An artist looks at a blank canvas and sees colour and images where the rest of us see only a void. An artist has the uncanny ability to see things whole, whereas even the most aesthetically inclined might see only bits and pieces. Kathy Leishman is that rare person: the artist as gardener. She has created two of the most innovative gardens in the country. When people say, ?Oh, you could never leave your garden.? Kathy would say: ?Just watch me.? She was not only able to leave her mature West Vancouver garden in 1995, she moved to Bowen Island and a year later had a garden pretty much sketched out and planted.

The new house, which straddles the island lot, has a spectacular panoramic view of the ocean. The site was covered with cedar, Douglas firs, salal, blackberries, and horsetail all growing in poor rocky soil. It is, however, on a very well-drained slope facing south southwest-any gardener?s dream. Large firs and cedars on the north side were left for protection from the prevailing winds and no fences were installed on the seaward side of the house. The Leishmans wanted a feeling of wildness, of not being cloistered.

The construction of house and garden went hand in hand right from the beginning. Topsoil is normally hived off and resold without the owner?s knowledge. Here there was enough space not only to store topsoil but also to bring in tons of extra soil, coarse peat and mushroom manure and mix it with existing topsoil in situ. The bobcat was there anyway and in her words ?It saves so much wheelbarrowing.?

The house, which echoes their neighbour?s graceful roof line, is so perfectly settled into the land it?s hard to believe how recently it was built. Like many west coast homes, it is a combination of glass and wood designed with a natural blurring of the lines between in and out of doors. The excavated soil was moved so the deck is almost at ground level. ?We didn?t want to perch,? says Kathy who?d just moved from a hillside house. Here, she wanted to rest in a sea of grasses. A large Douglas fir quite naturally became the focal point and gives a striking perspective for the extraordinary ocean view.

On the right hand side of the fir tree, the property drops off quickly and more soil was added to eliminate any sense of walking along a precipice. The path is very wide-eight feet in some places-and is sunk just enough to give a feeling of being cosseted. Two-by six-foot lengths of wood are held up by pieces of Rebar and back-filled with gravel and landscape cloth. Although the landscape cloth doesn?t inhibit weeds completely it does prevent the really horrendous ones. The finishing touches are two-by-fours running across the top. The path, which fits gracefully into the landforms, is softened by masses of plants on each side as it wends toward the Douglas fir, then angles off to stairs heading down to a private cove.

Her inspiration comes from books and travel, but mostly it?s a finely tuned instinct to do something ideal for a specific location. For instance, the very first day the Leishmans walked the site, they saw piles of deer droppings everywhere. And on an island with no predators, they knew it was a serious gardening problem. In her understated way, Kathy refers to them as ?an interesting challenge.? Especially at night, she murmurs, when they come clopping through and bash at shrubs to rub the velvet off their antlers. ?Makes you want to throw rocks at them next time you see them.? But they didn?t want to have a fenced in compound and they did want to keep that feeling of immense space which drew them here in the first place. As a result she?s found ways to discourage the deer from nibbling at the garden by filling up the seaside area with plants either so scented they won?t eat them, or which contain dangerous compounds certain to muck up their digestive systems.

The look she decided on was to be rich, soft and rounded with no big splashes of colour and the odd punctuation of a pine tree. The plants now spill down the hill in sensuous splendour. At the end there is a Spartium juncium, with brilliant yellow blooms growing near Pinus thunbergi. Though she feels the spartium isn?t particularly stunning, it?s never touched and it has a sweet scent..

The sea of grasses does give a wild and free feeling to the landscape. They are a mix of cool and warm season grasses: Some start to grow while the weather is still cool (fescue, stipa and Arrhenatherum elatius bulbosum) and others such as miscanthus grow later in the season. ?In winter when it?s clear,? Kathy says, ?I can see their lovely shimmery heads against the water. And they are always great in the wind.?

The design of the gate and fences, which surround the leeward side of the house is brilliant, in scale with everything around. It takes a while to become aware of the fencing even though it?s at least eight or nine feet high-less than that and the deer can vault over. ?My idea was to plant woody vines at that height and to be neighbour friendly. I didn?t want a fortress. I had seen shots of Robert Bateman?s garden on Salt Spring and he had a fence with low wooden panelling and more open structure above. So, though we didn?t copy it exactly, it was quite influential in my thought process.? In the Leishman garden there are boards on the bottom with 2 by 4 posts and wire above. Wires was strung horizontally by hand. A big mistake since it was labour intensive, is expensive to repair and it won?t take the weight of the heavy kiwi vines Kathy planned to fling over it. But it works?the deer definitely stay out.

Deep in the background is a huge gunnera surprising in this wild landscape but it grows in a natural seepage. ?I wasn?t sure it was appropriate for what I wanted to do.? Kathy muses ?But I happened to look at a picture of a wild but very dry setting in Chile and there is the gunnera growing right down to the sea.? This will eventually become a secret garden for their grandchildren complete with driftwood benches. The gunnera will be removed and she?ll install a combination of boxwood and thyme. A combination she?d recommend anywhere.

