Good Neighbours: It’s a beautiful day in this neighbourhood

With their gardens extending right to the street and onto nearby traffic circles, these two families ensure that it's always a beautiful day in their neighbourhood

Credit: Stuart McCall

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” wrote Robert Frost after helping his neighbour repair one.

That something is alive and well in a small corner of east Vancouver, tucked away between busy Broadway and the Great Northern Railway cut. It began when Linda and Peter Fox expanded their garden out beyond the confines of their two lots to the very edge of the road. A block away around the corner, their example has inspired another overflowing garden, this one tended by Kathleen MacRae and Doug Hill, together with Kathleen’s mother, Joyce Bradford. In between, like links in a chain, lie two flourishing traffic circles, one maintained by each family. Both houses do in fact have enclosed private spaces, leafy bowers with paved walkways and comfortable seating. Trickling water, wind chimes and birdsong screen the sounds of traffic. In the Fox garden, an emphasis on form and foliage draws attention to texture and the myriad shades of green, while the MacRae/Hill garden crackles with sparks of bright gold, pink and blue from drifts of flowering perennials.

The Fox Garden

For Linda and Peter Fox, it has been a 27-year project, which now fills the boulevard on both frontages of their corner lot and spills across the road to envelop the facing cottage, also theirs, in a dense screen of maturing trees and shrubs. “I’m very much an evergreen person,” says Linda. “And precision work is what I like to do the most,” she adds. Peter on the other hand, “never saw a rock he didn’t like.” The dovetailing of these two characteristics has resulted in a city block more like a park than a private garden, beautifully laid out with a balance of elements almost Japanese in its attention to form, texture and materials.

Their private space, enclosed by an attractive fence and an arched gate, is small, cool and green. Paved areas alternate with planted ones and every-where are pots filled with such foliage favourites as clipped box, ferns, coleus and variegated euonymus. Crystals hanging from a contorted hazel pruned to a spindle shape, catch the sunlight. “I’m a crow at heart,” says Linda, “I like shiny objects.” Outside, on sidewalks more like woodland paths, neighbours regularly stroll by to admire the changing colours of trees and shrubs. Children like to explore the leafy territory around the second house across the road, where Peter’s cobbled paths thread through carefully constructed rockeries filled with Linda’s choice of hardy geraniums, heather and sedums. Sharp eyes may be lucky enough to find a shiny marble she has dropped in a strategic cluster of pebbles. “I love walking through there too,” confesses Peter, “and it gives me the chance to pick out any weeds as I go.” Looped around this area, the last remaining piece of grass runs like a green ribbon from the front sidewalk to the back lane, where grey boulders draped with the bright-blue flowers of Lithodora ‘Grace Ward’ crowd the entrance to the garage. Steely blades of yuccas bristle above the highest rocks.

The garage and its adjoining fence, almost invisible under a cloak of greenery, enclose another secret garden overlooked by a spacious back porch with unique wood detailing. Linking back and front gardens, a narrow passage between house and fence offers as a conversation piece the stump of an ancient holly as large and grey as an elephant’s foot. Along the path, its “trunk,” actually an exposed root, runs several metres along the surface of the ground. Despite the profusion of large plants, Linda’s penchant for pruning keeps everything under control. “It’s husbandry,” Linda explains, “that old-fashioned word that means tending of plants and crops. I like to tend plants.” “And I like to sit and look at them,” adds Peter.

The MacRae/Hill Garden

Kathleen MacRae and Doug Hill moved to the area in 1991. A self-taught gardener, Kathleen had admired a courtyard on a VanDusen garden tour some years earlier. “I thought if I had a garden, I’d like something like that,” she recollects as she sits surrounded by raised beds, and pots of various sizes and materials, all chock-a-block with thriving plants. Vines drape every vertical surface, among them wisteria, honeysuckle and several kinds of clematis, which are threatening to overwhelm climbing roses ‘Golden Showers’ and the electric orange ‘Fred Loads’ against the garage wall.

There was little enough there when the Hills moved in: just a few foundation shrubs and two oil storage tanks that had to be removed. Kathleen read copiously and made lists of plants to look for in nurseries. “Although I could never find any of them; I always came home with other things,” she laughs. “My quest is to make a plan and stick to it.” Plants that make other gardeners tear out their hair cohabit happily for Kathleen. Yellow-flowered Lysimachia punctata vies with ferns and Houttuynia, and mint flourishes among hardy geraniums. Even variegated gout-weed (Aegopodium podagraria), foaming around the base of a maple, stays put for her. She is contemplating curtailing some of these enthusiastic spreaders, but only to make room for more plants. The mint is destined for confinement in a planter and some of the Lysimachia around her bog garden will yield its place to marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris) whose golden flowers are “such a joyful colour in spring.”

Kathleen has also set out to make her “secret garden” a magnet for wildlife. A birdbath and two small ponds are tucked among all the exuberant greenery. Three birdhouses ranged along the garage wall offer seasonal accommodation to a chickadee family. Goldfinches, juncoes, pine siskins, finches, mourning doves, even an occasional downy woodpecker visit in their turn. Bees and butterflies seek out the roses and a huge Spanish lavender (Lavandula stoechas). Satisfied now with her success in spring and summer, Kathleen is focusing on plants with winter interest. Getting to know the Foxes has provided her with a great source of advice and encouragement and, like theirs, her garden now encompasses the boulevard. Evergreen Viburnum tinus ‘Spring Bouquet’ and a tall mahonia press against the house, vying for space with a massive blue-leaved hosta. A hydrangea with stunning red and lime-green flowerheads faces dogwoods and a golden full moon maple (Acer shirasawanum ‘Aureum’) across the sidewalk. The side gate, beautifully crafted by Doug with a hummingbird image of Kathleen’s design, is guarded by a yellow-flowered witch hazel (Hamamelis) that will provide winter colour and fragrance, as will the Sarcococca planted nearby.

At the front of the house, south-facing but shaded by a cedar and a massive boulevard tree, the last vestige of lawn faces constant reduction as it yields to rockeries filled with lavender, rosemary, daisies and coreopsis. A sturdy arbour made by Doug supports wisteria and silver lace vine (Fallopia baldschuanica). In spring, hellebores bloom, surrounded by hundreds of little bulbs. All give particular pleasure to Kathleen’s mother, Joyce, whose upstairs rooms overlook this part of the garden. She also contributes to the enterprise. “Mom is the weeder and mower of lawn,” explains Kathleen, “Doug is the builder and pruner, and I’m the buyer of plants and decider of where things go.” With a combination like that, it’s no wonder they have achieved so much in so short a time. n Christine Allen is a gardener, author and lecturer who never has enough time to smell the roses that she grows.