House Beautiful: From debris to delight, Sunnymead garden takes shape over 3 decades

What used to be a pile of blasted rock, construction debris, paint cans and truckloads of garden litter has been transformed into a vision of beauty and imagination featured on this year’s Victoria Conservatory of Music Mother’s Day Musical Garden Tour.

The evolution of the Saanich property took 31 years and called for incredible grit, truckloads of topsoil and lots of imagination, but owners David and Daunine Burbank say the first few years were the worst.

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Now they can relax and read a book on one of their terraces, since garden tasks take only about half a day per week.

When they bought the corner lot in Sunnymead, it was a “mountain” of blasted rock and garbage, the couple said. Three major builders in the area had been using it to dispose of waste, piling up materials and burning them on the site.

Dump trucks had also been criss-crossing the back of their property, using it as a shortcut to a cul-de-sac.

“The ground was so hard, I couldn’t even break it. We had Donn Mann Excavating come in with a backhoe to work around the property and rake the soil with teeth just to loosen it,” said David.

Firbank Farm — now located off Island View Road — was still nearby when he and Daunine moved into their new home.

“They were still slaughtering chickens and the smell was horrendous,” said David. “It shut down a year later, but that summer we had billions of house flies, and great gusts of wind blew dust everywhere.

“I remember sitting in the garden thinking we had made a huge mistake. There was no privacy, no vegetation, nothing. It was desolate.”

The Burbanks removed the debris and had truckloads of soil brought in. “But that first winter, it rained and rained and I got an idea of what Flanders Fields must have looked like, with strips of board to walk on all around the house,” David said.

They initially planted wall-to-wall grass, but were soon taking it out to create something more interesting. Today, there is almost no lawn. Instead, the sloping property, which is higher at the back, is laced with pathways, low rock walls David made himself, multi-level patios and a series of garden rooms brimming with vegetables, roses, shrubs and more.

They also added bee and bird houses.

“Right now, we don’t have a lot of things in bloom, so what’s mostly visible is the garden structure,” said David. But that’s one of the things he enjoys most about the garden.

Its “bones” include gravel walks, boxwood hedges, walls and and a variety of terraces.

Unlike many local gardens that have been designed and cared for by professionals, this one was completely done by the owners. “We did everything ourselves, literally from scratch,” David said.

Daunine, now retired from a career in childhood education, says they wanted a four-season garden, which is what they have created. The front is a maze of mostly deer-proof shrubs, trees, perennials and things such a rose glow barberry, winter hazel, black lace elderflower, calendula marigold, ever red Japanese maple and assorted hydrangeas.

They do have some hostas, “which are like candy to deer,” but she keeps the animals at bay by drenching plants with cold coffee and grounds.

Her greatest joy is caring for her roses — which range from yellow and orange to deep pink and red — and her vegetable garden. She and her husband also love going on garden tours. “They are a wonderful way to learn. People have the most amazing ideas.”

David, who worked for the Ministry of Finance before retirement, started gardening as a student, studied stone masonry and also volunteers with the Horticulture Centre of the Pacific.

He says they both enjoy gardening, but they’re not fanatics who know the Latin names of everything: “We wanted to create an oasis and something that looks tidy all year, but we don’t want to garden day and night,” he said.

The only weeding they do now is in the pathways, “and David does that with a blow torch,” said his wife with a chuckle.

Why is it so low-maintenance? The answer is simple: They don’t cultivate the beds.

They deter weeds and enrich soils by leaving cuttings and leaves to decompose exactly where they fall, supplemented by mulch in the autumn. The “forest litter concept” means things like old dead hydrangea blooms are also left all winter.

“They are full of insects for the birds,” Daunine said.

They have arrangements with neighbours to take their lawn cuttings and clippings, too — anything but weeds, invasive plants and tough woody bits.

A substantial composting centre with three large boxes is located right in the middle of their front garden, open to neighbours, but virtually invisible from the street.

David hand-trims all the laurel hedges twice a year, in June and November, so they look razor-smart all winter, a job simplified by double-jointed, extremely sharp sheers. “That’s the clincher.” He says he finds the work very satisfying and meditative.

Boxwoods, cultivated from cuttings, run straight as well as in circles and even zigzag around parts of the garden, outlining beds and hiding clippings.

For even more visual interest, in the multi-level back garden and down one side are “pleached” shrubs — trained to form a flat framework above a clear stem — that create narrow screens along various support frameworks.

David said he doesn’t have any projects on the go just now, as he and his wife worked flat out last year during the COVID shutdown.

“There was nothing else to do, nowhere to travel, so I did everything in the garden. I rebuilt the tool shed, tore out a lot of plants, trimmed hedges, filled in with shrubs, put in gates, did more stonework out front, planted out to the curb….”

And of course, they likely aren’t going anywhere again this year.

Luckily, there is always something to do in a garden and they both are happy puttering around listening to books on tape and podcasts.

Daunine offers some good advice to anyone who wants to do the same.

“While snipping here and there, it’s a good idea to keep your earbud wires inside your shirt, or like me, you may suddenly find yourself cut off.”

MOTHER’S DAY MUSICAL GARDEN TOUR

For the second year running, the Victoria Conservatory of Music’s annual Mother’s Day Musical Garden Tour will be virtual because of the pandemic.

Being online has some advantages, however. Instead of being limited to just one day, the event will run for three weeks, April 25 to May 16.

Eclectic plant collections, unique garden designs, a Japanese dry landscape, orchid collections and more can be seen here.

Every garden video will be accompanied by performances by VCM students, with a grand finale at the end, on Mother’s Day. An online première of Opera Studio Duets, six works featuring advanced vocal students, will be held at 4 p.m. May 9, on the conservatory’s YouTube channel.

Fundraising efforts are also amplified this year by a group of generous donors. Gary Karr and Harmon Lewis, the Robert and Devi Jawl Foundation, Petra Janusas and Bill Majercsik, and Wendy and Robert MacRitchie will match dollar-for-dollar up to $20,000.

Make donations and learn more at vcm.bc.ca/garden-tour.

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