The Terrace Garden

From the beginning, house and garden have been completely integrated. ?We made a focal point from the inside by using a set of French doors in the central part of the main room. You then look up the walkway, past two sets of terraces to another fir tree which becomes pivotal when you look at the sea side toward the Douglas fir.? A flat area around the entry pushes the slope back from the house and leaves what has become a gravel garden. This fronts the terraces which were easily sculpted during the bobcat regime. The stone walls, constructed by contractor Conrad Wood, were from the area (though not the island). Though they are a bit formal, they give her a place where she can rush out and play in what Kathy calls her Twenty Minute Garden. It?s a place where there are plenty of interesting plants and where she can experiment. ?It is so small that I can go out and titivate it and feel I can get something done. Whereas the rest of the garden needs two buckets and a mattock (the tool of choice for a rocky slope) to accomplish anything at all.?

Bergenias were one of the first choices for this area. ?I like the big broad shiny leaves against rock.? Kathy says ?It gives a sense of balance at the base of the border. Plants from my other garden?a little Geranium ?Kashmir white?, Iris pallida; a chieranthus (wallflower); a Parahebe and a crambe?were popped in immediately. I wanted to make a gentle, mixed border with lots of pretty things that would look good all year and not to fuss too much about colours.?

On either side of the steps she used mirror or opposite plantings which ended up looking half-hearted on one side beyond the second flight of steps. The firs on this east side grab the light and suck every bit of goodness out of the soil. This is one of those lessons gardeners will often find: it takes only an inch or two, up or down for nature to change its cultural requirements. ?I could have watered a lot but my abiding principle has been not to further water or fertilize after planting. If you do that,? she says ?you go with the flow.? In this case it means changing the whole planting to have shrubby thymes and fescues to give a fuzzier look to the stark bases of the firs. On the opposite side there are small orchard trees. ?I think it?s going to be quite peaceful and decent all year. I don?t like big bare patches. It?s not so bad if you have snow but not good if you just have muck.?

In a painterly way, she uses green to make a framework and then sets out her palette in lines of bloom and layers of foliage. The boxwood on the upper stone ledge-kept rounded-are an interesting silhouette in winter and in summer they are restful. Your eye goes up and then moves sideways. But perfection means no plant in this garden can feel safe: a huge lavatera was ripped out just because it was too dazzling. ?It?s exciting when you first tackle a new plot. You pile it on because things are sparse and the shrubs are still just sticks. Now I?m trying to sift through and re-define what I?m doing or refine what I?ve done.?

The gravel garden near the house is a bit of serendipity. Kathy designed pebble pavers when the construction equipment was still there: She collected buckets of pebbles, and placed them in a square form. ?Every time they poured cement I just ran around and stuck my little squares in place and we brushed then off so they stood up a little. If you look closely they are a little proud.?

A finished look was needed near the entrance and that?s where a harmonious combination of hellebores and euphorbias welcome guests. She filled in with woody plants adding special features to shine in each season. Cornus ?Midwinter fire? has coral stems and with a Helleborus foetidus to add a dramatic lime contrast for winter interest. Then in spring Euphorbia characias doing its bit lolling on the ground at its feet. ?In the summer time this area has quieter colours when there so much else to distract your eye. From the inside you catch the green of a fern, Dryopteris affiinis ?The King? on one side and H. sternii on the other, and it?s gentling when you look at the all the flowering beyond.?

Containers find themselves carefully placed, changed, moved around on an annual basis depending how they relate to what?s looking good in the garden. She redesigns them every year. Though one scented geranium has gotten to three feet high and four feet across. She and her husband, David, struggle into the greenhouse in its big pot. She doesn?t worry if it gets knocked about as long as the roots survive.

The greenhouse, she felt, brought an obligation-it must be used, otherwise, it just sits there and reproaches you. ?I do lots of cuttings.? Kathy says. ?I like to propagate things which seem adaptable to this environment and it always handy to give them to friends with the same problems. I have on-growing rows of cistus and boxwood. I always want more because I?m trying to fill up my lot and this is an effective way to do it.? In the winter, the greenhouse holds tender fuschias; echeverias which will survive as long as they aren?t wet and it doesn?t get too cold; chocolate cosmos in a pot; and aeonium (the big succulent with a thick purple flower-like top) which would all be annuals without a greenhouse.

One of the marvels of Kathy Leishman?s garden is her ability to pick up the tone of one plant and repeat it in another. The Warm Border running alongside the driveway gets western light in late afternoon turning it into a stained glass window at that time of day. To do something like this requires a well-trained eye. She doesn?t hesitate for a moment to move anything out of the way that doesn?t quite work. Light is the key. Hot colours tend to look garish in direct light. ?I knew I wanted it to be warm tones, and broke it down not so much to red but more toward the deep orangey tones.? She had glowing orange tulip, called T. springerii which blooms at the same time as a more warm peachy pink tree peony. It didn?t quite work. Out came the tree peony to be moved closer to a Rosa chinensis mutabilis. Now the orange tulip is happily ensconced among the Anthriscus sylvesteris ?Ravenswing? and the smoke bush. This was a tulip she raised from seed which took five years. ?The first year it bloomed, I got down on my knees.? she says. It was an easy choice to make which would be moved.

