House Beautiful: Starter home in a great setting

When Dan Milbrath and his wife, Sarah, bought their first house in the Jubilee area three years ago, it had virtually no garden décor or style to speak of.

“And no flow,” said Dan, recalling how the front yard was a soggy mass of vegetables with no pathways. “We were always walking through mud because of runoff from the street and the neighbour’s driveway that poured into our front garden.”

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And the backyard was only slightly better, with overgrown and scraggly rhodos, a patchy lawn and a shed that was smack in the middle.

Today, their starter 1914 home and garden is almost unrecognizable, thanks to a major facelift at the front of the house, new decks and a whole new garden scheme.

With arbutus, olive and silk trees and star magnolias, Dan has created a sensual canopy for his outdoor living area.

And underneath, he has planted swaths of hostas, black and golden bamboo, black mundo grasses, spirea, canna lilies, colocasia, sweet smelling sarcococca and ligularia.

“It was a shady garden to start, with some really deep shade in the back, so we went with that,” said Dan, 37, who owns Costa Verde Contracting, which specializes in garden design and maintenance.

In addition to several small storage areas and a garden arbour, he also built in his backyard an office that he shares with a giant red banana tree at this time of year. The vigorous plant is brought inside every winter to protect it from the cold.

“It grows like crazy up toward a skylight there, putting out leaf after leaf,” Dan said.

The first thing the couple wanted to do in their new garden was create some pathways, so they wouldn’t have to wade through mud.

“We added about 500 square feet of paths and patio altogether, some with interlocking brick and some with slate,” Dan said. “We dug down, added road base, tamped it down, put sand on top and then brick or slate. It creates a nice pattern and makes a big difference.”

He also added a birdbath as a focal point out front.

“The front deck used to have a spiral staircase, but I took that out, built a new deck and closed the area in below, for more storage.” On the far side, opposite the driveway, he added a small porch leading to the front door, with a barn-style slider underneath to access more space for bikes and baby gear.

“The main goal was to try to get some flow happening, and we achieved that with the new decks, pathways and the arbour,” he said.

Sarah loves the privacy of her new front patio, which Dan created by planting a fast-growing cypress hedge.

The lot is just 10.6 metres wide, so to maximize the space, he planted the hedge out in the boulevard itself, which is permitted, he said; in fact the city is encouraging boulevard gardens.

“It is a really nice place to sit after work in the summer,” said Sarah, adding the front deck is warm in the late afternoon, too. “We often have dinner out there in the good weather.”

Dan also designed a French drain to collect excess road water that pours down the street when it rains.

It used to flood the front yard, creating a pool and boggy mess, but he turned a problem into an attractive solution by installing the drain, where the surface water can pool temporarily in a contained area and gradually drain away, to reveal an interesting rock garden.

He said that boggy problem was one reason he decided to remove the previous vegetable garden, which was unappetizing because of the grease and oil that sometimes migrated there from the road.

“Even when I dug down a foot, if the soil was wet, it had an oily, asphalty sheen.”

The water had to go somewhere, so he ended up digging a trench about seven metres long, a third of a metre wide and deep, which he filled with fabric and river rock. When the rain pours, the trench fills and doesn’t saturate the soil. When it dries, the river rocks create an interesting dry-river-bed feature.

“It’s the kind of thing we do a lot for people who have sopping wet lawns,” said Dan.

He and Sarah also put a lot of effort into upgrades to the home’s interior, including new paint, trim, carpeting, stainless appliances and windows. They also updated a basement suite for friends and visitors.

“The upstairs hallway was very dark when we bought the house, so we put in a nice big window and another in our daughter’s room, which had a very small window.” They replaced it with a new one that measures one-by-1.3 metres.

“We’ve done tons of work on the outside, too,” he said, adding all the exterior trim was redone and much of the siding was stripped off and replaced. “We also had to do some major waterproofing in the house.”

He pointed out that over the years, the previous owners had done lots of renos, “but nothing that was really cohesive. It all looked totally mixed up. So one of the things we especially wanted to do was try to upgrade the exterior so it would look like a real craftsman home.

“It’s a really old house, built in 1914, and we wanted to stay with that look.”

Both he and Sarah were looking forward to undertaking the renovation projects.

“Before buying this house we were renting, but we really wanted a place of our own to mess around with and make improvements to.”

The house cost $452,000 three years ago and the couple has added about $50,000 in improvements to the house, landscaping and the new garden office.

“We feel the house has increased in value quite a bit,” said Dan, who started his own company in 2007.

Before that, he worked for several garden designers. “I started out doing garden labour as a student in the summers, working on some very high-end homes, with owners from Calgary and the States. I worked for one fellow who spent about two years building a house on Pat Bay. It was super high-end.”

Dan gained plenty of experience over those years. He eventually decided to go out on his own and now employs 15 full-time and five part-time employees.

While this project was small in scale, compared to many in the past, he said there were challenges that made it interesting and satisfying.

housebeautiful@timescolonist.com

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