House Beautiful: Son of Victoria gardening legends has passion for landscapes

It’s no surprise that Chris Nation is passionate about gardening, and enjoys building pergolas, creating ponds, designing waterfalls and propagating Meyer lemon trees.

Creating garden delights is in his DNA.

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He is the son of Victoria gardening legends Ann and George Nation, who envisioned exquisite landscapes in this city and also spearheaded Victoria’s beloved garden tour almost 40 years ago, as well as the tour’s ultra-popular offshoot, a giant plant sale.

The garden tour is usually held on Mother’s Day, with funds going to the Victoria Conservatory of Music, founded in 1964 by another of Chris’s relatives — his grandmother Alix Goolden.

But due to the pandemic, the tour has been cancelled and instead, the conservatory is creating a “virtual” garden in memory of Ann Nation, who died last year. Supporters are invited to buy tickets to the non-tour or make larger donations to support the conservatory. (See sidebar)

Chris Nation and his partner, Betty Gnocato, are also digging in to help. The couple’s new garden, which they began designing from the ground up seven years ago, was to have been on the Mother’s Day tour this year. Hopefully visitors can gaze upon it next year,  but in the meantime, it’s being featured on the conservatory’s website as well as in these pages. 

The garden is already an attractive environment, with a sturdy pergola and trellis running down one side of the back area, both draped in grapevines about the explode into leafy life.

The garden has raised beds for berries and veggies, and a pond with a cascading waterfall edged in ferns, peonies and irises.

There are numerous fruit and citrus trees and on either side of the driveway are two pink dogwoods, memorials to George and Ann.

The owners also have a house for orchard mason bees. These busy bees are prolific pollinators and live in a handmade wooden box attached to the sunny side of the house.

“It’s impossible to grow anything but deer resistant plants out front because we are in deer central here,” said Chris, who was Saanich municipal solicitor for 35 years.

“We couldn’t do anything with the property until we built a seven-foot fence in the back garden, with two gates on the sides. “ He recalled a few disasters with plants that were supposed to be deer proof and were optimistically planted in the front garden only to be demolished overnight.

“We originally built a six-foot fence but the deer got over it so we added another 18 inches with wire,” said Chris, a keen music lover who was on the conservatory board for eight years.

Luckily, Betty has a vividly green thumb too.

She is descended from a long line of Italian gardeners and farmers who lived in northern Italy near Venice, in Treviso. “My parents had a huge vegetable garden and grew corn, peaches, walnuts …

“Chris and I are both into gardening, but I’m more into edible plants whereas he is into flowers and ponds,” said Betty who grows watermelons, tomatoes, squash, bush beans, kale, zucchini, rocket, herbs, concord grapes, figs, plums, apples, apricots, pears, lemons, strawberries, raspberries, blue berries and more. “We do a lot of freezing and jam making.”

Chris said the pergola came about as the previous owners had left a big concrete slab near the back fence. “We thought of jackhammering it out but then decided to build a pergola … Betty is a genius math teacher who is really good at designing angles.”

Lots of creativity was involved in the pond too.

“Almost all this rock was right here, luckily, but my brother and I did lug one huge rock around from the front and we used a dolly for another, but it was so heavy it broke the wheels. We dragged another over here with a winch.”

When they bought the house the garden was very dark and shady with just a few shrubs and patch of lawn, and masses of landscape cloth covered in crushed rock.

Removing one of the big firs in the back added sunlight — and left a big hole for Chris to create a pond.

“I inherited my love of ponds from Dad who was always into ponds and fish., and many of the plants here came from my parents’ garden.”

The influence of his parents is felt inside the home too, in the many beautiful pieces of  antique  European furniture and artworks from around the world.

Garden Tour

The Mother’s Day Musical Garden Tour has been a spring ritual in Victoria since 1982, but due to COVID-19 the Victoria Conservatory of Music has cancelled its annual fundraiser for the first time in 38 years.

Tickets are usually sold for $35 and organizers hope supporters will donate instead.

If made in the name of a mother or favourite person, each donation of $35 or more will be posted on the VCM website and for every $140 (four tickets) the VCM will “grow” a virtual garden.

“We have a garden picture on our website and as we sell tickets we will bring in more and more pictures, like pieces of a puzzle,” said conservatory CEO Jane Butler McGregor, adding the event raises crucial funds that support exceptional teaching, innovative programming, music therapy, children’s outreach programs and performances.

Butler noted the conservatory is now offering almost 90 per cent of its private lessons online, “with an enormous thank you and appreciation to our faculty and artistic leadership.

“But like many other groups we are struggling.

“We’ve lost about 35 per cent of our revenue in the last month and are looking for ways to adapt and keep music going.”

She believes this pandemic will change the teaching format forever. “When this is over we will go back to teaching in our own facility, yes, but this is a marvellous opportunity for us to spread our wings, to teach online and explore the whole realm of distance learning.”

For more information about the campaign visit vcm.bc.ca/victoria-garden-tour/

Donate at Canada Helps.

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