English Country Meets West Coast

Credit: Stuart McCall

For 12 years, the Southlands property of gardener Julie Lane Gay and her husband, Craig, has been in the business of growth. The large property, which once housed Quail Hollow Climbers and Perennials nursery, is now fertile ground for four growing children and a gardener’s wish list of plants, among them several dozen clematis.

Julie and Craig chose the property, then consisting largely of a horse pasture, for its Southlands location – the Vancouver neighbourhood is one of the city’s only nursery-friendly areas. Perhaps it’s the sound of horses clip-clopping by, but the property’s origins are never too far from mind. While Julie and Craig wanted to ensure that the design of the house and garden was “appropriate to the area,” the neighbourhood isn’t the only influence: “I describe it as ‘English country meets West Coast,’” Julie says. “I grew up outside San Francisco, so I love the West Coast.” Thomas Church, the American landscape architect, garden designer, author and pioneer of the California Style of garden design, was another source of inspiration. Finally, Julie wanted the garden to be casual enough for her children to feel at home in it.

The combination works, for behind it all is a love of plants. “As much as I love a garden, I just find the plants themselves so interesting,” Julie says. Although she has now closed her nursery, Julie still researches and tests plant varieties. A number of long, raised beds, enclosed by clematis and posts threaded with shipyard rope that are adorned with climbing roses – an idea inspired by Queen Mary’s Rose Garden in Regent Park, London – allow Julie to test a plant’s response to various soil and drainage conditions.

Once she falls for a particular genus, she’ll often track down seeds from around the world to try all of its member species. “Frequently only one out of the whole group is stellar,” Julie says, “but what gets me excited is when I find one that isn’t commonly known that I think is a winner.”

If having space for experimentation is one of the benefits of a large property, maintenance is one of its drawbacks. “It can be overwhelming,” Julie admits.

One solution? Having distinct low-maintenance areas. For example, Alchemilla mollis (lady’s mantle) and Geranium macrorrhizum planted en masse along the driveway make a clean and graceful swath of green.

The garden by the front door is also predominantly green and remains so year-round. “Because my life is always chaotic,” Julie says, “I wanted it to be very clean-looking and low-maintenance.” Next to the door, a winter-flowering honeysuckle shrub (Lonicera x purpusii) is covered by the lime-green foliage and scarlet flowers of Tropaeolum speciosum (Scottish flame flower, zone 8), a herbaceous climber that proved to be one of the most popular plants at the nursery.

“When the garden was designed, we planned these long, very beautiful perennial borders,” Julie says. “Now we’re pulling stuff out because it’s just so much work.” Instead, she invests her time in making a few areas special.

One of these areas Julie calls her kitchen garden, “not really in the true sense, but in the sense that I look at it from my kitchen. I study it probably way too much,” she laughs. Here, Julie uses Salvia patens for high-impact colour. It doesn’t fit the low-maintenance bill (it’s not totally hardy so is overwintered in the greenhouse) but flowers continuously and provides stunning autumn colour. For Julie, it’s worth the extra work: “I plant it out in April and don’t fuss about it again until fall. It’s great value.”

The garden by the brick patio also enjoys star treatment. “My husband and kids really love the patio, and we eat out here during summer, so I allow myself a little more time with it,” she says. The south-facing beds hold year-round interest, with hellebores, spurge and snowdrops in the winter; bulbs and azaleas in the spring; roses, sweet peas and clematis in the summer; and salvias and Cape fuchsia in the fall.

“I really enjoy having a four-season garden, so I always try to extend what I have. It’s a fun challenge,” she says. One of her secrets to four-season colour involves using scrambling herbaceous clematis to extend the season. “They don’t have tendrils and therefore don’t climb,” Julie says, “so I grow them through every shrub in the garden.”

Clematis is undoubtedly Julie’s favourite genus. “Clematis were my nursery’s specialty – I love them,” she states emphatically. Still, she claims not to have a favourite. “It really depends on my mood, and what’s in bloom that day,” Julie smiles.

“Sharing my garden and enjoying it with others is very important to me,” she says, “and the plants themselves are such a reflection of God’s creativity.”

Julie’s best seed discoveries:

Agastache breviflora – “agastaches (hyssop) are greatly under-used – they flower so long and are so upright and great cut. A. breviflora is terrific, flowers the first year from seed” – zone 5

Aquilegia vulgaris var. stellata (columbine) – “easy from seed, a columbine with flowers that look like small hybrid clematis. I’ve tried about five colours but like white best” – zone 3

Lathyrus rotundifolius (Persian everlasting pea) – “one year I did all the perennial peas; this is a great soft brick red, about 1.8 m (6 ft.). I like it through Phygelius and pale pink roses” – zone 5

Polemonium carneum (salmon Jacob’s ladder) – “the palest peachy-pink in April, May and June; low-growing and lovely” – zone 4

Salvia patens ‘Lavender Lady’ (gentian sage) – “a pale purple form that flowers from June to November. Not hardy but so easy otherwise. I have tried five of the patens group and this is my favourite. A great echo with several of the hardy geraniums” – zone 8

Salvia viridis syn. S. horminum (annual clary sage) – “the best annual I know – flowers for five months and is stupendous cut. Lovely white, blue and pink forms. Softer and more perennial in feel than the other annual salvias.”

Andrea Bellamy writes, knits and devours books at home in Vancouver – when she’s not playing in the garden.