Victoria Flowers & Gardens

Canadians insist that we couldn’t bear to live anywhere else than where we find ourselves in our own gardens. We know how to deal with the peculiarities of climate, we love our plants. But there is a lingering doubt about Victoria, B. C. It’s warmer, sunnier, prettier and more gardeny than anywhere else in Canada. We twitch, albeit, subtly with a bit of garden envy.

I was at the Victoria Flower & Garden Show which ran from July 12 to 14 and it was a treat. The show is very small compared with, say, Canada Blooms in Toronto, but the location alone is worth a visit, unlike Toronto. It’s held on the grounds of The Hatley Park Estate at Royal Roads University and what grounds. Apart from a long sweep of grass running ever downwards to the sea with the Olympic Mountains in the background, it has its own fantastic gardens which were a riot of bloom and in superb condition. There is a wonderful formal rose garden and a Japanese garden both worth looking at any time of the year.

At the show there were only a dozen demonstration gardens but the ones we gave prizes to (I was a judge) were top notch. There was The Wild Garden Party: a teaching garden that used native plants and organic gardening techniques in such a good way I thought it would make a great permanent installation. Selfishly, I’d like to go back in a few years and see how the plants mature. Another, based on the influences of the foreshore made me want to move plants around (judging does that to you): take the Japanese maples out (not shoreline plants) and put native grasses in their place and you’d have something close to perfection.

The Abkahzi Garden, The Spirit of the Place, though small, was exquisitely designed by Valerie Murray who is also the head gardener at the Abkahzi. This place has become a must-visit. The renovations of this venerable garden will go on for years and the initial border crammed with old rhododendrons is not yet very interesting. But once you get out of the woodland on to the rock on which the major garden sits, it is stunning in its beauty.

This show was more about plants than heavy duty garden design which seems right for a place like Victoria. They can grow a humongous variety of plants and mostly very interesting ones. But this visit was like a time test. It would be hard not to love Victoria because the gardeners there are so very very creative and generous. The hard-to-get plants are usually grown from seed by accomplished gardeners. I came back with a variegated hellebore from one such person. But this trip was unusual in that regard. A few years ago, I’d come back with bags full of plants I could never find back home. Gardeners across the country in the meantime have become so much more sophisticated and the nursery trades have kept up with them to the point that we can get almost anything we want now, right across the country.

This time as well as the hellebore, I bought a Lonicera nitida ‘Bagwessen’s Gold’ (hard to find here practically a weed there) and a Libertia peregrinans (never seen it before and a little beauty). The latter is shaped like a phormium, the spikey foliage is much stiffer and smaller and more grass like with conspicuous veins, brown bracts with orange-brown anthers. I suspect I won’t be bringing this indoors, or overwinter it in my shed with any success so it will become a wonderful memory of a great show.

Victoria is definitely the place to go if new garden ideas are what you’re looking for. The Horticulture Centre of the Pacific, unknown to me until this trip, is amazing. It’s worth a visit in winter to see the Doris Page Garden. But for now in the midst of the extensive gardens, there are magnificent borders designed, planted and maintained by the local Hardy Plant Group. It is spearheaded by Carmen Varcoe and small group of volunteers who deal with it once a month.

Here’s where you can see combinations of plants that are so dramatic they will discombobulate anyone east of the Rockies. I was knocked out by how they use big plants in a spectacular way. Arundo donax as a background (though not hardy here there are lots of other huge grasses that are) or Heracleum, gigantic cow parsnip in the middle of a border so you can’t jiggle those seeds (every one will germinate). I usually stick these plants to one side but no more they are going to be moved forward and centred. Physocarpus ‘Diabolo with Rubus cockburnianus (ghost bramble) and purple beech is a glorious combination. A hot border includes euphorbias, Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ and lots of intense yellow and orange blooms. It is breathtaking. A more muted border of Artemisia lactiflora ‘Guizho’, Cimicifuga ‘Brunette’, Knautia macedonica, ballota (which we outsiders can only grow as an annual) and purple salvia as an edging is another marvelous statement.

What’s most interesting is that these borders have very much the same problems as residential gardens: it’s hard to step back and get a good look at them from a distance. This makes them a real inspiration. This perennial part of the garden was designed (sort of, says Varcoe) to be seen at the height of summer. Their hope was that most of the plants are available everywhere. But, and here’s the hard part, it’s all done with a great painterly eye and sense of dash. Colour comes mainly from the foliage in my eye’s memory, with perfect shapes and forms flowing one to the other in harmony in some areas, contrasts in another. The colours are blazing with purple, burgundy and best of all gold mixed together in dazzling arrangements.

It’s one thing to have the scope of gigantic borders and a great growing climate and another thing to have a little downtown garden. When I returned home, my own beloved garden looked a little plain, a little too green. But I’ll get over this, though not easily. I am now encouraged to plant many more grasses, more spikey things, add more coloured foliage especially blue and gold. And best of all get some monumental stuff in there. Yes, Victoria is a great place to visit but one does come away with just a teeny tweeny bit of garden envy.