West Side City Garden

Credit: Mary Le Patourel

On Vancouver’s west side, where the grid of streets gives way to winding crescents following the curves of the slope above English Bay, Janet Fraser’s garden sparkles with the vigour of spring. Its allure slows cars on the street and draws comments from locals passing by on their regular walks. “People always stop and ask questions,” Janet says happily. “I feel very connected to my neighbours.”

Although the result is vastly different from what existed before Janet and her husband David moved in, she is swift to acknowledge her predecessors. “There was a really nice garden here when we came,” she says, “but it was limited by what could tolerate growing in the shadow of a large deodar cedar.” She still feels guilty about the removal of the cedar, even though its twin across the street continues to demonstrate how little scope for a garden is possible under its broad, dense canopy.

In Janet’s front yard, by contrast, sunlight falls on crisp green foliage accented with white and many shades of purple and pale pink. Her classic 1930s house is painted a soft pearl grey with sage accents, complementing the subtle shades of the plants, while in turn the straight lines of garden beds and paths echo its decorative timber trim and leaded-glass windows. After eliminating the lawn along with the cedar, the Frasers devised this new layout with the help of a student from the UBC school of landscape architecture. In keeping with her neighbourly approach, the geometric design is best appreciated from street level, several steps above grade.

Among the first plants to go into the new beds were six tree peonies whose exquisite, pale-pink blooms float above the foliage like water lilies. Even before they open, the shapely plants with their fringed foliage and elegant buds delight the eye. Around and beneath them swirl drifts of blue false forget-me-nots (Omphalodes verna) mingled with lungwort, both Pulmonaria rubra with its pale strawberry-pink flowers and Pulmonaria officinalis ‘Sissinghurst White,’ crisp as linen above silver-spotted leaves. All of these ground covers are repeated along the steep, narrow bank that falls away from the edge of the sidewalk, their small flowers dotting the mass of green foliage like bright threads of embroidery. A single pot of magenta ‘Attila’ tulips, framed against the moss-covered trunk of a boulevard tree, adds a sharper note.

In the centre beds, pale-flowered roses add height, while bulk is provided by Potentilla fruticosa ‘Abbotswood,’ a favourite with Janet because its small white blooms “go on forever even if you never do a thing to it.” White tulips, white bleeding hearts and Exochorda x macrantha ‘The Bride’ continue the spring theme, echoed once more in the leaves of Hosta undulata var. univittata with their central white stripe.

Contrast comes from purple and blue accents provided by tulips ‘Queen of Night’ and ‘Blue Parrot,’ clumps of perennial wallflower Erysimum ‘Bowles’ Mauve,’ and hardy geraniums (“the absolute background of any garden,” as Janet describes them), especially the tiny dark flowers of the mourning widow (Geranium phaeum). Sky-blue camas (Camassia cusickii) flourishes against the walls of the house under early clematis like Clematis alpina and C. macropetala ‘Blue Bird,’ which take the blue theme upwards. Janet ensures a cool root run for these delicate vines by covering their bases with shards of decorative pots that would otherwise have been candidates for the scrap heap. Later in the season there will be salmon-pink oriental poppies, dubbed “Papaver sockeye pacifica” by Janet, as well as a succession of bulbs and annuals in pots that can be tucked into appropriate places as needed.

The success of this garden lies in Janet’s disciplined use of colours and plants. The repetition of colour and form, while cleverly avoiding the trap of mirror images, unites the many small beds in a larger pattern. At the same time, she likes to add a shot of contrast, such as the barn-red daylilies that bloom in midsummer. “They jar just enough to keep you interested in an otherwise pastel garden,” she maintains. Beds are built up annually with mushroom manure or bark mulch, “an absolute requirement,” according to Janet, “because the roots of boulevard trees invade every inch of ground.” Ground covers emerge enthusiastically through this rich blanket, and when they threaten to run amok, Janet takes everything out of the offending bed and starts rearranging it from scratch. Plants are divided regularly and volunteers judiciously removed to be potted up for giving away.

The same discipline applies to the area behind the house where the theme is yellow and blue, married once again with white and cream. Here the slope becomes steeper and the garden occupies a series of small plateaux connected by winding steps. A magnificent magnolia dominates the high ground, its graceful shape spreading protectively over yellow trilliums, leopard’s bane (Doronicum spp.) and Trollius x. cultorum ‘Lemon Queen,’ all underplanted with Corydalis lutea for another yellow echo. White bleeding hearts are part of this picture as well, mingled with ‘Thalia’ narcissus and the acid lime of spurges, particularly Euphorbia amygdaloides ‘Purpurea’ and E. dulcis ‘Chameleon,’ offering a potent mix of plums and purples tinged with chartreuse. Campanulas soften the colour scheme with their gentle blue, and will give way in summer to a bolder contrast of Shirley poppies in crimson and pink shades. Himalayan blue poppies thrive here too, multiplying with enthusiasm. Janet’s secret is to leave the seedlings undisturbed, close around their “mother.”

On the lowest level the back fence is crowded with vines, all green at this time of year but promising bright blooms as the weather warms. As early as April, Clematis ‘Comtesse de Bouchaud’ will open at least one shocking-pink bloom, a hand-span wide. Nearby, another clematis, the rich-purple ‘Jackmanii,’ is fighting with a climbing hydrangea and a vigorous rambler rose (‘Albertine’) for possession of the garage roof, helped out by a trellis that spans the steps to the back lane. Even in the lane, under sweeps of pale-pink Clematis montana, a garden flourishes by the garbage cans – “because the collectors deserve to take away more than the refuse,” Janet explains.

There is room, too, in the northeast corner of the garden for a small, terraced vegetable and herb garden presided over by David and off-limits to his wife. Between it and the climbing nasturtiums that he plants every year against the warm wall of the garage, two chairs occupy a small patio in the dappled shade of a pink dogwood. “We sit out here on summer evenings to show respect for David’s handiwork,” says Janet.

Looking around at Janet’s garden you might assume it keeps her occupied full time, but she has achieved all of it while holding down a senior position at Vancouver City Hall. Ask what inspires her and the answer comes without hesitation.

“I would say it’s lust.”

And then, more seriously: “I’m an amateur then as now – just tremendously keen.”

Master gardener Christine Allen is the author of three gardening books. Her latest work is Growing Up: A Gardener’s Guide to Climbing Plants for the Pacific Northwest.