House Beautiful: Flower farm overlooking Blenkinsop Valley blooms with art

With twigs, hawthorn berries, moss, crisp baby ferns, ornamental crab apples and more, landscape architect Twyla Rusnak makes her artistic statement.

Her sculptor husband, Illarion Gallant, prefers to express himself in concrete, natural rock, aluminum, steel and mega-sized lengths of rusted metal.

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So it’s no surprise that when these two created their home on a two-hectare spread near the lower slopes of Mount Doug, creative sparks started to fly.

Gallant began embellishing the outdoor environment with his massive artworks, while she got down to reimagining the contours, designing pathways, lawn and patios.

And they both began renovating not only the home but also the outbuildings.

Today, their property is like a small village comprising a collection of buildings — the main house, cottages, workshop, studios, chicken house and original barn — all overlooking the Blenkinsop Valley.

The double garage became offices for the pair’s Rusnak Gallant landscaping, design, construction and public-art company.

For the holiday season Rusnak, a landscape architect, has tied giant pinecones with red ribbons and touches of greenery on the door knobs. Elaborate bouquets that look like Dutch master paintings now sit upon tables. Sideboards overflow with scarlet roses and fluorescent salmon-pink gerbera daisies, while garlands are strewn across mantles and wreaths mark entryways.

Meanwhile, Gallant, a serious cook, fills their home with the delicious aroma of baking.

The 1935 house, which many friends assumed they would tear down after purchasing the property 10 years ago, was originally a two-bedroom farmhouse. In the early 1970s, previous owners added a new kitchen and living room at one end, and a master-bedroom suite.

Rusnak and Gallant fell in love with the long, low, one-storey building and never dreamed of tearing it down.

“We kept the footprint, but gutted the middle of the house to redo the master bedroom, walk-in closet, bathroom and long hall,” said Rusnak. They also added stone flooring to what was the original kitchen, now a laundry room.

As time and money allow, they have been replacing the 14 French doors with new energy-efficient custom ones, a project that enhances views on all sides of the house — although the most spectacular are through an elegant bow window in the dining room.

The work also included increasing the structural stability of the building in case of earthquakes, said Gallant, noting their next project will be to add two or three metres to the living room/kitchen end of the house for a large country kitchen.

“It’s going to be my kitchen, because I’m the cook,” he said with a grin.

Passionate about pies, he is currently taking an online course with Port Angeles chef and author Kate McDermott. His latest culinary “masterpiece” was a pumpkin and bourbon pie.

Outside, the two are making their mark as well, and not only with Gallant’s luminous sculptures.

They paved a driveway that was often dusty or muddy to the top of their slope, and added pavers with concrete borders up around the house for a more dressy look.

They reduced the number of stairs all over the site by levelling and grading it, and added stone pathways, lawn and flower beds. “I can zip around everywhere on my golf cart now, as the paths are wide and either level or gently sloping,” Rusnak said.

After spending 30 years designing and building beautiful gardens for others, Rusnak longed to create something she could enjoy at home while also sharing with others.

With that in mind, she recently took an online workshop with Floret, a family-run farm in Skagit Valley that specializes in growing uncommon and heirloom flowers, and teaching others how to do the same.

The intense six-week course explained how to cultivate thousands of flowers and create natural designs with them — all on a small property.

“The workshop expanded my vision of what I could do, and how to do it,” said Rusnak, who has a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies from the University of Manitoba and a masters in landscape architecture from the University of Toronto

“I had always grown dahlias and lavender here, and sold things at a roadside stand, but since finishing university I never wanted to go back to school.

“But I decided to take this course and after two weeks, I was saying to myself, ‘I’m doing this. Hell yes.’ ”

And then she met Rekha Molleken, “who is now my lead floral designer.”

“She is unbelievably talented … trained in England at the Floral School of Constance Spry, in Germany with silver medalist Gisela Breuer and used to be the florist for Vancouver Art Gallery.

“Rekha joined me early this summer, just as my first crop started blooming, and took my ideas to the next level.”

Rusnak, who aims to become a top-quality flower-farmer florist, has turned the former carport into a flower studio, closing it in with recycled windows, doors and secondhand cabinets from a home being demolished in the Uplands.

Last year, Rusnak converted her vegetable garden to exclusively flowers, adding a new, high fence to deter deer, complete with artistic aluminum panel gates made by Gallant.

She and a team of helpers planted thousands of seedlings, bulbs and tubers last year. They are currently soaking and planting 4,000 anemones and ranunculus in shallow trays, so they’re ready to plant out in three weeks.

She plans to double her planting area this year to one acre.

Through her road stand and website, she sells flower arrangements and wreaths ranging from 12 to 28 inches in diameter, for $75 to $375.

Made on wire and lichen-laced twig frames, the wreaths are decorated with everything from hawthorn berries, ferns, outdoor succulents and alder cones to Nigella pods, Mahonia leaves, roses, gerbera daisies, senecio, cryptomeria garrya elliptic, astilbe, hydrangeas, eucalyptus, grasses and more.

Many are living wreaths that Rusnak says will last for years outside.

Rusnack, who grew up in Regina, and Gallant, who is from Scarborough, have been married for 26 years and are a keen team.

While he helps with machine work — running the excavator and giant wheelbarrow on tracks — they made a conscious decision that he would pursue his public art career while she develops the flower farm, soon to be certified organic.

Luckily, their property is ideally situated to their plans. Bordered on the north and west by Mount Doug and on the south by Madrona Farm, owned by the Land Conservancy, it’s protected on three sides and gets lots of sunshine.

“It is warm here and because it’s 40 feet above the road, very private,” said Rusnak.

Gallant adds that it’s romantic too. “We’re both artists, so we are romantics at heart,” he said, adding they also raise organic chickens, heritage pigs, turkeys, geese, two dogs and two cats.

No partridge in a pear tree, but they do have loads of good fertilizer.

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