No Stone Unturned

Credit: Ted Mills

When Ties and Anneke Rubingh built their dream retirement home on Triangle Mountain in suburban Colwood, west of Victoria, they set up a washing station to scrub 6,000 old red bricks foraged for 10 cents apiece from a home under demolition. So began a five-month process that culminated in a stately rose-coloured driveway and entrance patio now edged in grey-green lavender and creeping thyme. This combination of creativity with found material, attention to detail, and a willingness to take on some tough jobs hallmarks the Rubinghs’ garden.

The rocky hillside property commands a stunning view south across Juan de Fuca Strait. Although it measures three quarters of an acre, only about a third is landscaped, where the property slopes from the roadside down to the L-shaped house. The rest, a steep drop below the deck on the south side of the house, “is for the deer,” Ties says. A big ridge of rock bisects the upper section of the lot and the driveway was blasted through it. “It’s amazing how much rock came from one blast!” Ties used these boulders to build the raised beds at the front of the property on the east side of the drive. They blend seamlessly into the rest of the outcrop, which flows down toward the driveway and garage wing of the house.

Ties filled the beds with old-fashioned flowers such as peonies, foxgloves, campanula, columbine, astrantia, heuchera and various hardy geraniums. The paved paths winding between the beds are another of his demolition finds – the stones came courtesy of a friend who was replacing a fireplace.

Ties admits he did not have a strong vision when he began his garden in the spring of 1992. Aside from some on-site trees – including a garry oak, which he had a bobcat driver dig up and move from what was to become the living-room site – the only distinctive feature on the lot was the craggy rock outcrop near the front of the lot. For landscaping advice, he turned to the Horticultural Centre of the Pacific, a teaching and demonstration facility on the Saanich Peninsula. Students at the school have a garden-design component in their year-long course and Centre members are encouraged to have the students view their garden plots and draw up plans. The Rubinghs met with two of the students who took pictures, asked questions and then developed a landscaping strategy. “I didn’t really use the overall plan as they had envisioned it but I got a lot of good ideas out of it,” Ties says. “I incorporated a lot of their suggestions, which were very helpful because I really didn’t know what to do.”

One of the first things he did was tuck a little in-ground pool complete with a dozen goldfish into the angle of the “L” shape of the house. He had originally wanted a water feature over which one would walk across a little bridge to enter the house, but Anneke vetoed this idea. “She said it would be too scary – someone might fall in – so I said okay, and started digging a pond beside the entryway instead.” A stately rhododendron bought for $5 from a demolition site, and other plants ranging from big-leaved groundsel (Ligularia dentate) and white-flowered corydalis to some vigorous mint, encircle the pond which offers an attractive vista whether viewed by front-door visitors or from the windows of the house.

Climbing plants soften the house’s outline: a wisteria scrambles along the entry roofline and a Dutch honeysuckle, Lonicera periclymenum ‘Belgica,’ froths along the garage. After acquiring the honeysuckle from a friend when it outgrew her small garden, Ties cut it back to one metre and replanted it – and it never looked back. Mingled vines also clothe the deer fence that extends across the front of the property. Constructed in an open pattern of weathered cedar with a double gate across the drive, the fence supports another wisteria, as well as ‘New Dawn’ roses, and assorted clematis planted for continuous bloom: ‘Sally Cadge,’ ‘Etoile Violette,’ ‘Rouge Cardinal,’ ‘Duchess of Edinburgh’ and the wild one known as ‘Traveller’s Joy.’

A black poplar, Populus nigra, another plant salvaged from a friend’s garden, shoots skyward behind the garage, and the shade-loving hostas, ferns, Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum), and goatsbeard (Aruncus) line the path. Climbing Hydrangea petiolaris softens the house wall, although it doesn’t flower because of the low light levels here.

The path emerges at the south end of the property where Ties has compost boxes, a work area and a little greenhouse constructed from material recycled from a larger one slated for demolition. Below the greenhouse, the property drops away dramatically. Equally compelling is the view, a 180-degree vista south to the Olympic Peninsula. A cedar deck wraps around the house and on this hot spot sit containers with tender subjects such as hibiscus, which winter indoors but spend the summer basking in the warmth. A little water feature in a pot adds a cooling note to this space, and evergreen clematis (Clematis armandii) clambers along the railings. At the west end of the deck, the overhanging limbs of an arbutus tree offer some shade both to the deck and to a huge rhododendron in the ground below – another demolition find for $10.

More shelter from the sun is provided by the arbutus over the only patch of lawn on the property. “I don’t really believe in lawn,” Ties says. “I grow it mainly for the grandchildren to play on.” Below, a path leads down the slope covered in wildflowers and anything else that self-seeds. Above the lawn, in the rocky outcrop, is a narrow, gently curving stairway, utilizing more of the rock from the demolished fireplace and allowing easy access for such practical functions as moving the hose. Planting pockets in the rock display an abundance of low, mounding shapes such as lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis), ferns and hardy geraniums – Geranium orientale, G. tibeticum, and G. dalmaticum – interspersed with spires of foxgloves (Digitalis) and bellflowers (Campanula persicifolia).

“My gardening philosophy is ‘let it grow, let it grow,’” says Ties cheerfully, “until Anneke pulls me up short and says, ‘It’s too much!’ ” The Rubinghs’ agreeable partnership is reflected in their harmonious garden and their mutual ability to see things not for what they are but for what they could be.

Jill Stewart Bowen is a Victoria garden writer and co-host of CFAX 1070’s weekly garden shows.