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House Beautiful: Small 'wasteland' transformed into grand garden

A neglected Rockland yard has been transformed into a flourishing haven of colourful flowers, plants, trees and hedges. It’s a stop on this year’s Teeny Tiny Garden Tour for Hospice.

Victoria Hospice never fails to unearth a lineup of small but sensational landscapes to feature on its annual self-guided garden tour (see below for more details), and this year is no exception.

The Rockland property of Irene Zaffaroni and Gary Mitchell is a treasure trove of thoughtful, colourful plantings and hardscaping ideas, and it’s magical how they have managed to garden on a grand scale on a site that’s a shade under a quarter of an acre.

It takes commitment and focus, and she explains how they do it.

“The house is absolutely secondary,” she said flatly.

“We are past the age where we need a big family house, a large place to maintain, to clean and take care of. Our kids are gone and now we want to do things we like to do, not what we have to do.”

Four years ago, they downsized from a large heritage house into a post-war subdivision house built in late 1950.

One of its big selling points was that the previous owners had added a second-storey to the house, which bumps out about four metres and is supported by posts. This allowed Zaffaroni to imagine a series of attractive outdoor “rooms” underneath, which they use almost all year, thanks to the southern exposure and protection from the elements.

Inside, the owners have done nothing structural to the house, just some painting and minimal updating, but outside they have poured countless hours of labour and ideas into the property. She does the designing, lights the artistic spark and does most of the work.

Her husband loves his lawn and his herb garden, which they call “the farm,” an inside joke since it comprises nine pots of sage, French tarragon, Greek oregano, chives, thyme and tiny tomatoes.

“Irene has a great gift and a great eye for landscaping,” said Mitchell, former Provincial archivist, director and then vice-president of collections and research at both the Royal B.C. Museum and Archives.

“She has the vision, the colour palette.”

But he, a self-professed detail man, cares for his lawn and does so with precision.

He mows it every third or fourth day, fertilizes it on the last Friday of every month and has two mowers, one electric with a 17-inch deck and a hand mower for summer, when grass is delicate. He changes direction each time he mows, for uniform growing: alternating from north to south, then diagonally southeast to northwest, then northwest to southeast.

Zaffaroni is equally passionate, keen as a mustard plant when it comes to growing things.

Over the years, she has visited famous gardens in England, Germany, Austria and Italy, and when interviewed for this article was packing her bags to go to the Chelsea Flower Show in England.

Small wonder her garden is a riot of irises, 35 different roses, 30 kinds of narcissus, tulips — she planted more than 4,000 bulbs — and 22 new trees.

The property features crisp green lines of boxwood hedges, three fountains, a rose arbour, pergola, a tiny shade garden, compact croquet lawn and various seating areas for different seasons and times of day.

Soon there will be fragrant perennials, wisteria, peonies, waterlilies, clematis and more, in a muted colour palette of white, light pinks and soft purple.

The couple bought the gently sloping, south-facing property in late 2019 and, undaunted by its years of neglect, she created a design and they began hardscaping early the next year.

At one point during that depressingly messy stage, Mitchell looked out the front window and said it looked like Verdun.

The previous owners had lived there for decades and not managed to keep it up due to ill health, so it was wildly overgrown — “a wasteland” — and filled with perishing perennials and trees.

“We had an arborist do a lot of pruning, we removed the dead trees and brought in new ones,” said Zaffaroni, 62, who like her husband, 69, is acutely research-oriented.

She too is an archivist with a master’s in history, and she keeps meticulous records about plants, bulbs, successes, failures and has a filing box of seed packages documenting their progress, best areas to grow things, even seasonal temperature swings.

“One thing an archivist does is impose order on things,” she said with a chuckle, opening a massive 10-year garden diary, where she makes copious notes in tiny, meticulous penmanship.

She went on to explain that she and her husband managed to transform the property by doing a massive cleanup, hardscaping, adding 40 yards of compost and a sprinkler system, and more.

They kept fruit trees that were barely hanging onto life — “In our first year, we picked just one apple” — because after professional pruning, watering and feeding they had 700 pounds of fruit the second year. It was all given to LifeCycles fruit tree project, so the fruit will not go to waste. (Zaffaroni doesn’t harvest fruit or grow vegetables as the Moss Street Market is a 10-minute walk away.)

“It just shows you what happens if you water and feed something,” and now the couple enjoys three healthy apple trees, two pear, one quince and an enormous walnut which produces lots of nuts although the squirrels get them all.

Their garden is also completely accessible.

Pathways are made of compacted, fine screenings to allow people in wheelchairs or using walkers to enjoy it, and a new stairway has shallow risers and deep treads, safer if anyone falls.

“Gardening is a very peaceful and meditative thing for me … and it teaches a person to be patient, and accept failure,” she said, adding she likes the philosophy of traditional “paradise gardens” where elements such as water, ponds, canals, scent and fruit trees have been essential features. She wishes there were more places to seek inner calm and what the Japanese call “forest bathing.”

“I also feel there is something very worthy about creating something beautiful, ” said the longtime member of the Victoria Horticultural Society and keen advocate of Victoria Hospice.

Teeny Tiny Garden Tour for Hospice

When: 9:30 to 5 p.m., Sunday June 11

Where: 13 petit and wonderful gardens in Oak Bay, Rockland and Lakehill, as well as the rooftop garden at Victoria Hospice.

Tickets: Tickets $30 at GardenWorks in Oak Bay, Saanich and Colwood; Heirloom Linens in Broadmead; One Stop Furniture & Mattress in Sidney; Wildwood Outdoor Living Centre on Elk Lake Dr.; Victoria Hospice, 4th Fl. Richmond Pavilion

More info:

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