House Beautiful: A ship-shape seaside garden

Sweeping forward like the prow of a ship, with flags of British Columbia and Alberta snapping in the wind, this appealing Uplands garden seems ready to float off into the waters of Oak Bay.

The irregular-shaped property, which comprises more than half an acre, extends seaward and slopes gently down about 10 metres. The home is built on solid rock at the high point, offering excellent views from the living rooms as well as an upper balcony.

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With its variety of ecosystems and topography, the site has given its owners, who are both garden lovers, a challenge and much delight over many years.

And visitors can soon enjoy the diversity too — from dry Mediterranean in the front to rainforest in the back — as the garden is being featured on the Victoria Conservatory of Music’s 37th annual tour May 11 and 12 (see sidebar page E7).

Verne and Dawn Johnson have lived here for a decade and have done little to the house itself, beyond routine maintenance, but they have utterly transformed the outer landscape from stem to stern, from overgrown tangles of brambles to herbaceous borders and swaths of bulbs.

“We didn’t do it all at once but in stages,” said Dawn, who dug up, cut back and yarded out all of the overgrowth herself. “She did all the clearing and creating, I just fetch and carry,” explained Verne with a chuckle.

These days the owners, who are both in their mid-70s, have help from Vahid Bossi, of Terra Pacifica Landscaping, who will be on site during the tour to answer any questions.

Dawn explained the house was originally built in the late 30s as a cabin but was later added onto by Victoria architect Pamela Charlesworth, “who did a wonderful job of retaining the character but making it more modern, open, and easy to live in.

“It is so bright and pleasant even on a gloomy day, and when the sun comes out it is heaven.”

Dawn recalled visiting Victoria years ago in mid-winter to adjudicate at a music festival and being so taken with the city and the climate she called her husband and said that he must come, “and bring your clubs.” That was a rare treat considering the ground was still frozen at home in Calgary.

The two have lived in Toronto, New York, Dawson Creek, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Regina and the Peace, but were most recently based in Calgary.

They bought an Inner Harbour townhouse soon after visiting here and came on long weekends while still mid career.

Then Verne found this Uplands home. “I was out one day scouting with a friend and we walked in here. I said: I’m done, this is it,” he recalled.

Now retired oil and gas expert and former CEO of numerous energy companies — as well as chair of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Engineers — Verne is also an enthusiastic supporter of musical arts in Victoria. He is a long time board member of the Victoria Conservatory of Music as he was of Calgary Opera.

Dawn is semi-retired but still commutes to Calgary where she is resident voice and master class teacher at Calgary Opera, a position she has held since the inception of the emerging artists program there 14 years ago. She too is a passionate music lover and member of the Pacific Opera Victoria board.

Together they keenly support musical talent and have hosted numerous special events, concerts and fundraisers at their seaside home.

It covers about 3,000 square feet and the L-shaped living and dining area features outstanding views of not only the water, but also the garden’s contours, water features, pathways and plantings.

“It took about a year just to remove all the ivy,” said Dawn, who is now taking a gardening course at the Horticulture Centre of the Pacific.

“It was just wilderness and took me another year to clear an area at the back of the house “ she said, and another to do the planting.

The garden has several seating areas tucked here and there amid apple, plum, cherry trees. “The racoons have a real smorgasbord here,” said Verne, who said in one of the most densely overgrown areas Dawn uncovered a previously unseen wall.

“It was like something out of The Game of Thrones,” quipped Verne.

Thanks to expansive windows on three sides, eating in the dining room is like eating outside and sometimes, “When we open all the doors, we have had birds flying through,” said Dawn.

Wandering pathways were added and huge slabs of slade laid down to create a dry access around the house where it used to be a mass of baby’s tears groundcover and small pavers. “It was very muddy and unpleasant,” she said.

Dawn explained: “When we first saw the property the garden had great potential but was not fulfilled. It was mostly grass, very natural, and uneven. I love the slope but here and there it was a falling hazard,” so they have fenced the entire property and added a rope handrail in one spot over a little dip.

The garden will soon be a riot of rhodos, as well as hydrangeas, iris, lilac roses, hostas, Japanese maple, azaleas, lupins and more.

The rock slopes will bloom soon too, where she has carpeted them in masses of wisteria, clematis and ferns. Many wild flowers have also volunteered to cascade down the various slopes and terraces.

“A lot of plants are just starting now after that cold start to the year,” she said.

One of the garden’s most outstanding features is an ancient-looking logia, a large pergola that stretches along one side of the house and beyond, creating an outdoor sitting room covered grape vines and wisteria.

“I fought tooth and nail to keep this,” said Verne.

“Many people told me it was dangerous and that it should come down and be rebuilt, but I love the old mouldy look and the way it is covered in edible grapes. It looks like Italy to me.”

He estimates it is about as old as he and Dawn, as are the vines, but added it is safe and sturdy now as he added elbow braces and hidden metal supports.

“It’s a bit old and leaning, but so are we, so I came up with an engineering solution.”

Dawn noted that she had a bit of an adjustment once she started to garden here.

“The climate here is so different from Calgary. The first year I planted, and planted, and planted and the next year absolutely everything was overgrown and I had to start yanking things out.”


WHAT: Mother’s Day Musical Garden Tour

WHERE: Greater Victoria-area gardens

WHEN: from 10 a.m. — 4 p.m. May 11 and 12

TICKETS for the weekend: $35/$37 (children 12 and under free at the conservatory, 900 Johnson St. or locations listed here… online at

The 37th annual tour offers an inspirational peek inside 10 extraordinary Victoria area gardens, including a custom built orchid house, a Tuscan style landscape and rhododendron woodland — all accompanied by music performed by VCM students, faculty and guests.

“Last year’s sold-out event helped enrich the lives of many through our music education programs,” said conservatory CEO Jane Butler McGregor.

“We are thankful for the wonderful volunteers who work so hard to put on the Mother’s Day Musical Garden Tour, the VCM’s largest annual fundraising event.”

The plant sale being held at Verne and Dawn Johnson’s home will feature everything from succulents and shrubbery to hanging baskets and fresh herbs. Master gardeners will be on site at each garden offering tips and insights.

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