House Beautiful: Sounds of Music in the Gardens

Terry LeBlanc’s garden is a vision of extravagant plantings.

Her landscape contains a real pool brimming with water lilies, but also pools of pastel tulips, rhodos, early blooming roses, flowering dogwoods, climbing vines, tree peonies and azaleas, not to mention a profusion of multi-textured foliage.

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“Foliage is of the utmost importance to me,” said LeBlanc, whose garden has been featured in many magazines and books.

Her creativity will also be on view this year as part of the two-day Victoria Conservatory of Music Mother’s Day garden tour, and is also the location of the ever-popular plant sale.

LeBlanc is co-convenor of the event, which features 10 gardens, all with music provided by conservatory students or faculty, and each with its own particular flower flavour.

LeBlanc’s house was built in 1933 by Hubert Savage. When she bought it almost 30 years ago, there was virtually no garden to speak of, just a nondescript lawn.

“But I loved the location, the lane, the fact it was right in the heart of Oak Bay,” said LeBlanc.

Her first major projects were to add a sunroom with a jetted pool, and a garage. Next she began recreating the home’s authentic 1930s feel, as previous owners had modernized it with Ikea cabinets and wall-to-wall carpets.

“There had been lots of families living here in the past and everyone had done a little to change it,” so she determined to take the 3,200-square-foot house back in time.

She removed walls, added a Juliette balcony off the music room — to echo the one upstairs off the master bedroom — and installed mullioned windows, crown moulding and millwork of the era.

She tore out the wall-to-wall carpeting and laid oak flooring instead, then tossed Oriental carpets over it.

After that, the garden beckoned.

“I knew I wanted to be a gardener and I thought I knew a bit, but it turned out I knew nothing. I started in my feeble little way and the results came 100 per cent by trial and error.

“I started off wanting to create a traditional English garden to match the house, but it gradually become a little more West Coast as I was influenced by what was happening in California and in other famous and fabulous gardens up and down this coast.

“We all influence each other,” said LeBlanc, who grew up in Montreal, then moved to Toronto, Vancouver and Victoria.

Her garden is a perennial favourite among locals and international gardeners. It has been visited by experts such as Dan Hinkley, who sold his garden to Martha Stewart; by British garden designer and writer Penelope Hobhouse; Vancouver garden sensation Thomas Hobbs; English expert Beth Chatto and Scottish plantswoman Helen Dillon.

Yet despite such interest, LeBlanc stresses there is nothing uptight or pretentious about her landscape and she notes many of these sophisticated gardeners helped her property evolve by offering useful hints.

Grasses guru John Greenlea suggested: “Your garden is so pretty, but you can only see it from the driveways [on either side of the property].” He suggested she cut a path in the middle of her property, at the front road, so guests could appreciate the overall effect before moving to the sides.

LeBlanc credits much of the property’s beauty to her garden helper, Lindsey Alton, who has worked with her for years, but stresses all of the gardens on this year’s tour are special.

“Very rarely do you have an opportunity to explore behind the gates of these wonderful, well-loved private places and to talk to the people who have made them. We choose the gardens very carefully and have two master gardeners in each to answer questions.

“We have a Japanese garden this year that is exceptional, done by an artist who really knows the yin and yang of Japanese gardens. And for the first time ever, we have a national park on the tour, Fort Rod Hill, where hundreds of volunteers have created an acre of total beauty, a native plant garden that’s absolutely stunning.

“People used to think these gardens were scruffy looking, but they have become an art form.”

She advises a great garden evolves from many influences and, “you have to be willing to make mistakes, to take advice and move things around.

“Most things in my garden have moved three or four times, even the big rhodos. If you don’t like something in a particular place or it’s not thriving, move it.”

She adds her garden takes minimal effort now, considering its size and beauty, because she never uses chemicals to foster longevity.

“Only the hardiest plants survive.”

The Victoria Conservatory of Music garden tour includes a huge variety of properties this year from small cottages to large estates, from a professional gardener’s private oasis with sweeping mixed borders and stonework, to a hilltop home with exotic native plants and formal plantings.

One of the gardens has heritage, espaliered fruit trees while another displays rare and tender plants from Australia, Tasmania and South Africa.

A highlight will be Fort Rodd Hill, which features a new Garry Oak Learning Meadow of native plantings, a haven for hummingbirds.

During the past four years, more than 300 volunteers have helped Parks Canada transform an unremarkable half hectare of mown grass into a stunning wildflower meadow. More than 100,000 plants have been added including fawn lilies, sea blush, buttercups, purple camas and chocolate lilies.

“This is one of the rarest ecosystems in Canada, a delicate landscape once cultivated by the Lkwungen people, who grew camas lilies for their edible bulbs,” said resource management officer Aimée Pelletier, with Parks Canada.

A Victorian tea will be served at Fort Rodd on Saturday, May 9, by volunteers from the Victoria-Esquimalt Military Re-enactors Association, all dressed in period attire. In addition, native plant experts will be on hand to answer questions and offer tips on growing rare wildflowers and attracting bees and butterflies.

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