Dorina Palmer’s enchanting four-season garden

Explore this breath-taking garden

Credit: Bob Young

Dorina Palmer has created an enchanting four-season show of colour using successive plantings and a moveable feast of container gardens
. Dorina Palmer and her late husband Gerry first moved into their Vancouver house 49 years ago, their priority was a place for their two children to play. The lot is large and was home to some lovely old trees, shrubs and wisteria vines. But it wasn’t until their family grew up that Dorina was bitten with the gardening bug. Today the result is a joy to behold, providing a welcoming, tranquil, comfortable space.

The tradeoff for Dorina’s breathtaking view north across Burrard Inlet has been the struggle to improve the sandy, rocky soil. “Every time we dug a hole to plant something, we would unearth yet another boulder,” she recalls. Each year a truckload of well-rotted manure was added and over time resulted in a richer, moisture-retentive soil. These days Dorina finds wheeling barrow-loads of manure around the garden daunting and has turned to using bagged products such as Sea Soil. 

Vvancouver Garden Dorina Palmer
An old, gnarled Chinese wisteria greets visitors at the front door. Begonias, flowering maple and hydrangeas bloom. (Photos: Bob Young.)

Dorina’s home faces west, where an original weeping willow creates a dramatic feature. A nearby archway beckons visitors. Covered with Akebia quinata (chocolate vine), it frames the view with delicate, pale-green leaves all summer. Each spring it erupts with pendant racemes of chocolate-purple flowers with a fresh spicy perfume. Intertwined is Clematis ‘Nelly Moser’. “I know it’s a common and old-fashioned clematis,” smiles Dorina, “but it is the only clematis that performs well in my garden and I love it.” 

Beneath the weeping willow, in early summer, Dorina places pots of Rosa × odorata ‘Mutabilis’, Daphne × transatlantica (which bear fragrant flowers for many months), hens ‘n’ chicks (Sempervivum) and colourful summer annuals. I wondered if they were there because nothing else would grow under the willow. “Oh, no,” Dorina responds. “In spring the area is a carpet of Cyclamen coum and snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis), so once their foliage dies back, I cover the bald area with potted plants. I remove the pots in late fall so the bulbs can bloom through winter and early spring.” 

Vancouver garden Dorina Palmer
Top: Hydrangeas thrive in part shade.  Left: Dorina Pruning. Right: A ship’s capstan is home to sedums.

Tucked up close to the house are magnificent specimens of intense-blue Hydrangea macrophylla. This location is ideal: the willow canopy allows dappled light through and protects them from the hot afternoon sun. An underplanting of Japanese spurge (Pachysandra terminalis), a superb evergreen groundcover, ensures dark glossy foliage all year round, no matter what the weather. A recent addition to this border is Magnolia grandiflora, its beautiful, shiny, deep-green leaves coated with fuzzy, cinnamon-coloured indumentum on the underside.

The porch of the house is wreathed with a lovely gnarled Chinese wisteria (Wisteria sinensis). While this sunny location is perfect for such a vigorous climber, Dorina cautions that its tendrils require frequent snipping throughout the summer to prevent them from getting up under the roof shingles. However, the sweetly scented panicles of purple flowers in late spring make it worth all the effort. Keeping company with the wisteria, a large winter-flowering jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum) trained up the sheltered wall adds winter cheer to the entranceway with a December-through-January show of bright-yellow blossoms. Summer colour at the entryway is provided by pots of tuberous begonias, an orange-flowered Abutilon (flowering maple) and a bronze-foliaged Persicaria campanulata. Dorina overwinters the abutilon in her unheated basement for the worst of the winter weather. 

Vancouver Garden Dorina Palmer
Left: Pink Dahlia. Right: ‘Eddie’s White Wonder’ dogwood underplanted with Hebe pinguifolia ‘pagei

Asked if she had added any special soil amendments to bring on the pinkish-mauve colour of the prominent hydrangea by the entrance, Dorina explains it was fully pink when purchased 10 years ago, but the naturally acidic soil of the lower mainland is gradually turning it blue. 

Stepping-stone paths meander through the small lawns on the south side of the house, creating a pleasant foreground for the trees and shrubs. Dorina now employs an eco-friendly lawn service to apply organic fertilizer in the spring and do maintenance through the summer months. In this area, a lovely dogwood, Cornus ‘Eddie’s White Wonder’, is underplanted with a groundcover of Hebe pinguifolia ‘Pagei’, creating a very pretty picture. The sunny spot allows the hebe to produce its small leathery blue-green leaves in abundance.

On the waterfront side of the garden, Dorina has staged a stone patio and tableau of container plantings. They are flanked by a heritage apple tree and a handsome, old cutleaf red Japanese maple. Its intricate foliage turns “glorious rusty red” in fall. In the middle of the patio is a formal, boxwood-edged bed. Its focal point is a ship’s capstan that is now home to a thriving collection of sedums and Sempervivum. Gerry found it many years ago under a dock. “It is an antique from a sailing ship dating from the 19th century.” Here also is an interesting and almost contemporary seat made by Gerry from driftwood picked up on the beach.

Vancouver Garden Dorina Palmer
Dorina’s glorious view of downtown Vancouver.

Among the container plantings is Rosa ‘Fru Dagmar Hastrup’, a sturdy hybrid of Rosa rugosa with mid-green leathery leaves and pale-pink, cup-shaped, clove-scented single blossoms. I see another of my favourites scrambling up a teepee structure: Sollya heterophylla, a twining climber with blue flowers native to western Australia. Like the Abutilon, it resides safely in the garage in winter.

Dorina has been an active Friend of the Garden at the UBC Botanical Garden for more than 15 years and volunteers at the Shop in the Garden. “I am continually tempted by the new and delicious plants that arrive each week. I invariably go home with some and then have to find space.” Lucky plants indeed that arrive under the watchful eye of this remarkable gardener!