House Beautiful: Sooke garden is all about family

A tapestry of colour, floral texture and design — set against a backdrop of deep ocean blues and snow-crowned Olympic Mountains — awaits those who plan to enjoy the Sooke Secret Garden Tour, which starts next Saturday and stays live online for six months.

The waterfront garden of Marilyn Cudmore is one of seven lavish landscapes being featured from Otter Point to East Sooke to benefit the Sooke Philharmonic Society. A video tour of Cudmore’s garden will be shown June 27 as part of the Sooke tour.

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Even before Marilyn and her husband, Stephen, began planning their garden, they were bewitched by the wild half-acre site that they accidentally discovered.

“My husband was always an adventurer and we used to go on drives where we would intentionally try to get lost,” said Marilyn. “One day in 2013, we had a vacation weekend at Sooke Harbour House, went down a road and spotted a for sale sign.

“The property was wooded and very overgrown, but there was a small hole cut in the brambles and we decided to look in. It was like a Narnia moment .… We stepped through a magical door into a gorgeous place with wonderful views.”

They had been living in a large family home on seven acres near Abbotsford, “so we really shocked our five kids by telling them we were not just thinking about buying, but that we had already purchased this property.”

Steve, who died three years ago, was an expert in complex and high-risk fire rescues, so it was small wonder he fell under the spell of the peaceful, idyllic location. “We were both gobsmacked,” said his wife.

She said her husband had worked with the Virginia Beach FEMA — Federal Emergency Management Agency — team and was involved in rescues around the world, including the 9/11 World Trade Centre and Pentagon attacks, the earthquake in Turkey, the Oklahoma bombing, the Las Vegas hotel fire rescue and many more.

The pneumatic trench supports and other equipment he invented are now considered standards in extreme-rescue situations, she said.

He was part of a crack team of eight at FEMA, seven of whom developed terminal cancer, “likely stemming from the work they did, although never proven,” she added.

When not rushing to global disasters, Steve loved renovating houses, she said. He did 17, including homes in North Surrey, Fort Langley, White Rock and Abbotsford for his own family.

He acted as contractor for the East Sooke home, too, and was involved in everything from framing to electrical, said Marilyn, who discovered the area while taking her doctorate at Royal Roads. She works as a psychological therapist at West Coast Family Medical Centre.

Marilyn also trained as a master gardener at VanDusen Botanical Gardens and has a design diploma, so together, the couple had all the skills to create a distinctive home and garden.

Their West Coast-style house was built by Joseph Brothers and has “a strange bunch of angles,” she said with a chuckle. The roofline was complex, but the couple relished the challenges.

“We travelled to 86 countries together, for his work and pleasure, and even while away, Steve was always evaluating or renovating a house in his mind,” she said, adding her husband had a zest for life. “We were married 45 years, but it felt like five considering all his travel and my academic career. We were teens when we met and absolutely crazy about each other. We laughed all the time … one of the last things he said to me was: ‘What a ride.’ ”

They relished the adventure of building and designing together. Their first job was to create a wall of boulders to support the slope to the ocean. During construction, they managed to save all the fir and pine trees on site, as well as three Garry oaks.

Creating a sense of flow between inner and outer environments was important, and Marilyn celebrates trees inside and out.

The entire structure was designed around a giant red cedar tree trunk harvested in the Sooke Hills by Warburton Woodworks. A 12-metre-high section of it was bolted onto the concrete pad and rises to the roof, through Marilyn’s art and television room upstairs.

Myriad angles of the house follow contours of the water’s edge. The property also features numerous interesting seating areas, and custom-made gates, a pergola, a picturesque wooden bridge built by Mike Warburton and a gazebo overlooking the beach, all reflecting the couple’s appreciation for wood.

Her younger son built the pergola, her oldest did an enormous amount of work fixing and finishing, and her son-in-law recently helped take down a 200-foot dead tree. The home was finished in 2014, and a sunroom completed in 2017, just before Steve died.

The front garden features spring bloomers, rhododendrons and a large cherry tree, while the back is for small trees and bushes.

Not a square inch of lawn can be seen in the entire low-maintenance site, but it is vividly green nevertheless and plantings on the water side repeat like a musical leitmotif, with showy blue ceanothus Victoria interspersed with Mexican orange, iris and more.

“When the Mexican orange and ceanothus are in bloom, the scent knocks your socks off,” said Marilyn.

But her most treasured part of the garden is all about family.

Enclosed and protected from the deer, it’s an explosion of colour in summer with masses of roses at the entry leading to a grove of trees — one planted for each of her 12 grandchildren. The oldest is now 18 and a new tree will soon be planted for a baby on the way.

Each tree represents a branch of the family.

For her oldest son’s family, she planted willows, for the next-born daughter, she chose maples, while the others have spruce, birch and beech. Each tree reflects the time of year a grandchild was born and its understory honours the in-laws.

The older daughter’s family trees, for example, are princess, weeping, butterfly and lace leaf dwarf maples. Underneath is French lavender for her husband, who is French.

It was a challenge bringing the trees from Abbotsford, because some were five metres tall, but all were dug up and cared for in a nursery for 18 months during construction of the Sooke home. (Marilyn chooses both large and small trees and scales them herself through pruning.)

Many friends helped Marilyn after her husband died, just weeks after his diagnosis. Doug Wiens built some beautiful gates, Mike Warburton finished a terrace and other hardscaping, and Tim Nicholson installed a stove in the new sunroom.

“To have these men help out was really wonderful,” she said.

Sooke Secret Garden Tour

What: Online visits to seven unique gardens from Otter Point and Sooke to East Sooke

When: The first videos start June 13, with more added June 20 and 27. They will stay online for six months.

Tickets: In lieu of tickets, organizers are requesting donations

Note: Each video will last 30 to 45 minutes and be accompanied by music. This is a fundraiser for the Sooke Philharmonic Orchestra

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