A Secret Garden in Vancouver

An explosion of foliage creates privacy and intrigue on a spectacular Vancouver lot

Credit: Stuart McCall

A stone path disappears among luxuriant foliage, leading the eye to a dramatic tree peony silhouetted against the hedge

Gregory Van Sickle gives us a glimpse of his unique Vancouver property, ideal for experimenting with new foliage

In a city like Vancouver, where the standard lot is a flat rectangle, Gregory Van Sickle has the good fortune to own a property that is not only triangular but also descends over a number of different levels, each with its own microclimate.

For a keen gardener with a penchant for unusual plants, the possibilities are endless.

When Gregory and his partner bought the house eight years ago, work on the building itself came first. “I wasn’t allowed to garden for the first year,” he says, but he has certainly made up for that lost time since, in spite of a busy career as an interior designer.

Creating a Secret Garden

When he began, “I drew up a plan,” he says, “but for structure, not plants.” Fortunately, much of the attractive stonework was in place, along with a cedar hedge screening the south side of the garden from a busy street. Gregory has extended the hedge, using yew instead of cedar to give a different texture to the addition.

Nevertheless there is still an opportunity for passers-by to glimpse the garden within, through a window cut into the cedar wall. A low “sill” of boxwood maintains a barrier while adding another foliage variation.

Visitors now enter through an attractive black iron gate to follow a stone path to the front door. Massive pots flank the entrance, one with a strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo), the other with a substantial olive. “I love their bark, their leaves,” says Gregory, and it is clear throughout the garden that he is drawn to foliage and shape as much as he is to flowers.

Dealing with Pests

In the lee of the house there’s a sunny patio edged by a narrow, rectangular pool, an ingenious solution to the steep drop-off beyond. Water hyacinths float on the surface, jostled by a few silver balls. Both provide some protection for the fish beneath, although the pool is a magnet for predators.

“It’s 30 inches deep with straight sides,” Gregory explains. “That’s the only way of keeping raccoons out.” He targets visiting herons as a worse menace, particularly in spring, and has planted a magnolia that he hopes will screen the pool from their sight.

A Packed Greenhouse

From the upper level, steep stone steps descend past spiky agaves, a cascading rosemary and the sturdy trunk of a Douglas fir to a circular pool of grass surrounded by overflowing beds. A pretty greenhouse tucked into one quadrant gets packed tight with plants every winter. “They are mostly small plants that are marginal here,” Gregory says. “When they are bigger they should be able to survive outdoors all year.”

Witch hazel ‘Jelena’, a spectacular tree peony and several rhododendrons dominate the beds at this level, but there are also many other plants with a commanding presence, including an umbrella pine, Acanthus mollis, bold purple spikes of New Zealand flax, and several Podopyllum with large, green-leather leaves.

More steps down lead to another rectangle of lawn at the back of the house, which now looms high above. Here an ancient cherry tree shelters a table and chairs for summertime alfresco dining. Blue hydrangeas and the giant umbrellas of a Gunnera mask the area from neighbours.

At every turn from front gate to back lane, the explosion of foliage is so enthusiastic there seems little room for anything new. Gregory is unperturbed. “Some things get dug up and moved back . . .” He pauses, “and some get dug up and given away.”