Out of the Forest

Credit: Mary LePatourel

If there is one word that sums up Margaret and Allen Price’s garden, it is “texture.” Allen, an architect, finds it in the horizontal wood siding on the house, the vertical slats of the fence, hand-painted clay planters and the hanging metal sculptures he creates from sheet metal and found objects. For librarian Margaret, it’s reflected in the interweaving patterns of stem, leaf and flower. Above all, she appreciates the texture of leaves – pleated, dimpled and scrolled, filigreed like lace or as thick and smooth as suede. Not that colour is lacking: neutrals for Allen, and the whole palette for Margaret, although again it is leaves and their contrasting hues of sage, silver, gold and grass-green that she combines with such a discriminating eye.

It has been more than 30 years since the couple came to this hidden corner of North Vancouver, balanced on the edge of a ravine above the Capilano River. As the years passed Margaret and Allen’s single-storey cottage expanded outward and upward, with one addition for each of four daughters, while the surrounding rainforest received a judicious thinning. “The trees came right up to the house,” Margaret recalls. “We didn’t realize when we moved in how dark it would be.”

In all, the Prices took out 14 trees, opening areas in which roses and other sun-loving plants could thrive, while still leaving plenty of shade for the native salal and sword ferns. On summer evenings, the small pool of green lawn is striped by the long shadows of the remaining cedars.

Several trees and shrubs planted in the 1950s came with the house, among them a cotoneaster, an Osmanthus x burkwoodii and a beautybush (Kolkwitzia amabilis). “They were in all the right places, just very overgrown,” allows Margaret.

The beautybush, which she cut almost to the ground, is now nearly 6 m (20 ft.) tall, a fountain of popcorn-scented pink flowers in summer. “It came back beautifully,” Margaret observes. “And now that we’ve learned how to trim it, it makes a nice bower over the path.”

The other trees have benefited from a more discriminating pruning to make the most of their structural beauty. The multi-trunked cotoneaster is particularly graceful, especially when surmounted by a white canopy of flowers in spring.

These venerable features are now surrounded by a vast range of companions, chief among them a collection of David Austin roses that Margaret admires for their combination of long flowering season and fragrant, old-fashioned charm. Besides, as she acknowledges in characteristic understatement, “They seem to do well for me.” Golden-flowered ‘Graham Thomas’ is 2.5 m (8.25 ft.) tall and requires the sturdy support of one of Allen’s finial-topped posts. Beside it, the buttermilk buds of a dark-stemmed hydrangea offer a pale echo. As spring merges into summer, it brings a symphony in pink and white from roses ‘Perdita’ and ‘Felicia,’ with peonies in similar tones above a blue carpet of hardy geraniums and catmint. A haze of blossom from a pink weeping cherry fills the background.

Later in the year, a more vivid contrast sets another hydrangea, this one a white lacecap, behind the scarlet blooms of Rosa ‘The Squire.’ White phlox and red Lobelia ‘Queen Victoria’ chime in above Veronica ‘Sunny Border Blue.’ Margaret rescued the phlox, as well as some of the peonies, from the property next door before the lot was razed for a new house. “It’s a nice thought that you’re rescuing something that somebody cared about,” she muses.

Illusion abounds. A hanging sculpture, created by Allen from metal plate and layers of paint and gilding, hangs at a strategic corner. Although dramatic, this ornament is designed to be invisible unless the viewer looks straight at it. “We’re fond of doing things that are subtle enough that you don’t really see them,” says Allen. Only the visitor who looks skyward will see another of his tableaux: silhouetted against the sky are three large, black half-barrels evenly spaced along the edge of the roof deck, each with a green plume of ornamental grass.

Although the house sits higher than the garden, Allen has disguised the change in grade by adding wide decks and shallow steps on all sides so that the ground appears to be level with the house. Where edges meet, tall plants blur the boundaries, making the transition from house to garden almost imperceptible. Walls of milk-chocolate brown and black-stained decking lend themselves well to a play of shadow patterns, without stealing attention from brighter hues of flower and foliage.

Though a feast for the eyes, the garden does not neglect the other senses. In pockets of soil and planters close to windows and doors, Margaret has chosen fragrant plants like jasmine and honeysuckle and mock orange ‘Belle Etoile,’ whose lavender-throated flowers brush the threshold of the bedroom and waft inside a faint, sweet fragrance.

On both sides of the house, the sight and sound of water add another dimension to the ambience. At the narrow entrance, a wall sconce mounted on a lattice screen trickles water into two half-shells. Passionflower and Clematis jackmanii flank it on one side, a honeysuckle on the other. In front, droplets of purple flowers on a delicate Thalictrum finetii imitate the spray of a fountain, as do tall plumes of Macleaya microcarpa in the background.

Around the corner a real fountain in a small pond sparkles in the sunshine. Behind it a narrow path leads steeply down into a damp grotto where ferns and tiny shade-loving plants can thrive among hardy geraniums and periwinkle. Where the ravine drops sharply at the end of the garden, another Allen Price device screens the compost heap, this one a Japanese-style “gate” of thin, vertical, black slats, emblazoned with a carved wooden plaque, originally from an old Chinese hutch. Blades and bronze-coloured seedheads of ornamental grass arch across its surface, while nearby stands of foxgloves imitate the anchoring posts with their decorative finials.

Should this energetic couple decide to take a few minutes’ leisure to admire their handiwork, they have provided for that, too. In strategic corners, pairs of seats await them: here a bench for two, there a couple of elegant French bistro seats, here two sage-green Adirondack chairs, there another set in mustard yellow.

“We can choose the shade or choose the sun,” Margaret points out.

Allen looks skeptical: “Thirty years into it and we haven’t sat down yet.”

Christine Allen is the author of Roses for the Pacific Northwest and Growing Up: A Gardener’s Guide to Climbing Plants for the Pacific Northwest.