To stroll through the garden of Margaret Baxter in one of the leafy purlieus of Greater Victoria is to feel oneself in the glades of some enchanted semi-tropical isle straight from the imagination of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. For here, as you wander along stone paths bordered by ferns, rhododendron, hostas and evergreen trees and shrubs, with here and there spires of bamboo reaching for the sky, you are truly lost in another world. If not quite the realm of Kubla Khan, then certainly, you would say, here is a canvas from Henri Rousseau brought magically to life.
As with all successful gardens, it was not ever thus. When Margaret first bought the property in June 1989, very little of the present garden was in place. Although the previous owners had great plans, for various reasons they were unfulfilled, so that the challenge was not only to bring order into chaos, but also to have a strong vision of what could be done in the future. In point of fact, the main attraction of the property for Margaret was the enclosed garden at the back of the house, which she thought would provide a safe and free harbour for her beloved dog Chelsea. Indeed, having seen the garden, she decided to buy the property without ever having set foot inside the house (something that many another owner-gardener has done before her and certainly will do again!).
But Margaret had plans, and very definite ideas. Having wound up her bookshop business in Bermuda following the death of her husband, she told her Victoria gardener that she liked the colour red – all shades of red, which, she avers, is a very welcoming colour. And so, cunningly placed amongst the ferns, hostas and evergreens are Japanese maples, pink and red azaleas and rhododendron, heathers, hydrangeas and, of course, roses – all combining to create a feeling of paradisiacal abandon.
Little by little it all took shape. First came the stream and waterfall – again in the back garden – for it was the sound of running water that Margaret found so alluring; Bermuda, after all, is a place where every drop of rain is carefully collected and is regarded as a very precious resource. The pond, with the stream running from the upper level of the back garden, was carefully planned and cunningly arranged so that the water recirculates back from the pond up through the trees and shrubs bordering the stone steps to emerge once again at the top as a “spring,” only to commence its journey back down once more to the pond below. Natural it certainly looks, and it is a delightful feature, surrounded by Japanese iris, candelabra primula, papyrus and various grasses.
As is the way of living things, everything began to grow and flourish. The rhododendron, once so small and unassuming, took on immense proportions and obviously had to be moved to a larger, more benign, area. Thus, it was decided to remove part of the (really quite uninteresting) front lawn. The shrubs were moved and that was the beginning of a transformation which has now completely eliminated the lawn; instead, there is this marvellously romantic area with winding stone paths, fern-bordered walkways, a tea house in which Margaret may sit and admire the plantings before her, several vertical stone “sculptures” (an idea gleaned from visiting gardens in other countries), heathers blooming throughout the year, graceful curves of Japanese maples, lacy patterns of Katsura trees and, of course, roses, poppies, clematis and iris – all combining to make this a haven of tranquillity and peace in which, lost from the world, you could sit and dream your days away. As Margaret herself says, for anyone looking for a place to spend the declining years, this is the perfect spot – it’s small, easy to maintain, offers total privacy and is very, very beautiful.
“But there again,” she continues, “people tend to forget that a garden is very hard work – and requires a great deal of water!” There is, this year in Victoria, a great shortage of water, something which has caused headaches, despair and certainly a great deal of expense to many a garden owner. Consequently she has had installed a micro-system that will now take care of the problem.
An especial joy is the bonsai collection, and Margaret now has over 150 magnificent specimens; these are carefully numbered and catalogued, and live mainly on shelves built specially on the terrace beside the waterfall at the back. Others are dotted throughout the garden, both at the front and back of the house where, as one comes upon them with surprise and pleasure, they eminently suit the atmosphere and spirit of the place.
It is the paths, however, which are such a boon to Margaret, for, as with so many of us in our later years, she has difficulty in walking. Fortunately, the level paths are wide enough to accommodate her walker so that she may still go through the garden, sit once again in the tea house and draw strength and comfort from the beauty which she has created and which so wonderfully surrounds her.
GardenWise columnist Peter Symcox is a retired music producer/director for the CBC. He has designed an award-winning garden in Metchosin that has been featured in the video Great Gardens of the American West.