For 12 years, the Southlands property of gardener Julie Lane Gay and husband Craig has been in the business of growth. The spacious property, which once housed Quail Hollow Climbers and Perennials, is now fertile ground for four growing children and a gardener’s wish list of plants, among them dozens of clematis.
Julie and Craig chose the property, then consisting largely of horse pasture, for its Southlands location—the Vancouver neighbourhood is one of the city’s only nursery-friendly areas.
Perhaps it’s the sound of horses clip-clopping by, but the property’s origins are never too far from mind. It’s also because Julie and Craig wanted to ensure the design of the house and garden was “appropriate to the area.”
Inspiration from many sources
The neighbourhood isn’t the only influence on the garden’s design: “I describe it as “English country meets West Coast,” Julie says. “I grew up outside San Francisco, so I love the West Coast.” Thomas Church, the American landscape architect, garden designer, author and pioneer of the ‘California Style,’ was another source of inspiration. Finally, Julie wanted the garden to be casual enough for her children to feel at home in it.
It’s a combination that works. Behind it all is a love of plants. “As much as I love a garden, I just find the plants themselves so interesting,” Julie says.
The power of plant play
Although she has since closed her nursery, Julie still has a fondness for researching and testing plant varieties. Once she falls for a particular genus, she’ll often track down seeds from all over the world so she can try more species.
“Often only one out of the whole group is stellar,” Julie says, “but what gets me excited is when I find one that isn’t commonly known that I think is a winner.”
The long, raised beds in the “town square,” named for the village of small buildings that surround it, are ideal for this type of horticultural experimentation. Enclosed by clematis and climbing rose-adorned posts threaded with shipyard rope, an idea inspired by the Queen’s Rose Garden in England, the raised beds allow Julie to test a plant’s response to various soil and drainage conditions.
“If there’s one part of my garden I’ve loved and enjoyed, this is it,” Julie says. “I can see what’s working and what isn’t. I can say, “yes, this works” or, “no, you failed.” Now I just need to actually get rid of the plants when they’re not succeeding!”
If having space for experimentation is one of the benefits of a large property, maintenance is one of its drawbacks. “It can be overwhelming,” Julie admits.
One solution? Having distinct low-maintenance areas. For example, Alchemilla mollis (Lady’s Mantle) and Geranium macrorrhizum, planted en masse along the driveway, make a clean and graceful swath of green.
Aiming high for low-maintenance
The garden by the front door is also predominantly green, and remains so year-round. “Because my life is always chaotic,” Julie laughs, “I wanted it to be very clean-looking and low-maintenance.” Next to the door, a winter-flowering honeysuckle shrub (Lonicera purpusii) is covered by the lime-green foliage and scarlet flowers of Tropaeolum speciosum (Scottish Flame Thrower, Flame Creeper) an herbaceous climber that proved one of the most popular plants at the nursery.
There’s also a large lawn, which in addition to providing a visual resting place for the eye, is easy to care for.
“I have very mixed feelings about my lawn,” Julie says. “Generally I think lawns are too consuming of water, but in a garden this big it’s so nice because it’s one less thing to worry about. You just mow it.”
Adjacent to the lawn, a crushed-gravel pathway meanders through the trees that surround the property. Dawn redwood (Metasequio glyptostroboides), a deciduous conifer that turns golden in fall, is planted with Willow, Ornamental Cherry, Birch, Aspens, Katsura (Cercidiphyllum japonicium) and Sweet Gum (Liquidamber styraciflua) for colourful effect. Here too the low-maintenance philosophy rules. Large drifts of shade plants and native species form a tidy woodland scene; Arum italicum with its bright red berries punctuates the green of hostas and anemones. “Plant three hostas instead of one,” Julie advises. It not only creates more impact in a large space, but is also lower-maintenance.
“When the garden was designed, we planned these long, very beautiful perennial borders,” Julie says. “Now we’re pulling stuff out because it’s just so much work.” Instead, she invests her time in making a few areas very special.
Quality over quantity
One of these areas Julie calls her kitchen garden, “not really in the true sense, but in the sense that I look at it from my kitchen. I study it probably way too much,” she laughs. Here, Julie uses Salvia patens (Gentian Sage) for high-impact colour. It doesn’t fit the low-maintenance bill (it’s not totally hardy so is overwintered in the greenhouse) but flowers continuously and provides great autumn colour. For Julie, it’s worth the extra work: “I plant it out in April and don’t fuss about it again until fall. They’re great value.”
The garden by the brick patio also enjoys the star treatment. “My husband and kids really enjoy the brick patio, and we eat out here during the summer, so I allow myself a little more time with it,” she says. The south-facing beds hold year-round interest.
“I really enjoy having a four-season garden, so I always try to extend what I have. It’s a fun challenge,” she says. One of her secrets to four-season colour involves using herbaceous clematis to extend the season. “They don’t have tendrils so they don’t climb,” Julie says, “so I put them through every shrub in the garden.”
Clematis is undoubtedly Julie’s favourite genus. “Clematis was my nursery’s specialty. I love them,” she states emphatically. Still, she claims not to have a favourite. “It really depends on my mood, and what’s in bloom that day,” Julie laughs.
“Sharing my garden and enjoying it with others is very important to me,” she says, “and the plants themselves are such a reflection of God’s creativity.”
The following plants are hardy to the zone number indicated:
Alchemilla mollis (Lady¹s Mantle) Zone 4
Arum italicum (Italian Arum) Zone 5
Betula pendula Dalecarlica (Silver Birch) Zone 4
Cercidiphyllum japonicium (Katsura tree) Zone 4
Clematis x diversifolia ‘Olgae’ (Zone 3)
C. OInspiration¹ (‘Zoin’) Zone 4
C. durandii (Zone 4)
C. ‘Huldine’ (Zone 4)
C. ‘Pagoda’ (Zone 4)
C. ‘Polish Spirit’ (Zone 4)
C. ‘Prince Charles’ (Zone 4)
C. rehderiana (Zone 5)
C. ‘Rooguchi’ (Zone 5)
Erysimum ‘Bowles’ Mauve’ (Shrubby Wallflower) Zone 6
Geranium macrorrhizum (Bigroot Cranesbill) Zone 2
Liquidamber styraciflua (Sweet gum) Zone 5
Lonicera x purpusii ‘Winter Beauty’ (Winter-flowering honeysuckle) (Zone 5)
Metasequio glyptostroboides (Dawn Redwood) Zone 4
Nandina domestica (Heavenly Bamboo) (Zone 7)
Salvia patens (Gentian Sage) Zone 8
Tropaeolum speciosum (Scottish Flame Thrower) Zone 8
Viburnum (Zone 3)
First published in GardenWise magazine, 2004.