House Beautiful: A blooming portrait by the sea

Jim English has always loved gardens and plants — something he inherited from his grandparents, mother and sisters, who all had green thumbs and gumboots.

After graduating from high school, he studied botany at the University of Alberta while looking forward to exploring the many lush and green branches of biology. But one day, he applied for dentistry school and was accepted.

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He had to focus on a new career path. Gardening became a favourite hobby, however, and he put himself through dentistry school in the summers from 1961 to 1963 by working at the University of Alberta’s Botanic Garden — that province’s largest botanical garden.

“We worked on a lot of experimental things and perennials from all over the world,” he said.

“I was the weak-mind and strong-back guy, preparing beds and tending things, but I learned a lot from the scientists and experts like Dr. James Whyte, who started the gardens.”

The property where he and his wife, Bettyanne, now live in Nanoose Bay is a testament to that ever-blooming interest.

Their garden brims with rhodos, hostas, dahlias, snapdragons, peonies, hydrangeas, hyacinths, irises, ornamental grasses and more, all thoughtfully and artistically arranged like a series of garden portraits.

They both feel blessed to be gardening here and not Alberta. Jim was born in Vermilion, just east of Edmonton, and Bettyanne near Kamloops, but they met and married in Edmonton and he practised dentistry in Calgary for 15 years.

After her parents and brother moved to Nanaimo, the Englishes moved to the West Coast, too, in 1980 and Jim continued his dental practice in Nanaimo and Nanoose for another 35 years.

They looked for a site to garden and found a one-third acre “raw yard close to Parksville,” and a new five-bedroom house for their three daughters and one son.

“This is a homegrown yard and I’ve done it all myself over the years,” said Jim of the luxuriant environment he has created with its series of bloom-crowded “rooms,” charming patios and quiet corners that are rampant with layers of colour and foliage.

“Things are really bushing out now,” said the enthusiast, pointing to many plants that are family heirlooms he propagated from stock with roots stretching back a century.

He is constantly creating new areas. His approach is not to be ultra fussy about it, but to create spaces featuring vibrant colour and also “buried” colour, with shades ranging from lime to dark green, from white to blazing scarlet and sizes small to large.

His goal has always been to design a series of vignettes. “I now have all kinds of them, including a cutting garden, shade gardens with 80 to 90 hostas, rhodo garden, perennials space, patios, pergola and the nursery.

“On the street side, I try to make it nice for people walking by with interesting flower beds that deer don’t like … It’s a full-on show right now with irises and peonies.”

He made all the round-topped picket fences, too, styled after ones he admired at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent, home of the famous gardener Vita Sackville-West. He is also taking her lead and bringing more and more white flowers into his garden.

“The pickets are about three and a half feet high, but the deer don’t jump them because of the heavy plantings either side. They only jump where they can see where they’re going.”

As well as seeing potential in the garden, he and his wife chose the property because they liked the home’s layout — although they envisioned several changes.

It had been an award-winner in an American architectural design contest back in 1978: “It was a cool plan and someone down the street copied it, in the obverse.”

Remodelling the home extended over many years and took it from “mock Tudor saltbox” to a seaside English cottage. Saltbox houses, commonly seen in New England, took their name from a wooden box used to store salt in Colonial times. Such houses had a steeply sloped roof with unequal sides, covering two storeys in front and one in back, which is how this home is designed, on a slope with one storey at the front and two at the back.

They removed the exterior faux Tudor planking and used horizontal Hardie board on the first storey, with shingles above for gables and shed roof dormers. They also built two additions on the water side at each end of the house: one an enclosed sunroom and the other a mirror image with matching skylights but no walls.

“We took out all the shag carpet and repainted all the dark moulding inside,” said Jim, 77. "There can be lots of dull days here, especially in winter, and we wanted to brighten it up.

“We also opened up the living and dining rooms, previously two different spaces, and reconfigured and enlarged the kitchen by combining it with a pantry.” They now have a rolling pantry that slides out of the wall to reveal the water heater behind.

“We would really love to have nine-foot ceilings, but this has been a great family house. All the kids grew up here and they all come home for family gatherings.”

The house has a lot of history, he noted with a chuckle, adding that during their 55-year marriage, he and Bettyanne managed to put their four kids through 19 years of univeristy,

Since retiring five years ago, Jim has revelled in this garden time and doesn’t mind the quietude one bit, especially after practising dentistry for 50 years.

“I enjoyed every day I went to the office, but when you’re around people in a very close environment, day in day out, a little solitude is good. We still have a very social life, especially with 10 grandchildren.”

And he is forever imagining new “rooms” and switching plants around — “You have to be adventurous when you garden” — and is typically seen walking around with a pair of sheers in his back pocket. “I just finished two new beds on the water side where it was previously a wild area. A fence put in 30 yers ago had rotted.”

He doesn’t buy a lot of plants.

“I split everything and never had to plant special things because of the ocean environment. We actually have a Mediterranean climate here, although I did put in a small cedar hedge to protect my rhodo grove.

“We have big trees in the area, so don’t get horrendous gales,” and his heirloom plants are super hardy anyway.

“We have a lot of stock from our parents’ and grandparents’ gardens, and I am now splitting things off and giving them to our daughters .…”

When plants are finished blooming, he always cleans the beds out and plants something else. “I have a lot in pots, because I don’t like to let things like daffs die off naturally. I have a whole nursery of plants and bulbs in pots that change with the seasons.”

Meanwhile, Bettyanne, 74, is a keen pruner who trims and shapes plants, and loves creating topiary. And they both love deadheading rhodos, which they enjoy while listening to CBC.

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