Photos: Japanese-inspired Garden Features Lush Colour and Bold Form

Arlene Tanaka takes us through her garden wonderland.

Credit: Stuart McCall

Blue delphiniums punctuate a mixed border.

Framed by a tapestry of trees and massive leaves is a wonderland of rich texture, lush colour and bold form

At first sight it’s deceptive: a sloping lawn rises gently to the low house, screened by an undulating bed of leafy plants in the same restrained, buff and sage-green palette. Closer inspection shows a thoughtful interplay of shape and texture, from the huge, lush leaves of a hosta that greets you at the sidewalk to the filigree of a Japanese maple overhead to the dusty-blue needles of a weeping Atlas cedar that follows the curve of the steps up to the front door. All is soothing, calm, serene.

Like its owner, Arlene Tanaka’s garden in South Surrey does not reveal everything at first glance. There’s no hint yet of the rich hues and textures that vie for attention in the garden on the other side of the house. You have to step through the house and emerge onto the sunny south-facing terrace to be dazzled by Arlene’s use of strong colour and bold form.

Garden pergola
A pergola frames colourful foliage across a pool of green lawn.

Here is a world enclosed, with tall cedars protecting its boundaries, a weeping beech on one side and a spacious greenhouse on the other. From the terrace, the view into the garden is framed by a pergola overhung with peachy climbing rose ‘Leander’ and brilliant purple clematis ‘Étoile Violette’. A snaking path of round grey pavers invites you to step through and follow across the lawn towards a Japanese stone lantern crouched beneath the rhubarb-like leaves of Gunnera manicata. “It’s a happy plant,” says Arlene, contemplating the gunnera’s massive green umbrellas: “Water drains off the hill behind and keeps it lush.”

Gunnera leaves
Huge Gunnera leaves contrast with spiky iris foliage.

Other large-leafed plants, including ligularias, cardoons and some giant hostas, as well as a tall stand of bamboo, crowd around, helping to create a luxuriant atmosphere more suggestive of the tropics than this corner of southwestern British Columbia.

Everywhere you look, there are inspired combinations to delight both the designer and the plant enthusiast. A Japanese maple with lacy, burgundy leaves jostles for elbow room with the thick, felted foliage and pale-cream flowers of a sturdy tree hydrangea (Hydrangea aspera). At their feet, tufts of Bowles’ golden grass shine out among the greenery of ferns and find an echo in the small lime-yellow flowers of Saruma henryi,another woodland plant.

Lily pond
The lily pond.

“At first, I wanted it all to be a woodland garden,” says Arlene as she regards this composition, “but there was too much gravel in the soil.” And so, apart from this bed, plants are more drought-tolerant varieties, giving her the opportunity instead to create her vibrant compositions.

Rosa Flutterbye
Rosa ‘Flutterbye’

“I really enjoy Christopher Lloyd’s garden,” she confides, referring to the English gardening guru who delighted in outrageous colour combinations. Case in point: an electric-blue delphinium rising high behind a clump of fiery red Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’. Anchusa azurea ‘Feltham Pride’ contributes an equally intense cobalt blue, while skewers of butter-yellow Phlomis russeliana and a purple froth of Thalictrum delavayi ‘Hewitt’s Double’ jazz up the party. Trumpets of ‘Casablanca’ lilies add a dash of gleaming white, and Clematis × durandii, a non-clinging clematis, fights its way through all of them, adding another simmering blue.

Campanula medium var. calycanthema

A different vignette marries the black-eyed, shocking-pink flowers of Geranium psilostemon with two different loosestrifes: the strident yellow flowers and dark-brown leaves of Lysimachia ciliata ‘Firecracker’ and the crisp green and white goosenecks of L. clethroides. These three are dramatic plants, but all so rampant that more timid gardeners, myself included, have regretted bringing any one of them home. “I just let them fight it out,” Arlene shrugs. And they do – to maximum effect.

It’s the colour that first grabs attention, but there’s more going on here. Arlene has an instinctive grasp of how height, leaf shape and growth habit also contribute to her compositions, although she dismisses this idea: “I just plant what I like,” she states, “and I like height and brilliant colours.”

