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Bowen Island may be only a short ferry-ride away from West Vancouver, but for Kathy and David Leishman, it was like moving to another world. While the couple had kept a lush garden in a forested area of West Vancouver where water was never in short supply, on Bowen they encountered a sunny, steep seaside location often plagued by summer drought – and a local population of deer.

As a successful garden designer, Kathy was intrigued by the challenge of creating a garden that would be not only drought-resistant, but also deer-proof and enjoyable. “I look on it as an experiment,” she says. You could say the experiment worked – only three years later, the Leishmans’ elegant garden was featured in Bowen Island’s annual People, Plant & Places tour.

Kathy estimates this south-facing garden receives more sun and less rain than their West Vancouver garden – not unlike Victoria’s climate. Bowen Island also often contends with a drought period at the end of July. Rather than battling these naturally dry conditions, Kathy has learned to work with them. At the front entry of the house, she has created a sunny garden using plants and shrubs that need only occasional watering. The area has been fenced off for protection from foraging deer, but behind the house, Kathy made the conscious decision not to enclose the bank that slopes down to the ocean. Here, she has chosen a variety of plants that can co-exist harmoniously with deer and survive without being watered.

The new garden involved what Kathy describes as “intense groundwork,” as the oceanfront property initially consisted of little more than a patch of lawn, a few shrubs and rock. The Leishmans brought in soil, and added compost to give the plants a good start. Kathy replaced the thirsty lawn in front of the house with pea gravel, giving the entranceway the serenity of a Japanese garden. It’s a “lawn” she can enjoy all year round and “it doesn’t go brown in the summer,” she observes. The natural-looking entranceway features yellow and green Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola,’ and lime-green Lysimachia nummularia spilling over the gravel, with the charming red and yellow flowers of Abutilon ‘Kentish Belle’ adding nearby colour. Adjacent is a dry trough with Helleborus x sternii, which Kathy notices can withstand an element of drought.

Before planting, Kathy carefully analyzed the drainage system on the property and found that its gravel soil provided good drainage. She plants where there is natural runoff, such as at the bottom of the slope from the road. In the fenced front garden she has even planted dwarf apple trees that in midsummer are laden with fruit. “Apples don’t need as much water if the soil is prepared and well-mulched,” she explains. In this elegant-looking front bed are relatively drought-resistant plants that require only weekend watering, such as Echinops (globe thistle), Eryngium (sea holly), variegated phlox, Dierama, Acanthus (bear’s breeches), Fuchsia magellanica (hardy fuchsia), Lavatera (mallow) and a potted burgundy, chocolate-scented Cosmos astrosanguineus (which is borderline hardy so it spends the winter in the greenhouse).

On the other side of the house, with its splendid aspect overlooking the ocean, swaying, shimmering grasses and shrubs give the bank what Kathy calls “a relaxed look,” as if nature had composed it. She plants in groups of three to five, with self-seeding plants adding continuity to obtain this natural effect. Here also are such gems as the flourishing potato vine (Solanum crispum ‘Glasnevin’), full of lilac-blue blossoms climbing up against the dining room window as if posing for an Art Nouveau print. Beside it are the roof’s drainage chains, which provide moisture to the bed underneath.

For the bank, Kathy explains that she wasn’t so much looking for flower colour as “a blending of soft foliages and lots of greys” to create a flowing effect down to the sea. She chose blue oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens), a cool-season grass that works well with her green miscanthus, a warm-season grass that comes into its own at the end of summer. “It’s a handy mix,” she says. Her husband David, who gives Kathy keen support and valuable feedback on all her gardening endeavours, admits to a particular fondness for the grasses. Kathy adds that the several selections of miscanthus have “a growth spurt the end of summer, look splendid all autumn and great in winter.” In mid-February, she cuts down the miscanthus with a hedge trimmer to give the new growth an attractive, fresh look. The artemisia, of which she has used several types, including ‘Powis Castle,’ ‘Huntingdon’ and A. versicolor, thrive on the sunny bank. (They “love drought and are deer resistant,” notes Kathy.)

Here and there, Kathy has punctuated the green and grey grasses with touches of purple and white, such as the purple bloom of Origanum laevigatum ‘Hopleys’ (occasionally nibbled by deer), which takes over after the lavender has ceased blooming. A hint of white comes from the Buddleja fallowiana var. alba, with its white blossoms and felting on the underside of its leaves.

On the ocean side of the property, you may also detect a scent of Provence in the air. Many of the deer-resistant plants Kathy uses, such as lavender, would be equally at home in a Mediterranean climate. She has planted eight varieties of lavender with different bloom times, including Lavandula stoechas (French lavender), L. x intermedia ‘Grosso’ and L. angustifolia ‘Hidcote.’ Contributing to the scent is a large (and deer-proof) rosemary bush protected by the house wall, while nearby a touch of the exotic is added by a dramatic New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax) and a smaller Phormium cooksianum ssp. hookeri ‘Cream Delight.’

The Mediterranean look of the garden is heightened by the year-round display provided by the ornamental feather grasses Stipa gigantea, S. tenuissima and Calamagrostis ‘Overdam,’ their plumes shining in the summer’s afternoon light. Pacific Coast hybrid iris with evergreen leaves and what Kathy describes as “ravishing flowers” adds vertical interest, along with the grasses, to the otherwise rounded shapes on the bank. Several shrubs do well in this warm California-like setting, including joint fir (Ephedra), cinquefoil (Potentilla) and flannel bush (Fremontodendron). Other choices, such as the yellow-flowering Brachyglottis Duneden hybrid ‘Sunshine’ a.k.a. Senecio greyi and yarrow (Achillea ‘Moonshine’) and the tall purple verbena (Verbena bonariensis) are also deer and drought resistant. One of Kathy’s observations of deer habits is that they are more likely to nibble at a singular plant and that it works better to plant in groups. If the deer are curious and stop to nibble, they won’t go on nibbling at the rest of the grouping if the first plant wasn’t to their taste.

Kathy has used an interesting combination of plants, many of which she raised from seed. This has allowed her to obtain a larger range of species plants, which survive better than the over-hybridized ones. She describes her garden as still evolving, and looks forward to planting the shaded, dry upper area by the road with Epimedium, Hosta, hardy fuchsias and hellebores. Nonetheless, unfinished or not, looking around this Bowen Island paradise, it’s not hard to understand why her West Vancouver garden had once been cited for its imaginative design and plant combinations. Here, she’s adapted her talents to a specific set of challenges, and has again produced an outstanding garden, one that thrives despite the island’s dry conditions and notoriously hungry deer. She calls it “a garden adapted to the circumstances.”

For those of us who face less than perfect growing conditions, it’s a garden that offers some valuable lessons.

Olga Ruskin volunteers for Bowen Island’s annual People, Plants and Places tour, which is where she first saw and fell in love with Kathy and David Leishman’s garden.