House Beautiful: Side gate leads to impossibly long garden

What: Teeny Tiny Garden Tour
Where: Watch online, rain or shine, at victoriahospice.org/events/teenytinygardentour
When: Through this month and July 31

Tickets: In lieu of buying a ticket, organizers hope supporters will make a donation and enjoy the gardens online. Also available online for $25 is a calendar featuring photos of previous tour landscapes. Donations fund almost half of Victoria Hospice’s operating costs and are critical for its ongoing operation.

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his year’s version of the Victoria Hospice Teeny Tiny Garden Tour will not require people to hop in their cars and drive around the city to investigate marvellous mini landscapes and be inspired by green thumbs. The year’s tour is going verdantly virtual.

Gardening enthusiasts who wish to support Hospice can visit four stunning wee gardens online at the Hospice website, including the long, narrow property belonging to Margaret McCuaig and Susan Burns, who created their vision around a quaint flaxen-yellow bungalow that they christened Wicklow Cottage.

It’s filled not only with plants, but with sculptures and pieces of art, a gentle reminder of friends and family they have lost. They began to create the garden after buying the property in the Quadra and Cook area in 1998. “We were lucky, because the good bones were already here,” said McCuaig.

“So our job was to enhance and embellish the existing landscape.”

Creating absolute privacy was also a priority.

“We didn’t want to see cars, streetlights, neighbours or other structures.”

Instead, their goal was to gradually weave flowers and foliage into a completely secret, peaceful, tranquil tapestry.

What used to be mostly uninspired lawn is now a series of curving pathways and herbaceous borders, dense plantings and patios. At the centre is an enormous and splendid-looking mugo pine that spreads its gigantic branches into a vast canopy over the backyard.

The front garden is small by comparison, so there is an unexpected thrill in stepping through a side gate into what appears to be an impossibly long rear garden.

McCuaig and Burns chuckle as yet another guest gasps in awe and says: “Now I wasn’t expecting that.”

They apparently hear this refrain frequently.

“Managing the pine has been our biggest challenge,” said McCuaig, looking up at the massive, heavy branches that would rival any ancient oak’s. “Two [branches] have already fallen.”

Initially, they had the close-to-century-old tree pruned. Then they decided it needed to have guy wires to support the branches. Now they have an arborist who keeps it thinned and the branches as light as possible.

The lot is only 15 metres wide but stretches back more than 60 metres. Because the house is located close to the street, the rear garden feels expansive by comparison.

On one side is a long, narrow workshop and guest room, previously the garage, with a broad patio behind. Farther down is a potting shed with Dutch door and past that, screened from view, a tidy and efficient three-bin composting station. Burns is “the composting queen.”

The owners stress that neither is an artist, but their garden has become a canvass where they experiment with fun and whimsy, creating pleasure for themselves and others with wind mobiles, metal wall art, sculptures by Birgit Piskor, bird baths, sundials, totemic pieces, rock work, glass art, hanging lanterns and more.

“Both of our mothers were great gardeners and we grew up with that, learned from them, and wanted to carry that on,” said McCuaig, whose mother created a stunning landscape in the Okanagan, while Burns’s mother lived near Lions Bay and was into a more natural garden.

While having “large jobs” in Vancouver, where they lived in an apartment in Kitsilano, the two didn’t have much opportunity to garden. But they later came to the Island to work, and more recently retired.

“So this is our first garden,” said Okanagan-born McCuaig, who was an occupational therapist and on the faculty of UBC, where she taught for many years. Vancouver-born Burns was a buyer for Mountain Equipment Co-op for 25 years.

The two explain they inherited lots of plants from their mothers, friends and family members and now they have too many. “You spend the first 10 to 15 years planting and the next 10 or 15 taking things out,” said McCuaig.

Luckily, they were able to focus on the garden, because the former owners had done such a good job of renovating the house. “We were delighted with the house and just decided to replace the windows with double-paned wooden ones. Most of our changes were more cosmetic and minor, so we concentrated on the garden.

“We put in the flower beds and did 90 per cent of all the planting.”

One side of the house had previously been a dog run, but now features a broad pathway and numerous rhodos.

Over the large, sun-soaked patio, they recently installed a broad awning from Jeune Bros. Tent & Awning. The free-standing addition stands on tall posts rather than being attached to part of the home or garage.

“And what a difference it has made to our outdoor enjoyment,” said McCuaig.

Their general goal has been to have a variety of plantings, primarily perennials.

“We like plants with different textures, colour and shapes, so we have lots of hydrangeas, rhodos, four weigela shrubs, maple trees, magnolias, dogwoods. We plant a few annuals in pots.”

Neither has had personal experience with Victoria Hospice, but the two say they are “incredibly supportive” of the program.

“We work in our area and help to support the cause,” McCuaig said.

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