Asiatic lily
She also allows a few more muted themes to rest the eyes between the fireworks. One of these lavishes drifts of pale Astrantia around shrub rose ‘Fru Dagmar Hartopp’, whose wide, gleaming flowers are the same baby-pink. Across the lawn on a prominent curve, a variegated willow Salix integra ‘Hakuro-nishiki’, grown as a standard, repeats this delicate hue mixed with cream and pistachio-green. “It’s a plant that needs to be on its own where you can see it, not shoved into the landscape,” says Arlene with conviction.

Rose Leander and Arisaema triphyllum
Left: Rose ‘Leander’; right: Arisaema triphyllum

Gazing over the visual feast of the garden you might all but miss the small, square pool, hidden from the terrace by the leafy vines on the pergola. Only the sound of running water calls attention in its direction. Water flows in at one corner over a base of river rock to gently nudge the floating leaves of waterlilies. Vertical sides and a depth of a metre (40 in.) thwart any passing raccoons, but just to be sure, Arlene confines the lilies to the centre.

On pavers around the edge, plants in pots of assorted sizes and colours provide an ever-changing display. Some of these hold more waterlilies, others are home to tall irises and tender exotics like papyrus and Tibouchina urvilleana with its glowing purple flowers.

Like many B.C. gardens, Arlene’s has suffered losses in brutal winter cold snaps. Chief among them was a eucalyptus that used to rise gracefully above the south side of her greenhouse. “I’d brought it from my garden at Boundary Bay a decade ago,” Arlene says ruefully. Her consolation is that many other plants from that earlier garden still grace this one. “My husband, Paul, counted the pots when we moved,” she confesses, “and the total came to 350!”

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Pots for style

Complementing the garden beds are pots of all colours and sizes filled with plants reflecting Arlene’s enthusiasm for collecting the new and unusual. “I use pots to fill empty spaces in the garden, rather than filling in with annuals,” Arlene explains.

Spiky agapanthus, angel’s trumpet (Brugmansia) with its scented, pendant flowers, and the delicate rose Jacqueline du Pré occupy sunny places on the terrace, as do more practical plants like tomatoes and basil. Shade-lovers are grouped close to the low wall that separates the terrace from the main garden.

Planting tender specimens like the spectacular red-and-yellow climbing lily Gloriosa superba ‘Rothschildiana’ in pots allows Arlene to move them to her greenhouse in winter. Even in summer, white-flowered lotus and a few other precious possessions remain under glass for protection.

On hot summer days, Arlene and Paul can retreat to a shady lath house adjoining the terrace, where delicate ferns, aloes, echeverias and aeoniums flourish in a variety of containers chosen to show them to advantage.

The following plants are hardy to the zone number indicated (view our climate zone chart):

Anchusa azurea ‘Feltham Pride’ – zone 4 • Brugmansia cultivar (angel’s trumpet) – zone 10 (hardy to -1 degrees C) • Clematis ‘Étoile Violette’ (hybrid vitacella clematis) – zone 5 • Clematis × durandii (Durand’s clematis) – zone 5 • Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ (montbretia) – zone 6 • Geranium psilostemon (Armenian cranesbill) – zone 5 • Gloriosa superba ‘Rothschildiana’ (gloriosa lily) – zone 11 (hardy to 4 degrees C) • Gunnera manicata (giant rhubarb) – zone 7 • Hydrangea aspera (tree hydrangea) – zone 6 • Iris ensata cultivar (Japanese water iris) – zone 5 • Lilium ‘Casablanca’ (Casablanca lily) – zone 4 • Lysimachia clethroides (gooseneck loosestrife) – zone 4 • Lysimachia ciliata ‘Firecracker’ (loosestrife) – zone • Milium effusum ‘Aureum’ (Bowles’ golden grass) – zone 6 • Phlomis russeliana (sticky Jerusalem sage) – zone 4 • Phormium tenax (New Zealand flax) – zone 7 • Rosa ‘Fru Dagmar Hartopp’ (shrub rose) – zone 3 • Rosa ‘Harwanna’ Jacqueline du Pré – zone 5 • Rosa ‘Leander’ – zone 5 • Salix integra ‘Hakuro-nishiki’ (dappled willow) – zone 5 • Saruma henryi – zone 4 • Thalictrum delavayi ‘Hewitt’s Double’ (double-flowered meadow rue) – zone 5