House Beautiful: At home in a restored Garry oak meadow

You don’t expect to find a restored Garry oak meadow on an urban lot, but that’s just what you’ll discover at this home in south Oak Bay.

The owners, two wildlife biologists who have dedicated their careers to bettering the environment, wanted to create a home that reflected their values.

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“When we saw the property, we knew that with a lot of work, we could get it back to the original Garry oak ecosystem,” Jared Hobbs said. “We wanted to live what we believe.”

The natural-looking front yard does take some getting used to. Driving up to the newly built contemporary house and seeing thigh-high meadow grasses instead of mown grass or a flower-filled rockery did have me a bit worried. “Oh no, the landscaping hasn’t been done yet. I hope the photographer can shoot around that,” I thought.

Hobbs laughs when I ’fess up. He’s used to the slightly startled reaction when people first see the property and are told that yes, the landscaping has been done.

“It takes a little bit of mental adjustment. We’re so used to traditional gardens. People might initially think the natural grasses and native plants look like weeds. But when you see it as a native park setting, it starts to look beautiful.”

Changing the lens on what makes a beautiful landscape is a key reason the couple is opening up the home and property for the 2017 Victoria Art Gallery House Tour, sponsored by the Associates, a volunteer group that supports and fundraises for the art gallery.

The Sept. 24 tour features five homes, with local artists working in each. The $35 tickets are available Sept. 1 online at aggv.ca/events, with other locations to be announced.

The featured Mountjoy Avenue house isn’t visible from the street. It’s up a long driveway that leads to a two-lot strata subdivision, so the tour is a prime opportunity to showcase a different perspective on urban gardening. The couple wants to show what can be created if the guiding principle is what is good for the environment and the local ecosystem, rather than just creating more grass and flower beds.

“It feels like we’re out in nature, yet we’re eight minutes from downtown,” said Hobbs. “If others in Oak Bay did this, we’d create a more hospitable environment for wildlife and maintain natural beauty in an urban setting.”

Garry oak ecosystems are Canada’s most endangered system, Hobbs said. Current estimates suggest that only about one to five per cent remain in a near-natural condition in B.C.

Garry oak trees on their own are beautiful, but the ecosystem around them creates a rich tapestry of plant, animal and insect species, Hobbs said, from bright spring wildflowers and waves of blue camas to the less showy golden fall foliage.

It’s taken the couple two years, a fair bit of money and a lot of work to create the meadow out of the overgrown property, which had been sitting vacant for years before they bought it.

They had been looking for just the right lot for more than a year when the almost 17,000-square-foot property off Mountjoy Avenue came on the market.

Their real estate agent, Ian Brown, called the property “the land that time forgot.” It was originally part of the large Mount Joy estate, owned by Frederick Pemberton, son of Vancouver Island’s first surveyor-general. He built an arts-and-crafts-style bungalow called Knockcool for his daughter, Armine, and her husband, Lancelot de Saumarez Duke. Parts of the large Pemberton estate were eventually subdivided, but Knockcool was not.

The property was later bought by a man believed to be a hoarder, who filled it to the point that he had to have a trailer installed on the property to actually live in. The house was condemned and torn down about 10 years ago and the property sat vacant.

Hobbs had a good feeling about the dilapidated lot filled with thick non-native growth that had grown wild for years. The biologist, a nature photographer and author of the book Spotted Owls: Shadows of an Old-Growth Forest, also had a bit of a sign that buying it was the right decision.

“Walking in the overgrown lot the night before it went on the market, I hooted for an owl. A barred owl swooped down. I thought, ‘OK, this is the lot.’ ”

The couple approached the garden as they would any biology restoration project, taking out non-native plants and improving the soil. So far, they’ve planted hundreds of camas bulbs, swaths of Roemer’s fescue tufted hair grass, ocean blush and about 40 other native plant species. Most of the plants on the property are native species. The large meadow requires almost no maintenance.

And when it came to building a house in the midst of the meadow, there would be one guiding principle: to never feel far from the outside.

The couple worked with Zebra Design’s Rus Collins and Lorin Turner, creating a sleek and open modern design that is spare, yet welcoming.

In order to accommodate a Garry oak, Collins actually took the original model of the house and bent it in the middle. Now, instead of completely square rooms and right angles, there are subtle variations in the ceiling angles that add interest. There are few right angles in the home. And the Garry oak was allowed to remain just where nature intended.

Two-storey windows on the main floor mean the trees feel like you can almost touch them.

“We always wanted to be looking at the Garry oaks,” said Hobbs, whose office is part of the open-concept main floor, but can be separated by a set of sliding glass doors that have no bottom tracks.

When the doors are open, it looks like part of the living area. Though it seems seamless and simple, it required careful thought and planning.

The interior reflects nature, with calming off-whites, greys and browns mixed with splashes of colour.

The grey Gamma sectional from Studio Y Design grounds the living area, but a bright yellow chair provides pop.

The wood floors throughout are from Preverco, designed and manufactured in Canada and “the most environmentally friendly flooring we could find,” Hobbs said.

Climb a floating staircase to the second floor and you’re in a loft with a bird’s eye view of the canopy level of the Garry oaks around the house. The loft is a place to chill and relax, play guitar or read, while looking out the large windows to the towering trees. It’s hard to imagine that you’re in a city with this view.

A glass sliding door leading to the master suite is home to a unique piece of art: a glass sketching of an oak tree. Hobbs took a photo of his favourite tree to glass artist Charles Gabriel, who etched the image onto thick glass, creating a gentle reflection of the much-loved meadow.

Carefully placed throughout the house are Hobbs’ spectacular photos of B.C. wildlife, images he’s waited hours for while crouched in the wild. As a biologist, he wanted to bring those creatures to life for people who might never be able to see them. Now they seem right at home in this home in the middle of a meadow.

In the backyard, they have a small grassed area that is more traditional for a barbecue and socializing.

Still, it’s the Garry oak meadow that has their hearts. And by the time I leave and walk back through the meadow, I don’t see tall weeds. I see the many butterflies feeding from the plants, hear the birds and admire how their springer spaniel Piper can gallop through without worry that she’ll cause any damage.

“Knockcool is Irish for hill of peace or hill of serenity,” Hobbs said. “Once your eye adjusts, you start to see this as a much more tranquil setting, in keeping with that name.”

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