis, group pots against a wall, or espalier a tree.
  • For a spectacular garden, encourage birds and end bug problems. Marion uses nothing stronger than insecticidal soap for occasional aphid infestations and attributes the healthy state of her plants and her lack of pests to her garden’s abundant bird life. (Insecticidal soap can burn certain plants – test a leaf first.)
  • Use your imagination to add decorative elements to your garden inexpensively, and propagate plants and shrubs yourself from cuttings and seeds. Most of Marion’s roses were raised from cuttings.

The following plants are hardy to the zone number indicated: • Achillea ‘Moonlight’ (yarrow) – zone 4 • Alchemilla mollis (lady’s mantle) – zone 4 • Clematis ‘Sealand Gem’ – zone 4 • C. ‘Ernest Markham’ – zone 4 • C. ‘Henryi’ – zone 4 • C. montana ‘Wilsonii’ – zone 6 • Cotoneaster – zone 6 • Digitalis grandiflora (yellow foxglove) – zone 3 • Eucomis bicolor (pineapple lily) – zone 8 • Eupatorium fistulosum – joe pye weed – zone 3 • Euphorbia dulcis ‘Chameleon’ (spurge) – zone 4 • Fatshedera – zone 8 • Hemerocallis (daylily) – zone 3 • Humulus lupulus ‘Aureus’ (golden hops) – zone 4 • Kniphofia (red-hot poker) – zone 6 • Lychnis coronaria (rose campion) – zone 6 • Origanum vulgare ‘Aureum’ (golden oregano) – zone 5 • Parthenocissus henryana – zone 7 • Penstemon spp. – zone 4 • Phlomis (Jerusalem sage) – zone 7 • Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Diabolo’PBR (ninebark) – zone 5 • Pulmonaria ‘Spilled Milk’ – zone 4 • Stachys byzantina ‘Primrose Heron’ (lambs’ ears) - zone 4 • Rosa ‘Adélaïde d’Orléans’ – zone 5 • R. ‘Autumnalis’ (R. ‘Princesse de Nassau’) – zone 7 • R. ‘Brother Cadfael’ – zone 4 • R. ‘Buff Beauty’ – zone 6 • R. ‘Charles de Mills’ – zone 4 • R. ‘Compassion’ – zone 5 • R. ‘Eddie’s Crimson’ – zone 4 • R. glauca – zone 2 • R. ‘Madame Hardy’ – zone 5 • R. ‘Royal Sunset’ – zone 6 • R. ‘Sharifa Asma’ – zone 4 • R. ‘Sombreuil’ – zone 7 • R. ‘Zéphirine Drouhin’ – zone 6 • Sisyrinchium – zone 5-8 • Smilacina racemosa (false Solomon’s seal) – zone 4