Victoria Conservatory of Music Garden Tour
WHEN: Two-day tour on May 7 and 8, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
WHERE: Eleven of Victoria’s most outstanding gardens
TICKETS: Two-day pass $40 (plus service fees) Online sales end today or call the Victoria Conservatory of Music at 250-386-5311. More information at vcm.bc.ca
NOTE: The 40th anniversary event includes the always-amazing plant sale.
Creating a large water feature during a miserable, cold, rain-soaked Victoria winter doesn’t sound like much fun, but for Michael Wuitchik it was — because his son Daniel dug enthusiastically into the project with him.
Together they pulled on their hip waders and transformed a boggy former slough in the back of this large Ten Mile Point property into a spectacular water feature that is now the beating heart of the verdant and varied landscape.
“My son told me after we finished that it was probably the best time we’d ever spent together,” said Michael.
Michael and his wife, Shelley, retired to Victoria 15 years ago after spending 30 years in Canmore. She explained the new landscape is all her husband’s doing and both appreciate it hugely, especially after gardening efforts in Alberta’s Rocky Mountains.
The pond was a challenging project, but Michael said it was grand because he wasn’t a father figure during the soggy process, but rather he and his son were like two colleagues labouring together, solving problems and being inventive.
Son Daniel is currently finishing his PhD in marine biology at Boston University, “so he really knows his water,” said his dad with a chuckle adding: “He always had a real interest in aquaria and we worked together every day,” while his son had time between post grad degrees.
Neither of them made a detailed plan for the project, they just jumped in and followed the first rule of gardening: Work with what you have.
“Daniel might have done a sketch for the underground piping, return pumps for the waterfall, the bog filter…” and Michael had made a pond before and growing up with a keen-gardener father.
So they winged it.
Today the site is a showstopper and being featured on this year’s Victoria Conservatory of Music garden tour, on Mother’s day weekend. (See sidebar)
To make the pond they first had to remove an existing clay-lined pool which was so dense with organic material “you couldn’t see two inches into it.” Michael created a temporary road over an existing terrace and sloping bank, so heavy equipment, including a 20-ton digger and numerous dump trucks could access the area to deliver huge rocks..
Muck and clay were scraped out and used to create berms around the edge.
“It was raining a lot and the dump trucks turned the lawn into a quagmire,” but when Shelley questioned whether he should be doing this in the winter he quipped, “Would you rather I did it in the summer?”
Besides having fun in the puddles, Michael and his son enjoyed a few surprises, like the day they found an old concrete horse trough in the mud and another time when they discovered the shell of a 15-foot boat while clearing out brambles nearby.
The former bog is now a stunning 35 by 45 metre Asian-inspired oasis with a waterfall and plantings that include Japanese maples, irises, Mt. Fuji cherry trees, arrowhead plants, tall reeds and more. Other parts of the garden are filled with rhodos, lilies, anemones fuchsias, a variety of fruit trees and all kinds of berries
The pond is stocked with trout and a grandchild caught one recently while practising fly fishing. It was released because these fish are pets, not dinner, and because they devour mosquito larvae.
Besides fishing in the pond, the owners’ two grandchildren can camp out an old wood shed that the couple have kitted out as a cosy bunk house, skylark on a long swing that hangs over the lavender garden, and take turns roasting s’mores over a fire pit (when no bans are on).
And everyone enjoys spotting wildlife, the gorgeous damsel and dragon flies, but especially the mama duck who nudges her baby ducklings over the waterfall as a spring training exercise. (Michael is not quite as thrilled by the otters that raid his pond, and is forever plugging holes where they might get in.)
The pond, which is alive with crayfish that are eaten by the trout, also features an attractive and large multi-level deck that the owners envisioned to be cantilevered over the pond. It was built by Aaron Johnson of Decadence Construction, who also did all the 1935 home’s renovations.
Both owners said they fell in love with the property the moment they saw it, despite its wild state and swaths of daisies, hay, grasses, brambles and overgrown trees, which they had thinned and pruned to add more light and remove dead wood.
On one side of the property they now have a large kitchen garden that brims with salad greens, all kinds of berries, garlic, herbs and peas. Under the kitchen window are rows of French and English lavender planted in waves to enhance the look when swaying in the wind.
Michael, who just turned 70, retired early from his life as a psychologist with two busy inter-disciplinary pain clinics in Canmore and Vancouver. He also had a short-lived clinic in Sierra Leone to help those dealing with lost limbs but his team had to leave because of the danger. He wrote a book about the experience, My Heart is Not My Own, after retiring.
He now has a passion for tying flies.
His favourite place on the property is an old former guest cottage. “Through the long rainy winter I can tie flies here, look at the garden,” and dream about fishing on the Cowichan River,
The cottage is Shelley’s least favourite spot: “It’s filled with spiders.”
When the couple retired they both switched gears with alacrity and Shelley, a former teacher, began studying art, having always wanted to but never having had the chance.
She credits her new zeal for encaustic work on a two-day course she took with Brian Simons. Soon afterwards she renovated a former studio on the property, once a garage attached to the house, adding new flooring and high quality ventilation for her blow torch.
As a result, the long COVID months and retirement years have been happy and productive for these two and she says their singular interests and places to enjoy them is a help.
“So many colleagues are nervous about retiring but we’ve found it liberating because now we have time to pursue other interests, find talents we didn’t even know we had.”
Her career has blossomed and she sells work through five galleries including ones in Hawaii, Tofino and Kelowna. “I honestly didn’t see this coming and would never have imagined….” Gardening doesn’t thrill her but she harvests the veggies and berries and makes lots of jam.