Water Under the Bridge

This West Vancouver backyard garden makeover is home to a katsura tree, cobra lilies, and a peaceful pond.

Credit: Bob Young

A West Vancouver property is transformed from a landscaping nightmare into a gardener’s dream come true

Margot Ketchum’s wicked sense of humour is memorable – and a needed ally during the years it has taken her to transform her West Vancouver garden from disastrous to distinctive. I first met Margot at the UBC Botanical Garden in the 1990s. At about that time she had purchased her property, a decision she laughingly admits to making “on a snowy midwinter day because the price was very good!” When the snow melted away, Margot discovered “a garbage dump, complete with old washing machines, buried car parts, heaps of broken glass and chunks of concrete.” On the up side, the 18-by-38-m (60-by-125-ft.) property had interesting changes in elevation, and it backed onto a forested watershed.

Undaunted by the lot’s challenges, Margot began by hauling away the junk and removing some overgrown conifers. She grubbed out the conifer roots by hand with a pickaxe, sometimes spending an entire day removing a few square feet. Some large old rhododendrons were retained. Gradually she got to know the site, noting light and soil moisture patterns. “It was only after I had lived here for several years that I was able to envision the potential shade garden that I had longed for.”

backyard garden makeover with a pond and japanese maple tree
A Japanese Maple tree sits on one side of
the pond overlooking the waterlilies. 

In 2000, once she had a better idea of what she wanted, Margot hired architect and landscape-designer Robert Bradbury to develop a plan. The front lawn was “ratty,” partly due to very poor drainage, so it was replaced by a bridged pond. Foliage plants were added to soften the water’s edge and tumble out of nearby custom planter boxes.

A focal point was created with a katsura tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum). Katsuras react to drought stress by producing very small leaves; Margot’s contented katsura responds to adequate moisture with large, lush leaves. In spring, its foliage is bronze, in summer soft green, and fall brings a bright show of orange and yellow, in addition to an elusive fragrance of burnt sugar like that from a confectioner’s kitchen.

The katsura creates shade for one of Margot’s all-time favourite waterside plants, Darmera peltata. Although this stunner dies back in winter, it makes up for it in other seasons. In spring it throws up tall stalks bearing clusters of bright-pink flowers at their tips. At the same time the giant leaves emerge from the base. These can reach a height of 1.2 m (4 ft.), with leaves to 60 cm (2 ft.) across, like giant, veined umbrellas.

backyard shed included in garden makeover
A shingled structure is nestled into the forested background.

ornamental rhubarb featured in backyard landscaping project
Margot snuggles with the neighbour’s dog next to a dramatic ornamental rhubarb.

Initially a mixture of loam and pumice was added along with compost to all areas. Wanting a pesticide-free garden, Margot knew that good soil allows for strong plant growth, reducing pest problems. Each year she top-dresses the entire garden with a mixture that includes Sea Soil and pig and llama manure. Margot cautions, “Too much pig manure and my garden grows like a jungle. I once overdid it and could watch the plants grow! It was a bit too much.” Finding a balance is important, because foliage that is too lush tempts pests to have a little nibble – not the desired effect of improving soil.

male ferns are easy-to-grow for landscaping projects
Male fern is an easy-to-grow fern that forms a 90-by-90-cm clump.

the cobra lily is a unique plant in the garden
Arisaema griffithii, a fascinating species of cobra lily, is native to the Himalayas but happy as a clam in this magical woodland garden.

groundcover can replace grass in the backyard
Groundcover Ellisiophyllum pinnatum thrives in areas with good drainage and shade.

In the backyard is a pleasant self-seeded lawn area between the house and foliage perennial beds. Margot is gradually replacing much of it with groundcovers. She likes an unusual evergreen creeper from Korea called Ellisiophyllum pinnatum, which she expects will cover the ground within five years and eliminate the grass. While not easy to find for purchase – although sometimes it can be found at the Alpine Garden Club of B.C.’s annual spring sale – it thrives in soils with good drainage and shade. Other groundcovers she likes include Hepatica, Soldanella montana (sometimes called mountain snowbell) and hardy geraniums. Margot confesses to being “cuckoo for cardamines,” perennials that do well in our climate. The evergreen, low-mounding Cardamine trifoliata produces white flowers in spring and its chartreuse new leaves show up brightly against its older, dark-green leaves. Her woodland tapestry is completed with ferns, hostas and seasonal bulbs, such as snowdrops (Galanthus) and cobra lilies (Arisaema).

Margot has many inspirational sources. “My mother has been a huge influence, growing amazing gardens and saving seeds. She gardened into her 90s, with a beautiful patio garden and fuschias everywhere.” Margot gives a nod to local garden educators, such as Judy Newton. And she refers to Ken Druse’s book, The Natural Shade Garden, for ideas.

Many years of arranging flowers for the Vancouver Hardy Plant Group have also come into play. She approaches her garden with a sense of composition and flare. Her passion for interesting leaf shapes, patterns and textures shines through; her discerning eye masses plants to create a pleasing flow. The overall effect when walking through the back garden is similar to viewing one of her beautiful vase arrangements on a large scale.

Like many other gardeners, Margot particularly enjoys thinking of the friends who gave her some of the many plants that she tends, and she sums it up by reflecting that her garden “is the medium for nurturing my soul.”

Check out David Tarrant’s gardening blog >>