House Beautiful: Their garden is their workout centre

It took 16 years of labour to create their terraced shade garden, but Glynis and John Ballard say it was worth it — not only do they live in a mini paradise, but they’re strong and fit from all the hard work.

Besides, they’re now into the final stretch, with just one more little wall to build and one more terrace to plant, in the lowermost corner of their property.

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“Doing something like this is a fabulous project if you like manual labour,” said John, who retired in 2007 and has been rock-wall building almost constantly ever since.

“It’s a great way to keep in shape and I love doing it. I find building walls very creative and interesting, even though I had to rebuild one once, when it became too high and part of it fell over. I had to take the whole thing down and start over again.”

Anyone looking at the original property, with its 38 oak trees in the backyard and steep slope, might have given up on any horticultural aspirations.

And that was how the Ballards felt initially, but they gradually changed their minds. Today, it’s a showcase, and will be featured on the Cowichan Garden Tour June 9. (Details page E5.)

“When we had the house built in 1996, we designed a really enormous back deck because we thought we would let the garden stay completely natural,” said Glynis. They anticipated spending their outdoor hours on the deck, gazing at their wild grove of oak trees in the summer, all flush with leaves, and appreciating the trees’ spectral, sculptural quality in winter.

But one day, a friend jokingly remarked, “You ought to have some putting greens down there.”

That was all it took. John was off to the races, or rather to his stony backyard, rolling up his sleeves, shovel and pick in hand.

He started building one little terrace after another, and as fast as each was constructed, Glynis would plant it with greenery.

Each terrace had to first be filled with sand and topsoil, another herculean task because when the house was built, no large side access was created, so John had to wheel every barrow load down 13 steps.

He is completely self taught when it comes to wall-building, but had long admired the art when travelling in England. “I thought to myself, I could probably do that … and it became a bit of a hobby.”

Today, the garden features two ponds, a stream, rock walls galore in almost every style imaginable — from freestanding, dry-stacked to roughly piled up Windermere-field style, and still more that are perfectly finished with mortar.

And while the garden is a mosaic of stone and hard-scape features, Glynis has softened the inside of their comfortable home with scores of quilts she made herself. Some depict birds or rows of classic houses, while others are blooming with floral imagery that echoes the greenery outside their windows.

“We wanted our house to have a warm, cosy feeling and an open-space design, and we like intense colour, so we painted many of the rooms in dark shades,” said the former librarian, who retired in 2000 and has been gardening and quilting ever since, “If I can do those two things, I’m a happy girl,” she added with a grin.

Glynis, who has made and given away many quilts since she first took a class in 1995, appreciates the long history of the craft, the stories quilts tell, how they have been handed down to daughters through generations. “I love the history and like looking at them in museums.”

They also appreciate the great outdoors, especially since their 2,500-square-foot home backs onto the Mt. Tzouhalem Ecological Reserve, with its groves of Garry oaks, wildflower meadows and woodlands. On the border between their property and the nature reserve, the Ballards have left a wild interface zone as a transitional green space.

They love the area and used to hike there before having their home built, and still do, five or six days a week — when they can drag themselves away from the garden

“We never imagined we would create a garden like this — we just liked the lot, the trees and the sense of privacy,” said Glynis, who adds that her husband does all the heavy lifting in the garden while she does all the planting.

“He’s the builder, I’m the gardener, and there is always a project going on. For instance, John just finished building a little bridge over a lower portion of the stream.”

Since the property was full of rock, over the years John has mostly used what was on site for all the terracing and wall construction. The Ballards also collected river stones and flat sandstone for their streambed, and sometimes friends would arrive for dinner with a bottle of wine and some more rocks. John eventually had to break down and order some blasted rock, too, but only for a couple of walls.

“It was all done by hand, and we just kept working our way down the slope,” he said, adding his first attempt at a wall was just to hold up the slope. “Everything flowed from that. We created the ponds and streambed, because in the winter and spring, there is a lot of natural runoff from the mountain. We incorporated it into a stream and in the summer, we recycle the water to keep it flowing.”

The back property is mostly a shade garden — although Glynis admits she tried all kinds of sun-loving plants in the early days — and a vegetable garden.

Glynis gradually bowed to the terrain and low-light conditions, and now focuses on lilies, hellebores, hostas, ferns, epimediums, trilliums and other shade-loving plants, which she seeks out in various nurseries.

With friends who are also avid gardeners, she often goes on buying trips to places such as Free Spirit Nursery in Langley, Phoenix Perennials in Richmond, Fraser’s Thimble Farm on Saltspring Island, Dinter Nursery in Duncan, and Demitasse in Oak Bay.

“It’s hard to keep the garden clean because of all the droppings from the oak trees,” she says, dusting off her hosta leaves as she recalled the early frustration of working with what nature has given them.

And John admits that climbing the wall-building learning curve was no cake walk either. “You learn these things by trial and effort. I see some experts pick up a rock and slam it right into a wall, whereas I have to spend a lot more time finding just the right fit.”

19th Annual Cowichan Valley Garden tour

Where: Self-guided tour of seven gardens between Mill Bay and Duncan

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. June 9

Tickets: $20 at the Cowichan Family Life Thrift Store, 531 Canada Ave,. and other locations listed at cowichanfamilylife.org more info at 250-748-8281

The tour is a fundraiser for the Cowichan Family Life Association and will support programs that promote the health and well-being of children and families in the valley. They include peer counseling for individuals and couples, summer camps and the Books ‘n’ Bubbles Bus, which delivers early-learning and literacy programs to outlying areas.

Times Colonist gardening columnist Helen Chestnut will be a special guest in one of the gardens, along with master gardeners in two gardens, discussing plantings and design. Refreshments will be available in one garden, and raffle tickets for prizes.

Organizers hope to raise $10,000.

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