Seaside Splendour: Secret Garden on Vancouver Island

Credit: Gillian Reece

From the study in Pauline Watkins’ Vancouver Island home, windows look out on three rewarding vistas: to the west is her delightful secret garden; to the north an entrance patio full of pots; and to the south a tiny raised terrace backed by a cedar hedge. When Pauline walks out of the study and looks east, wide picture windows frame an enticing sea view glimpsed through several towering firs.

This enviable four-sided vista did not exist in 1983, when Pauline and her husband Peter bought this third of an acre overlooking Cordova Bay, on the east side of Victoria’s Saanich peninsula. The long, narrow and largely sloped site contained two ancient climbing roses, cedar hedges, a few conifers and an expanse of gravel on either side of the driveway. Only a Japanese cedar and a low, open fence screened the house from the road.

“During the first winter I just read about gardening,” Pauline recalls. Although she had grown vegetables in Calgary, Pauline says she felt like a novice when she began gardening in Victoria. A musician by training, she found her musical education helped her design the garden. “I think in terms of form and shape and repeated elements.” Pauline wanted a series of rooms, each offering new vistas and surprises, and privacy both from the road and from neighbouring properties.

After a winter of research and planning, the Watkins removed the gravel from beside the driveway and planted a mixed border instead. Across the drive, they constructed stonework walls, forming raised beds to screen the now secret garden from both the drive and the road. “I made the walls two feet high, so the plants, although young, would already be up high enough to work as screening,” Pauline explains. The plants here include a saucer magnolia (Magnolia x soulangeana), a Conference pear, a prune plum, rhododendrons, hollies, and a magnificent weeping katsura by the entrance gate. Peter later added a circular rose garden in the middle of the space.

The brickwork of the raised beds supports a handsome wrought iron gate, which creates a welcoming entryway to the garden. The entrance patio, covered with terra-cotta-coloured tile, is a sun trap, kept warm by the sheltering U-shaped wings of the house, and it makes “an excellent spot for a pre-dinner drink,” as Peter notes. It’s also home to Peter’s bonsai collection, plus tender potted plants such as bougainvillea. More containers – including Peter’s handmade troughs – are clustered at the entrance to the secret garden, and hold everything from statuesque phormiums to the unusual blue-green cerinthe.

The Watkins built a raised terrace at the back of the house to take advantage of the stunning water view. The flat top of the terrace’s low stone wall also provides opportunity for more containers. Unlike some property owners, Pauline and Peter chose not to cut down all the trees to gain an uninterrupted view of the water. In fact, their wonderful vista is enhanced by the majestic 45-metre firs at the edge of the cliff. Here, Pauline added rhododendrons, hollies and Rosa glauca to an understory of native flowering currant (Ribes odoratum) and native snowberry (Symphoricarpos). These shrubs shelter perennials ranging from hosta to monkshood, as well as a number of native ferns that Pauline has encouraged. She plants for a long period of interest here, so that by late summer or early fall there are orange lilies, ‘Lucifer’ crocosmia, Japanese anemones and gooseneck loosestrife (Lysimachia clethroides).

Overlooking the water, raised vegetable beds and raspberry and currant patches occupy the southeast corner of the property, along with the Watkins’ three-bin compost system. This working area may boast the best view in Victoria. “Someone asked me why we had the compost area here,” Pauline laughs. Obviously this non-gardener did not realize how much time Pauline spends at the compost!

Two openwork fences, each punctuated with a gated fence, offer privacy from the neighbours to the north and south, while still allowing both the Watkins and their neighbours a view of each other’s garden. “I try to give both neighbours nice plants for their sides,” Pauline explains. The northern fence supports a number of climbers, including variegated ivy, winter jasmine, hydrangeas, the rose ‘Cecile Brunner’ and clematis ranging from Clematis armandii and C. montana to ‘Nelly Moser’ and C. ‘Jackmanii,’ ensuring year-round interest.

For her southward neighbours, she has planted an enormous ‘Madame Carriere’ rose, intertwined with a purple Clematis ‘Jackmanii Superba’ and C. tangutica. On this side, a pink palette holds sway west of the gate with hardy geraniums, lacecap hydrangeas and mallows all in shades of pink to rose. Nearby, an enormous phormium (Phormium tricolor), its red edge echoed by the scarlet berries of a mountain ash behind it, dominates a mixed border. “I’m trying to keep this border red and orange,” Pauline says, “with yellows and blues in the spring.”

“My problem is that I love plants, so when I see something I like, I buy it and then I have to find someplace to put it,” Pauline confesses. Fortunately, adding extra notes to the symphony that is the Watkins’ garden simply enhances its harmony.

Pauline’s tips

1. Use plant trolleys (saucers with casters) under potted tender plants so that they can be easily moved indoors for overwintering.

2. When choosing plants for containers, look for contrasts in shape and texture. For example, combine the spikiness of dracaena with the rounded softness of petunias and helichrysum.

3. If you live close to the water, grow cherry or other small tomatoes rather than the larger varieties that won’t ripen. Grow them as close to the house as possible to take advantage of the house’s shelter and reflected heat.

Jill Stewart Bowen, a Victoria garden writer and past president of the Victoria Horticultural Society, frequently lectures on gardening.