The garden, to Kathy, is full of enchantment. Her warm border was inspired by a wonderful one she saw in San Francisco. The owner referred to it as her Bruised Border: everything was in shades of brown, yellow-green and purple. ?It was so much fun to see how she played with it.?

Play is as important in the life of the garden artist as the search for new and interesting plants. It is also a life of never being quite satisfied, never being finished. These are qualities that all gardeners share in some way. Kathy Leishman has taken it a step further pushing the limits of her garden and inspiring others.

Putting it Together

  1. Light is the key to putting plants together. Know how it will fall on the border (morning, noon or later afternoon). In Kathy Leishman?s case the sun was late afternoon which meant that hot colours wouldn?t look garish. She decided on a stained glass effect.
  2. Choose a limited range of colours. Find one good plant and pick up a tone from there in another. She uses warm tones heading to the peach and orange and then backs it up with deeper burgundy foliage.
  3. Choose a major plant to anchor the border. Then pick up a tone and repeat it in another plant. In this case Kathy used a Cotinus coggygria ?Grace? as the starting point, added Lonicera ?Red tip? which has the same burgundy flush in its new growth as the purple smoke bush. The same peach with an overlay of orange is echoed in a helianthemum. Anthriscus sylvestris ?Raven?s wing? adds some depth and Euphorbia dulcis ?Chameleon? gives a settling note to the combination here and helps add a deeper tone. Hypericum ?Aldbury purple? fits in with the Iris ?Holden Clough?.
  4. Think of all four seasons: spring here find a mass of early Tulipa ?General de Witt? (a yellowy orange) which comes up with the anthriscus, an incredibly versatile self-seeder. She has Tulipa springerii with very narrow foliage, a buff flower on the outside and a brilliant orange when it opens.
  5. Choosing grasses can be very useful in making combinations. Stipa arundinacea, for instance has all the warm tones she was looking for overlaid on green.
  6. Always be on the prowl for something in the right tone: Kathy found an Iris ?Pacific coast? at a sale in San Francisco. It takes a lot of dryness and it?s evergreen. I.?Holden Clough? she saw at the Perennial Plant sale at UBC. ?I didn?t plan to have it but I bought it because I knew it would go. Sometimes you can?t plan it thoroughly. Dumb luck is something you have to be grateful for.?

Kathy Leishman’s Deerproof Plants

All of the plants on the list must be tempered with Kathy?s advice that you have to experiment. These are the plants she used:

  1. Low growing pines such as P. thunbergii and the native shore pine P. contorta.
  2. Grasses and lots of them.
  3. Stachys of any species, though her favourite is ?Primrose heron? which has a striking yellow-green summer foliage.
  4. Artemisias: any will do, the deer hate them all. A.?Huntington?, A. ?Powys Castle? are both easy to strike from cuttings; A. versicolor; and A. canscens don?t like moisture and do well in dry areas.
  5. Lavender: just about any lavender hardy to the area offends deer.
  6. Potentilla which she refers to as an obliging plant that people sneer at unfairly because they connect them with public plantings. But P. ?Abbotsford White? and P. ?Gold drop? with its warm cinnamon-y bark look especially good with silver, gray and the dark green of the pine.
  7. Hypericum has a compound in it that affects the deer?s stomachs.
  8. Boxwood: all of them are wonderful because they look glittery all winter. It?s easy to keep them clipped or freeform and you can get tall or short one. Kathy clips just after a flush of growth (in her area around June); then again September to keep them rounded. They will grow to ten feet if you don?t
  9. Achillea ?Moonshine? in swathes.
  10. Solanum ?Glassnevin? at the side of the house is poisonous and untouched by animals.

Tufa containers with a very old saxifraga and the Helleborus sternii looks fabulous. Kathy Leishman works around the posts of the house with plantings in this very protected area.

Bench is perfectly placed but it presents the Gardener?s conundrum: pretty to look at and nice to sit in but a uninspiring view. We popped the bench there and I thought ?yes.? Plant behind: Hydrangea variegated leaves (the heavy shade means few blooms), yellow plant is Cornus ?Midwinter Fire? has coral stems made apparent in the winter is a stunner and from the house you see it with the ferns.

Hakenachloa macra ?Aureola? with golden baby tears. She searched out this combination until she found one that would work.

Iris pallida and Cerinthe major sit on a little terrace. The palette is contrast that?s the area in front of the house and that nice gladiola all off the front door.

Fern in trough by bench Polystichum polyblepharum.

View from house: ferns, hellebores, cornus, euphorbia.

Kathy Leishman is a partner with Geri Barnes in Leishman-Barnes Plant & Garden Consultants.