City Garden in Oak Bay

Credit: Peter Symcox

When avid gardeners Hazel and Jerry Vanslyke purchased their retirement home in Victoria’s pretty suburb of Oak Bay, it was in spite of the surrounding yard, not because of it.

“There were shrubs in the wrong places,” Hazel says, “and a few attempts at beds but really not much.” Leading to the house, the front sported the standard stretch of lawn ending at two diseased trees on the boulevard.

Still, the Vanslykes wanted to move into the Oak Bay home centred on this 23 by 37 metre lot, and – as luck would have it – were up to the challenge posed by this uninspiring property. Jerry’s long-standing penchant for hardscape and keen eye for detail, and Hazel’s knack for growing unusual plants from seed have culminated, after 10 years of effort, in a garden of uncommon beauty.

After their purchase, the Vanslykes reassessed the front, decided “Who needs lawn?” and dug a big curving bed beside the front walk. “It started with a design,” Hazel says, “but the design has disappeared because I’m always trying to find space for just one more plant!” The two diseased trees were removed by municipal workers shortly after the Vanslykes moved in – when they came with replacements the couple said, “Just one please, and could you put it on the corner.” Beneath this tree now lies another bed that parallels the first, with a narrow grass path in between.

Hazel says they didn’t have an overall plan when they began. “We had needs, like the vegetable beds, so we did them first.” The Vanslykes’ back garden expertly models intensive gardening on a city lot. Vegetables grow in seven raised beds running east-west, while scarlet runners cover trellises at the east end, screening the beds from the deck and patio. Five dwarf apple trees, pruned flat, mark the south end of the beds, echoed by a row of dwarf pear trees at the north end. Behind the pears lies Jerry’s greenhouse, installed after the dreadful year in which tomato blight devastated Victoria’s gardens. Jerry’s tomatoes have been tucked safely under cover ever since. The greenhouse also harbours newly starting seeds and tender plants. Since they don’t grow as many vegetables as they used to now that their grown children have left the nest, Hazel uses the bed space for overwintering perennial divisions in pots.

Originally open to the alley, the back garden is now encased by rampant honeysuckle, which foams along the fence designed and built by Jerry. Self-seeded calendulas, feverfew, aquilegias, hollyhocks, poppies and money plants brighten the alley side. An old lilac bush, pruned high to display its distinctive trunk, anchors the southwest corner of the back garden and shades the unique compost boxes designed by Jerry. Made 25 years ago of notched wood, like log cabins, so they can be disassembled, the boxes came with the Vanslykes when they moved to Victoria. “We sold all the compost in them at a garage sale,” Hazel remembers.

The Vanslykes next added a small deck onto the rear of their house, with steps leading down to a brick patio, screened on the west end by a magnificent curving trellis designed and built by Jerry and supporting male and female kiwi vines. The patio is a hot spot where Hazel cultivates such unusual plants as Dicentra scandens and D. rubra in containers. An accomplished propagator, Hazel’s interest in rare and unusual plants was piqued by her involvement with Friends of Government House Gardens, a volunteer organization which tends the gardens at Government House in Victoria and attracts many of the city’s most erudite and knowledgeable horticulturalists. “Most of the plants in the garden I’ve grown from seed or cuttings or plant exchanges,” Hazel says. “I buy a few things just because they’re new and special.” Hazel uses a tiny unheated garden house, attached to one corner of the main house and brightly marked by the vigorous Clematis montana which rambles over it, as a potting shed for plant propagation.

Also notable is one of the property’s original plantings, a huge cedar tree with a split trunk, adapted by Jerry into a storage area when he added doors to the trunks. In the interior space, kept dry by the tree’s canopy, the Vanslykes store watering equipment, stakes and tools, another example of how they have utilized all available garden space to great advantage.

The Vanslykes also landscaped their side yards, areas often overlooked in the suburbs. On the north side, honeysuckle and pyracantha climb trellises on the house wall, with hostas and Solomon’s seal at their feet. Across the path, the Vanslykes share the border with their neighbour, blurring the property line, with benefits to both gardens. This border was originally dominated by an unruly tangle of thick, overgrown rhododendrons. Once they were pruned, the resultant increased light encouraged a previously hidden ‘Dr. Van Fleet’ rose to climb up one rhodo and bloom. Hardy geraniums, ferns, hostas, Jacob’s ladder and primulas now form an understorey here, as well.

Although south-facing, the other side of the Vanslyke residence is shaded by the neighbouring house and several large trees. There an espaliered flowering quince hugs the wall where a season’s continuous bloom begins with ‘February Gold’ daffodils, followed by camellias, rhododendrons, philadelphus, hardy geraniums and hydrangeas. An openwork fence with decorative finials, designed and built by Jerry, marks the property line and, he says, “lets in light and air for the plants but doesn’t create a wind tunnel for the neighbours.”

For all of their married life, Hazel and Jerry have shared a strong love for gardening. Since working on their first garden together in Montreal, they have moved several times, with each new home calling them to create something distinctive and memorable “because we gardened to suit the house and the climate.”

The Vanslykes agree that “this is our best garden, the biggest and most intensive, partly because of Victoria and partly because we have more time.” This culmination of talent and experience shows in one of the best small gardens in the city.