Brilliant Backyard Makeover

Backyard garden design overhaul.

Credit: Gillian Reece

A dark and dowdy yard becomes a bright and beautiful retreat when the garden design experts give this unique space a backyard makeover

Pat Weldon loves gardening, but when she and Mike Wolkowicz retired and moved to Victoria from Ontario, they were at a loss as to what to do with their new property. “I was dying to get my fingers into the soil,” says Pat. “But what we were faced with on this narrow, pie-shaped lot was less than inspiring. We didn’t have any idea of how to transform the space.” They called on garden designers Twyla Rusnak and husband Illarion Gallant for help.

Garden design experts

Twyla recalls her first visit to the property in March 2002. “There was lawn everywhere, sloping down to the front street. At the back there was a long, dark lane backed with tall trees that overpowered the house. “Pat has lots of plant knowledge and enthusiasm for the process of design and construction,” she says. “She wanted outdoor living spaces where she could explore her passion for plants. Mike wanted a project he could play a part in too. So it was up to us to create a special place from this boring, blank slate.

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“The backyard had a small concrete patio that sloped toward the house. A straight mortared rock retaining wall spanned the full width of the property and a tall, evergreen hedge backed it. This created shade and the roots filled the entire raised bed, resulting in little sun and air movement. We’ve got rid of the hedge, cleaned out the dilapidated trees and set about dismantling the retaining wall. When we dug down we found solid clay, so we excavated about 18 inches of it and built up from there.” At the back of the house, a courtyard with two defined living areas was constructed of stamped, sandy-coloured concrete. The new rock wall curves around a raised pond and waterfall. Stabilizing rocks create terraces on the back slope. Rocks are Illarion Gallant’s speciality and “the bigger, the better!” Twyla says, “For the front garden, we talked about creating a shelf for the house to sit on, as the existing lay of the land sloped directly away from its foundation.” Pat and Mike were adamant that there would be “no lawn to mow and no rocks lined up like loose teeth!” The aim was for the garden to look like a natural outcrop, with the rocks placed to allow room for the pathway to the front door and through to the side and back gardens. Illarion was in his element, carefully selecting and placing rocks, which had to be lifted and positioned using a crane.

Planting a backyard garden

When it came to the plantings, Pat says, “We had to select those deer don’t fancy. Even then they often chew on some they supposedly dislike! Finally I could get my fingers into good soil and start! For trees we put in California lilac, white pine, arbutus, maple and Portuguese laurel. Beside the waterfall we have creeping raspberry. “I garden in layers: trees, then something under the trees, then a spot of colour and then the groundcover. If you forget your groundcovers, I think the garden has an unfinished look and is harder to maintain. In the back, my inclination is to have a blue, white, green garden. In the summer it gets hot here and I find that colour scheme to be soothing. In the front there are all colours, especially in the spring and fall.” Her favourite flower? “Irises, all types and colours.” Pat claims to be tough on plants: “They have to be pest and plague free, they have to give me at least three seasons of interest – not bloom, but interest. I don’t like lazy plants – they have to work for their living! I am religious about deadheading and pruning because that’s what keeps the garden in great shape.” Watering is where Mike steps forward. He constantly modifies the in-ground sprinkler system by adjusting the heads as the garden changes and grows. Mike credits Pat with the ideas and plant selections, but she is quick to point out what he has contributed. “Working along with the crew he helped frame up all the concrete work for the backyard and also had input as to the placement of the rocks. The last big job was designing and building the cedar fences and the gates. He retained the original uprights from the old fences and clad them in cedar. The bottom panels were contracted out to a local fencing company.” The stylish perimeter fencing provides privacy, intimacy and deer-proofing for the entire back garden. Pat laughs, “At five feet high, the fences wouldn’t normally faze the deer, but Mike’s spiked grid design, which caps the fence panels, has kept the deer at bay.” Reflecting on the garden’s progress, Pat says, “It was definitely a challenge, but now it’s looking so settled, and in only a few years, here we are with our dream home and garden. Still, we have plans for improvement – a garden is never done.”