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House Beautiful: Flower farm project on Mother's Day garden tour

A Victoria family is transforming this Saanich property into a thriving one-hectare flower farm with the assistance of four sheep, 10 heritage chickens, a White Swiss Shepherd dog, two cats, several goldfish — and wheelbarrow loads of energy.

An attractive, property on a bucolic stretch of Burnside Road, a short drive from Victoria General Hospital, recently caught the eye and captured the imagination of three generations of a Victoria family.

And they are now transforming it into a thriving one-hectare flower farm with the assistance of four grass-cutting sheep,10 fertilizer-producing heritage chickens, a White Swiss Shepherd dog, two cats, several goldfish — and wheelbarrow loads of energy.

“All the buildings were here when we got the property except for the farm stand and wood shed,” explained Ariel Rubin, who bought the spread with her husband Steve Davis and is developing the vision for it along with her mother Kate Rubin.

They plan to operate a flower farm and demonstration garden using regenerative farming practices. Both of their husbands are helping make it happen as are Rosie, 8, Sammy, 5, who have garden chores too.

Although the property was just purchased two years ago it is already taking shape and is being featured in the Victoria Conservatory of Music’s garden tour on Mother’s Day Weekend.

Other gardens featured in the tour include a terraced property with rare botanicals, others with fruit trees, a resort style tropical garden, whimsical wonderlands and more.

On this lush site, Ariel gives credit to the previous owners, who spent 40 years pouring their energy into the land and also creating a Victorian-inspired, open concept house.

“Glen Pharis was a fine woodworker and his wife was a terrific gardener. They literally built everything here from the ground up, with fill from the Victoria General Hospital site when it was under construction,” explained Ariel.

“All we wanted to do to the house was paint it inside and modernize it with some contemporary lighting.”

Future plans include adding a home for Kate and her husband Paddy Crawford, an experienced builder, by expanding the garage. It currently has a guest suite upstairs and a home office.

“Having a property like this and operating a flower farm was a dream that has slowly started taking place… it’s been an evolution,” said Kate, who lives with her husband up the road.

Ariel, who is the sole full-time worker on the farm, speaks of it with great emotion, saying she used to ride horses down this road as a child and admire the rolling farmland. “Once you cross Helmcken it’s a different world over here. It’s like stepping through a portal, crossing a line into another reality.”

The four adults feel lucky to have heard about the property before it was on the market and to have found a place that previous owners put so much beauty into.

“We wrote a passionate letter about wanting to steward their vision and have now been building on that. It has worked out perfectly for everyone …and still feels surreal,” said Ariel, adding her mom has been a master gardener for 40 years.

“So were her parents and her grandparents, on the Island and on the Sunshine Coast. My Dad is a builder and he built the farm stand and woodshed and raised beds. My husband Steve Davis is the finance and infrastructure guy. He works in software engineering and also mows the lawn and does some yucky jobs.”

Although it’s been a slow spring and plants are behind due to the cold, there will be plenty to see on the tour including rhodos, curly hazel, mock orange, hellebores, ficus, lots of shrubbery and perhaps a water feature.

They hope to have a disused water feature up and running again, said Ariel who has a background in design and art. She previously worked at Apple as a creative designer, arts educator and also worked as an event planner and in tourism.

Her mother, Kate, is a theatre director who ran her own company for many years, and works as a theatre artist, director, performer and educator. These days she works with the Prison Theatre Program at William Head, but explains she has gardened for many years and studied under numerous mentors.

“I didn’t love gardening when I was young,” admitted her daughter.

“My mother would ask me to help with the planting and I’d roll my eyes,’” but while living in the States — five years in Boston and five in San Francisco area — the gardening gene kicked in. Whenever I felt stressed or burned out I said to myself, after this I will go and be a flower farmer.”

Ariel’s husband loves the rural life too, and brings a deep interest in Japanese culture and art, which is evident in their home. He reads, writes and speak Japanese fluently, having done a Rotary exchange for a year in high school, after which he went back there for another year of study in his college years.

He and Ariel have travelled there together, while she was working for Apple doing large scale creative projects, and the simplicity of Japanese style and can be seen in how they furnished their home.

Their belief in regenerative farming practices is another theme that binds them.

It’s a kind of farming that’s different from organic in that it focuses on top soil regeneration and no tilling. It’s about boosting a garden’s nutrient base while doing as little digging, or turning of soil as possible.

The family adds nutrient layers each year — compost, kelp, mulch, clippings, ashes, manure, even some cardboard — and then allows worms, bacteria, fungus and more to do the rest.

“It’s lasagne gardening,” she said with a chuckle.

Mom and daughter also learned new skills by taking a Floret Flower course: “It’s a trend that has been exploding in the last 10 years and there is a lot of shared knowledge and support among the local growers.”

They are also planning to run small events and educational workshops, are already providing rehearsal space for the Greater Victoria Shakespeare Festival, and are delighted to be supporting the Victoria Conservatory of Music.


What: Victoria Conservatory of Music’s Mother’s Day Musical Garden Tour

Where: Eight springtime gardens in Greater Victoria

When: Mother’s Day Weekend, May 13 and 14, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Tickets: Two-day pass $40 (plus service charges) at VCM box office, 900 Johnson St.

Check out to learn about the plant sale, live demonstrations and other ticket sellers.

Note: The self-guided tour includes musical performances in the gardens by soloists, duets and small and large groups, playing a selection of music from classical to contemporary