House Beautiful: A sanctuary on Becher Bay

Homeowner spent 20 years transforming East Sooke property from a wilderness to a garden

Recent news reports have quoted assorted doctors, psychologists and leaders of studies saying that time spent in nature helps reduce stress, increase concentration and boost overall health.

That could explain why Ron Bellamy is such a together, healthy, laid-back guy, able to focus for hours at a time. He spends a good part of every day surrounded by nature in the seven-acre park-like property on Becher Bay he shares with Lisa Burrows, his wife of 15 years.

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Bellamy came to Sooke in 1997. He was born in Victoria and grew up in Vancouver, where he took a degree in forestry management. He worked in the industry for years then, after selling his share in a forestry company, moved back to Victoria.

He was considering a few properties in the Capital Regional District. The deciding factor wasn’t so much the property itself as its proximity to East Sooke Park. From Bellamy’s driveway on Becher Bay Road, it’s a short walk to the Aylard Farm entrance to the park.

When he bought the place, he got a six-year-old house with a paved driveway and spacious deck, and enough level ground to install a couple of tennis courts. (The couple are keen players and host tennis parties every summer.)

Down the slope toward the water, another deck has stairs leading down to a dock, from which they or friends can go kayaking or out in a rowboat. The property was largely forested, with a few gravel paths through the wood.

Bellamy spent the next 20 years transforming it from a wilderness to a garden. But it’s a garden that’s at home with the surrounding wilderness, a garden that stays close to its wilderness roots. Ferns feature in much of it, but when the plants get too messy and overgrown, Bellamy removes the messy bits and leaves room for new growth to glorify his garden.

“I like diversity,” Bellamy says of the different patches of garden, of the Japanese maples contrasting with the cedars. Rhododendrons and azaleas add splashes of colour to the landscape. Clumps of columbines or lilies of the valley add to the spring charm.

Occasionally the paths are blocked by homemade gates in tall fences that surround spaces where fruit trees grow. Needless to say, deer are regular visitors to Bellamy’s garden, and they’ll munch on anything that isn’t protected.

Bellamy points to one wooden fence, remarking that it’s due for some repairs. “I’ll use bamboo to fix it,” he says. “There’s lots growing on the property.”

In response to enthusiastic admiration from his visitors, Bellamy modestly explains that some of the highlights of the garden were almost accidental.

“Lots of things I did for practical reasons turned out to have a great aesthetic value,” he said. For instance, the gravel paths became overgrown with weeds. He replaced the gravel with slate paths, and found them not only mostly weed-free — although one path has a columbine growing out of a crack — but much better looking. Other paths are made of wood fastened together and covered in chicken wire to prevent slipping when the wood is wet.

The paths run all around the garden, interconnecting at various points. Only when he saw a photograph of his garden taken from a drone did Bellamy realize that half a dozen paths radiating out from the patio by the fish ponds look like a starfish from the air.

Those fish ponds are one of the highlights of the garden. A creek runs through the property, providing natural water features for much of the year. The first idea for a fish pond involved digging a big bowl and lining it with concrete.

This turned out to be more trouble and expense than Bellamy thought it was worth. A solution came serendipitously when he was looking for something to store water. A Duncan firm that makes large tanks for water storage was also able to provide above-ground fish tanks.

Now the “ponds” are set around a concrete patio, and thick glass panels in the side allow visitors to watch the golden koi and dark rainbow trout swimming around in their interconnected, 2,000-litre tanks.

Some of the visitors don’t understand the concept of glass; Bellamy has more than once had to clean heron mucus off the glass panels as hungry birds tried to reach the fish.

The open tops to the tanks are surrounded by several strands of wire, which is mildly electrified. This keeps such weaselly visitors as mink and otters from slaughtering the fish.

Bellamy says he lost his first lot of fish to predators. He tried various barriers, including lids over the tanks at night, but the otters managed to push their way in until he lit upon the electric-fence idea.

“They could get over it easily enough if they figured out how it works,” he said. “But so far, they haven’t.”

The deck beside the tanks is another example of form following function. The wooden covers over the water pumps and the bins containing fish food make a fine deck, over which Bellamy constructed a pergola that in spring is heavy with mauve wisteria.

The garden will be open to visitors on the Sooke Secret Garden Tour. The house will not be open to the public.

Built in 1991, it was designed to take advantage of the views over Becher Bay and Wolf Island. The kitchen and living room are in the centre, with a little breakfast nook between them, all overlooking the bay. The formal dining room faces the forest side of the house. At one end is the master bedroom, with glass doors leading to the deck overlooking the bay, and a huge master bathroom with jetted tub.

On the other end is a utility room and Ron’s office. Here, he works on his photography, a hobby that digital photography and computer editing has made more fun.

Visitors to the garden can see some of his pictures printed on metal and displayed outdoors. Friends will see a lot more of his work framed on the walls around the house, many of them showing his fondness for the owl families that live on his property.

Other photos show ducks, herons, eagles and hummingbirds. Ron stresses that this is a hobby, not a business, although he has participated in shows on occasion and Lisa says he is generous in donating his work for fundraisers close to his heart.

Lisa has her own creative hobbies, including making delightful little throw rugs from discarded textiles, such as old garments. While she’ll make special rugs as gifts for family and friends, “I’m not taking orders,” she says firmly.

Garden tour supports Sooke Philharmonic Orchestra

What: Sooke Secret Garden Tour

When: Sunday, June 2, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Tickets: $25, available from Eventbrite, Gardenworks, Dig This stores in Sidney and Royal Oak, Royal Bay Bakery in Colwood, Dinter Nursery in Duncan, and in Sooke at the Sooke Museum, Stick-in-the-Mud Coffee, Artisan’s Garden, Pharmasave and Shoppers Drug Mart.

The popular garden tour supports the Sooke Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus, which celebrates its 21st anniversary this year. The orchestra, under the artistic direction of Yariv Aloni, puts on half a dozen concerts each season, plus special events and its enormously popular (no-charge) July Fling, held in Ed McGregor Park.

The tour this year includes three gardens in East Sooke and one on Connie Road, as well as four scattered around Sooke and a special extra: the Artisan’s Garden, which features a gift shop and sells refreshments.

Several gardens will feature artists or artisans offering works for sale.

Sue Hyslop, a Sooke Philharmonic board member and tour organizer, stresses that a lot of the gardens are not easily accessible for anyone using a mobility aid. She recommends sturdy footwear and reminds visitors to be prepared for any weather.

Visiting all the gardens, which are scattered over a wide area, will take all day, so plan to picnic or stop for lunch at one of Sooke’s many restaurants.

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