House Beautiful: Garden of Eden sprouts in Oak Bay

Giant purple cabbages lounge under tall, mauve verbena (bonariensis) and across the path are kale, beets, squash, Brussels sprouts and blueberries, mingling with vivid dahlias and runner beans.

Ten dwarf and espaliered fruit trees — sumptuously hung with three varieties of pear, apple and fig — give shade to crushing thyme, rampant rosemary and sprouting broccoli, and everywhere in this edible Eden are slabs of Pennsylvania blue flagstones.

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Such is the delicious and decorative interplay of fruits, vegetables, flowers and trees in the compact kitchen garden of Melinda and John Minkley, whose efforts can be seen Sept. 7 when their property is featured on the Urban Food Garden Tour.

The family of three, including daughter Lucy, live in a small home in Oak Bay, but there is nothing modest or diminutive about their garden vision, which is all the more impressive considering it didn’t exist four years ago.

What is now a flourishing veggie patch was mostly a concrete slab with a patch of soggy lawn, a few shrubs and large back hedge.

“Our daughter, Claire, was born in 1983 and died in 2002,” said Melinda, and the concrete was essential for her to move about in a wheelchair

“She was completely dependent with extreme physical challenges. We had a large ramp and concrete patio across the back of the house and concrete wall-to-wall down both sides of the house.”

Claire was very bright and won a scholarship to UVic where she studied math and physics, and after her death, her still-working parents couldn’t face a garden overhaul.

Years passed.

“I always loved gardening and one day, I was looking out at the ramp and the concrete and the boggy grass feeling miserable,” recalled Melinda. “I was spending so much time in the garden but it was all bull work.

“Claire wrote a poem once about how she loved the optimism of a rainbow and I looked at the garden and thought it didn’t fill me with optimism or joy. It wasn’t a place of peace or sanctuary. We had increasing concerns about climate change, food safety and John had developed a severe allergy to sulphites. So having a vegetable garden would mean we wouldn’t have to worry about sprays and contamination.”

She contacted Rebecca Lang of Any Thyme Gardening who saw exactly what needed to be done. “It was my privilege to work with Melinda and for her to allow me to see it as something entirely new,” said Lang.

“Melinda’s husband also had extreme allergies so it became important for them to grow as much food as possible.”

Lang planned the paths and they worked together on design. “Then she brought in Sammy, who wields a backhoe like a surgeon’s scalpel, and her all-girl team came to put everything in.”

The total cost was less than $8,000, which included getting rid of tonnes of concrete as well as bringing in all the gravel base and Pennsylvania flagstones.

A micro sprinkler system, which cost about $1,500 was laid by Melinda and John, a recently retired lawyer who went back to law school later in life and specialized in wills trusts and estates for those with disabled family members.

Now there is no lawn, but several multipurpose areas for outdoor eating and relaxing and plenty of space to grow food — in raised beds or intermingled with ornamentals.

The garden faces south and west so it is warm and the gravel they brought as a base for flagstones makes it even warmer. Everything thrives except weeds as Melinda follows the low-maintenance garden theory of not digging over the soil.

“I just top dress it once a year with a couple of inches of compost.”

She wanted a food garden where all the plants have a purpose, “where they have to win their space in the beds,” and she wanted to do it organically, explained Melinda who worked as a privacy analyst.

It isn’t a large garden, but every plant “pulls its weight.”

“We eat beans for about three months, tomatoes every day, squash till after Christmas,” and she stores apples, squash, garlic and more in a cool cellar.

Her garden is fragrant with dill, rosemary, lavender, basil, tarragon, thyme, oregano, marjoram, bay and,”I like dahlias because they don’t take up much room.

“I always choose flowers with open stamens. I plant things that insects like, that attract small predator wasps and bees … all the pollinators. The predators go after things like aphids and leaf miners too.

“If you just sit out in the garden and watch for about 15 minutes you will see the culture of the insect world and how everything interacts.”

The garden is now a large addition to their lifestyle, integrated with the 1,250-square-foot 1926 mission-style home designed by Samuel Maclure.

“That was a surprise. We went to the municipal hall to look at the plans and an engineer brought out the original blueprints and said, ‘Aren’t you lucky, you have a Maclure.’

“The house is just a bungalow but what sold us was the dining room window,” she said.

They redid the kitchen in the style of the era and took out the dining room wall to expand the view through that window. When an old garage “fell down” they didn’t worry and replaced it with a small sun balcony from which they can enjoy their garden.

John credits Melinda with her green vision and helps out by doing any heavy work or painting. He also enjoyed projects such as installing the irrigation system or building trellises.

“Our plants should be on wheels,” he said with a chuckle, considering how much they move around, but that’s to be expected as a garden matures.

And he loves harvesting fresh vegetables every day, baking his own bread and not having to carry EpiPens around or worry about anaphylactic shock when eating at home.

Melinda says anybody can grow a garden.

“It’s not difficult, or expensive and it’s not a lot of work once plants fill in. And there are so many people and groups in this city who will share their knowledge.”

Urban Food Garden Tour

WHERE: 13 local gardens in Victoria, Saanich Esquimalt and Oak Bay.

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sept. 7

TICKETS: $15, under 19 free at GardenWorks and brownpapertickets.com. More info at vicurbanfoodgardens.wixsite.com/tour

The self-guided tour offers people a chance to see how food gardening is done and how a lot of food can be grown in minimal space.

People can learn about the relationships between vegetables, bees, chickens, fruit trees, greenhouses, soil, sustainable water use and more.

The tour features backyards, front yards, allotments and boulevards — and aims to raise awareness about sustainable food, herbs, and pollinators and more while raising funds for Haliburton Community Farm, the 1UP-Single Parent Resource Centre and Hleketani Community Garden in Limpopo, South Africa.

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