House Beautiful: A garden oasis in North Saanich

A meandering stream and three ponds rimmed in river stones, water iris, large-leaved gunnera and lilies — and glinting with flashes of golden koi — make a striking artistic statement at this lush Peninsula property.

The unique home and water world are the result of almost two decades of enthusiasm and commitment from owners Dick and Ann Tomlin.

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For 11 years, the Tomlins had a large strawberry farm on Oldfield Road, after which they moved to a home in the Dean Park subdivision for another 11 years.

But around 2000, they had a hankering to get back to the land and found an ideal, flat property that was just over an acre in North Saanich.

“Our views in Dean Park were disappearing, so I told Ann I would create a view for her on our own property, in our own backyard,” said Dick, a second generation Victorian who has been involved in business here, in Vancouver and in Calgary.

His grandfather moved here from England in the early 1900s and both he and Dick’s father worked for B.C. Cement Co. at a limestone quarry on Tod Inlet, later transformed into the world famous Butchart Gardens.

Ann, meanwhile, arrived in Victoria with her parents from Holland at age seven.

The Tomlins have transformed their previously unadorned land into an oasis, building a home there, too.

In designing the house, they borrowed ideas from model homes they toured while spending winters in Palm Springs over a period of 25 years.

Once they found the property, the couple sketched out a floor plan and had designer William Turkington create an “outside presence” for it.

“This style of house is typical of those you see in the south of France, in the wine country,” said Dick. “We didn’t want a home that looked pretentious or ostentatious. We wanted it to be friendly and welcoming.”

The result is a spacious one-level home with European flair, open plan, high ceilings and windows galore. There is even a full wall of windows in Dick’s extensive workshop.

From inside and out, the owners can enjoy views of water features, manicured plantings, kitchen garden and extensive lawns.

The public can see it all, too, on July 13, when the Tomlins open their gardens for a fundraising water-garden tour benefiting the For The Love of Africa Society.

Almost as soon as they purchased the property, the Tomlins envisioned a trio of water features.

“I was told if you build a creek, you will have natural filtration,” so he created a stream that stretches almost 40 metres between two of the three ponds. It recirculates back to the waterfall and creates an attractive element beside the gazebo.

Ann created unique leaf-shaped stepping stones for pathways by pouring concrete over moulds into which she had laid giant rhubarb leaves.

To “get rid of some of the garden,” Dick says, he installed a front duck pond. “With a pond there is no pruning, no weeding, no mowing.”

They also created a lavish vegetable garden with raised beds and a profusion of strawberries, raspberries, carrots, corn, broccoli, Swiss chard and scarlet runner beans.

Nearby is an aviary with a gorgeous red golden pheasant, doves, canaries, finches, cockatiels, budgies and lovebirds. The enclosure is fitted with an automated feeder that enables the owners to get away for up to three weeks at a time.

Roughly a quarter of the property is paved, which helps reduce the amount of mowing and gardening. Under the driveway, garage, entrance and front walkway is a dense layer of blasted rock. “We had 28 truckloads of it delivered because I like a dry yard, and didn’t want any settling or cracking.”

Is it all a tremendous amount of work? Not anymore, they say.

“Once the garden matures and bark mulch is spread, things are under control,” he said.

Ann admits she loves cutting the lawn, and enjoys the hour and a half of exercise. “The hardest part is emptying the bag,” she said.

They hire someone to do all the edging because they like nice sharp edges, and Dick takes care of the shrubs and pruning.

They put in about four hours every week in the spring and fall, but “when everything greens up, we do next to nothing,” Dick said.

The 2,700-square-foot house seems much bigger than it is with its roomy attached garage, which leads to a studio/hobby room for Ann. Outside, across a courtyard, is a second double garage with an extra-high roof where they used to keep a camper and boat.

It’s now part of a huge, double-sided workshop, with bathroom, wood-burning stove, television, central workbench, two long work counters on either side and just about every tool imaginable.

The home was built in 1990 by Fred Stein and sons, and the owners said it was done in just four months. “It was really easy because it’s a level lot,” said Dick. “They had building materials all around the house, so they didn’t have to go far for it and there was no scaffolding. It went up like crazy.”

As a finishing touch, he has added about 15 LED lights that shine up the trees. “And I’m a bit of a nut at Christmas and use more than 60 strings of lights. I get all carried away.”

The Tomlins are both 74 and still full of energy and gardening gusto.

Dick, who has taken landscaping courses, admits he is no professional designer, but he encourages others to dip their toes into gardening and maybe a water feature, too.

“A lot of us don’t accomplish what we could because we don’t believe in ourselves enough. I’d say, don’t be worried about mistakes. We are always taking plants in and out or moving them around. A garden is a work in progress.

“And you can make a lovely water feature in a space that’s just 10 feet by 10 feet.

“The longer you keep busy and have stuff to do, the more you laugh and smile and enjoy life. Absolutely.”

Victoria Water Garden Tour

When: 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. July 13

Where: 10 local gardens from Victoria to Deep Cove

Tickets: $25. More information and maps at watergardentour.ca

Note: The tour is a fundraiser for the For the Love of Africa Society, which helps to create a better life for those living in Tanzania.

This year’s self-guided tour showcases a variety of unique water features, fountains, ponds, streams, waterfalls and lakes in pesticide-free environments that are safe for birds and pollinators. They range from an urban oasis in Oak Bay and artistic koi pond in Fairfield to human-made ponds and natural waterscape. Garden designers include Shibusa Pond and Landscape Services, Wildwood Waterscapes, Chi Earth and Waterscape and Del Sol Designs.

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