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MY LIFE WITH PLANTS: O Canada! Revisited

By Jim Bishop.

I wrote in my November 2013 column that a 1984 family trip to several gardens in British Columbia, Canada, was the inspiration for the first garden at my house in Encinitas. In June of this year I was able to revisit those gardens on a Pacific Horticulture Tour.

I moved to San Diego in 1983 after buying my first house. Being cash poor I did almost no maintenance on the outside garden for the first year and what little landscaping there was looked very sad. However, after visiting Canada the gardening bug bit me big time and set me on path of gardening and landscaping that has become the major avocation of my life.

In 1984 it was the raised display beds with large masses of color set against the undulating well-manicured green lawns in the quarry garden at Butchart Gardens that inspired me to create in my garden rolling mounds between the lawn and back hill and plant them with large color blocks of annuals and bulbs. While this is still done at Butchart, today the beds have taken on a slightly more nuanced look with a bit more mixing of shrubs, perennials and annuals. However, due to the amount of work required to maintain this look I gave it up decades ago, and I only had a small back lawn in Encinitas, which I made a little smaller each year.

Butchart in the 1980's

32 years later, Butchart still has overwhelming floral color and the rose garden is perhaps even more beautiful than ever. However, on this visit I found myself paying more attention to some of the less visited back gardens which have a stronger emphasis on shrubs and trees presented in a more naturalistic style. The Japanese themed garden displayed plants and hardscape of many textures and was designed for closer viewing that encloses you in the garden. The winding paths leading downhill and garden rooms are more similar to my current garden style than the large view of bright color patches of the quarry garden.

Butchart in the 2016

The second inspirational garden, and what for many years was my favorite landscape garden, is VanDusen Botanical Garden in the city of Vancouver. The water features of the former golf course were turned into large ponds and undulating hills planted mostly in the botanical style of grouping plants from the same region together. Today it also has a new LEED-certified visitor center. It was the variety and positioning of the well-placed large trees in this garden that inspired me, along with the unusual plants from all over the world.

However, what I found most interesting on the most recent trip, was how little overlap there is with plants I currently grow in my garden. Vancouver/Victoria and San Diego both like to boast about their mild weather and Mediterranean climates, but they are very different. A few months with only occasional rain in the summer is considered “dry” up there, while we have almost 9 months of no rain. With about 30 inches of annual rain, Victoria is one of the drier spots in coastal British Columbia but it would be considered very wet by Southern California standards. And there are wide differences in temperature, seasons, and the amount of sunshine. Consequently, most of the perennial shrubs and even fewer of the trees can be grown here without lots of supplemental water. At this time of year, most gardeners in BC are planting summer bedding plants, while in San Diego we are removing the last spent flowers of spring and watching much of our gardens go dormant until rain returns. The common use of lawns in gardens there is much rarer here…especially with society members. However, you more frequently see small patches of unused lawns in fronts of commercial buildings in San Diego. In BC, you more frequently see commercial landscapes designed to show the seasons with flowering trees or textured shrubs that give a sense of a garden and bring the buildings down to a more human scale.

Over the decades, I’ve learned to enjoy and appreciate the differences and also better understand that climate appropriate gardening is the way to go to have a successful garden. I doubt that I will ever try to recreate Canada in my backyard again.

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