House Beautiful: Esquimalt couple creates a getaway in their own backyard

Since the pandemic began, most people have reluctantly put their plans for visiting exotic destinations on hold.

But the new reality is just fine with one well-travelled Esquimalt couple. In fact, Diane and Steve Kleinman don’t have to venture far to find a retreat — they have a getaway in their own backyard.

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For 25 years, the couple has toiled to transform a yard that was previously overgrown, full of ivy and rock boulders, into a well-thought out sanctuary that incorporates the natural landscape.

“In a strange way, this COVID has been a blessing. We don’t want to jump on a plane and go anywhere. We’ve travelled so much in the past, we just like to be home,” says Diane, once an avid collector of unique keepsakes from their travels.

Their home’s interior is a testimony to their former nomadic lifestyle — it’s chockablock with treasures from the many countries they have visited. That includes a wall of African masks from their trip to South Africa, a Japanese wedding dress that, although purchased in San Francisco, reminds them of their trip to Japan, and Chinese figurines over the fireplace mantle acquired on a trip to China, along with finds from holidays in Europe, South America and Indonesia.

Asked to name a favourite memento, Diane can’t, saying “all are important.”

She feels the same way about the many nooks in their outdoor spaces, from a Japanese tearoom to a meditation pagoda, a brook and a deck off their kitchen that is overflowing with flowerpots in full bloom.

While the deck is colourful and an ideal spot to relax, it’s the backyard that dominates, with its mature Garry oak trees, natural rock boulders and extensive plantings throughout. In summer, when the garden is at its prime, it’s like stepping into a mini Butchart Gardens.

For first-time visitors, there’s an inevitable “wow,” because the backyard comes as such a surprise. From the home’s front yard, the property looks like a standard-sized lot, but it’s actually pie-shaped and opens out to a huge backyard — more than double what a typical homeowner here would have.

And while the front yard is lovely, it’s in the backyard that you can most appreciate the couple’s decades-long gardening project.

“We’ve designed it as we want it, trying to keep it as natural as we could, working with the earth and balance and Feng-shui,” says Diane. “This has been our vision to create a quiet place to just be.”

The couple also has a yoga/mediation room in the house and has tried to incorporate Feng-shui principles throughout both home and garden.

Steve credits his wife with having an eye for design and creating the final vision.

“As of now, we think it’s fully developed and now we’re enjoying it,” he says.

“We’ve always enjoyed it, though, even when we were working on it,” adds Diane.

Although they hired professionals to do the hardscaping, they designed it, did their own plantings and maintain it themselves.

The couple’s two children and grandchildren also love the house, and have added their own ideas and special touches. For instance, their son built the teahouse and both their son and daughter bought them handmade bird houses that were found up-Island and bring a bit of whimsy to the garden.

Diane says they add something new to the garden almost every year, whether a planting or a garden feature.

This year, the new feature is a mural of a landscape that also showcases the family’s love of mythology, Merlin and hobbits. The centrepiece of the painting, along a concrete wall once covered in ivy, is a hobbit’s house with a bright red door. Now, some of the ivy has been artfully incorporated into the design, so the door appears to be under a tree’s canopy.

The painted mural was done by a neighbour, a graphic artist who was asked to return after their 17-year-old granddaughter, also a Merlin fan, noted dragons were missing.

When the light over the hobbit door comes on at night, the painting takes on a 3-D effect, so that you would almost think a hobbit was home.

“The little kids who visit love it. They like climbing on the rocks and looking at everything,” says Diane.

She recalls a favorite moment when a friend brought their four-year-old, who was particularly enamoured with the tiny fairy door at the base of one of the oak trees. On a return visit, she came wearing her own fairy outfit and brought food to share with the fairy.

“This is our sanctuary. It’s where we rest, where we laugh and where we find peace,” says Diane. “It’s magical here and I guess that’s why we created it. I’m still a big kid at heart.”

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