Cowichan Vally 2010 Garden Tour: Observations and Inspirations

So I’m turning into a gardening geek (or maybe I passed that phase a long time ago? :)) .  It was my birthday on Sunday, and all I wanted to do was go on the garden tour.  It was a great day, despite a downpour in the middle of it!  There were 6 gardens on the tour, all very different: a couple of conventional, 1/2 acre sized properties, a large, but still conventionally styled garden that specialized in rhododendrons, two neighbouring beautiful ocean-view properties with integrated veggie and flower gardens, and a hobby farm.  Something for everyone!

The Skipper was in macro-flower-photography heaven, with stunning and unique specimens galore.  The irises, in particular were amazing:

Dirigo Black Velvet Iris
Batik Irises
My Favorite!

The first few gardens were lovely, with some really interesting plants.  But we were also there to look at design choices, as we continue to learn about our own garden, and to think through some of the areas that we know we want to change.  What struck us more than anything in those first few homes was that our garden is not a conventional garden already, and we like it that way.

The conventional gardens have perfect lawn spaces, carefully edged.  The flower beds have precisely defined borders, and each plant in the bed is carefully positioned with plenty of space around it, so that it can be appreciated by itself.  The beds look like they are first covered in landscape cloth, then bark mulched, so that there are few, if any, weeds, and each plant is striking against the brown backdrop of the mulch.  Everything is beautiful, but feels, to us anyway, sterile and manicured.  Definitely not what we’re going for.

Gardens like these require strong attention to detail, a value of precision and uniformity, and above all, chemicals.  Killex on the lawn, Round-up on the weeds, fertilizers on the plants to keep them “healthy”.  We’re not interested in these complex artificial life support systems.

Our garden was clearly designed as a riotous English country garden, and that’s what we love about it.  It needs some tending–the mature perennials need to be tidied up and divided, the soil needs to be improved, and in the last few years the weeds weren’t really dealt with, so we’re infested with grass, creeping buttercup, morning glory and horsetail.  The Skipper has been rebuilding pathways that had become overgrown and in some cases almost impassable.  We will probably add some bedding edging over the seasons to come.  But we love the roses that are climbing over everything, the mature daylilies, crocosmia, peonies, and irises.  Now if we can just figure out how to tame the Bishop’s Weed!

So that was good to learn about ourselves and our garden.  Anyone surprised that we’re not conventional? 🙂

On to the veggie gardens!  To my surprise, everyone had one.  In some gardens they were a small aside, in others a main focus.  But I was pleased to see that even the most manicured space had some food in it.

Here are some of the more prominent veggie plots:

The elaborate, decorative veggie garden

This spot was beautiful; given as much care as the rest of the garden.  I loved that it had prominence and attention to aesthetics.  On a practical level, I liked that there were flower beds close by and integrated, and a large herb bed.  I also thought it was very clever that some of the beds had the tall frames that you can see in the back.  These frames were permanent, and meant that plastic could be easily attached to make instant cold frames, or netting could create instant trellises.  Very smart.  I’m also a sucker for the wooden obelisk for runner beans and climbing peas.  I haven’t figured out how to get one of those in my garden yet!

Here’s exhibit B:

A Self-Sufficient Plot

This garden was one of the stars of the show.  On a sunnier day, I would have cornered the gardener and tried to learn all of his secrets.  Unfortunately, this is when the downpour hit, and the photographer was not happy, so our visit was brief.  But I’ll try and find a way to get back!

This is a garden tended to by an English gardener who is legally blind.  He writes that they are self-sufficient in vegetables, and I believe it.  This wasn’t a super-large space, and there were some fruit trees and berry bushes outside of it.  But his vegetable garden was WEEKS ahead of anyone else’s.  He had actual ZUCCHINI on his plants!  Peas!  Flowers on his potatoes!  It was shocking!  I (and when I chatted to the Master Gardener on site, she said the same thing) haven’t even planted my cucumbers and zucchini yet, because it’s been so cold!  The power of a micro-climate.  The Master Gardener suggested his secret was two-fold.  The lot is closer to the ocean, so that creates a warmer zone, and the veggie plot is in a very sheltered area of the lot (note the solid fencing around the sides, too).  It’s possible that he was growing substantial transplants for some of the veg too.  But wow!  The inspiration to really go for it in terms of micro-zones, etc, to just keep pushing the envelope and to keep experimenting.

Also interesting to me, for our space, is that the size was not that big, and yet the plot didn’t seem to be really intensively cultivated.  One key was that even though it’s a raised bed system (the owner commented that he’s on rock), there is really only one main pathway, and pretty much the rest is cultivatable, with depressed areas used for temporary pathways where necessary.  An amazing space that definitely inspired me to be more organized and timely in my planting schedules, regardless of what the weather looks like outside.

Veggie Plot number three was the hobby farm, which was also an interesting place.  The farm is run by a small family, and has a small commercial production that they sell for a few weeks at the Duncan Farmer’s Market.  They also say that they are self-sufficient in produce.  But their set up is much more elaborate:

Raised Bed Section 1

They have inherited an unbelievable greenhouse; note the ROCK beds–perfect for keeping tomato and other tropical roots toasty year round without heat.

In the Greenhouse--those are olive trees in front of me

Then they have a second, large hoop house–good construction tips here:

Winter veggie production in the hoop house

The hoop house is built to allow ventilation and is unheated, and serves a couple of useful purposes: winter salad and other greens are kept at the right temperature to hold well through the cold season, and this is also where tomato and other warm season seedlings are hardened off, or perhaps grown in?  Not sure if they move them out or not.

The farm also has a second, very large raised bed space:

Very large Garden #2

One of the things that was interesting about the farm was that as idyllic as all this looks now, in fact it was clear that they had had some pretty serious challenges when they went to set up their growing area.  The paths to the raised bed areas are over dykes or ditches; it looks like they had to built up significantly to get above the water level!  This would have been a reason not to buy the property for me, if I was looking for a small farm, but they have done the work and with amazing results.

I’m struck by how much bigger this space is than the other self-sufficient veggie garden, too.  The difference between the serious home gardener and the hobby farmer, perhaps?

One of the big lessons for us in studying all these spaces was that although we’ve been tempted to think that our plot is too small for some of the dreams that we’ve had, it actually suits us well, and that it’s worth the effort to keep tweaking it to make it work better.  We know that we want to re-work the main veggie area, and between those changes and other places where we can continue to take out lawn and put in more veggie beds, I think we can really get the space we need.

Another lesson was that everyone has raised beds.  We had been struggling with the idea that maximum use of our main space meant taking out the raised beds and moving to a more traditional “farm-like” plot in the ground.  The problem is that the main growing area is actually right over our septic treatment system section (hard to explain quickly, but actually great!), which means that about 8″ (?) below the raised beds is a plastic liner, and then in those 8″ is sand and some imported topsoil.  So we’d been trying to decide what to do.  Seeing all these raised beds gave us a better idea of how bigger and deeper raised beds could work well for us, and we’re happily imagining the possibilities.  Stay tuned for the big winter project!

What I didn’t see was a lot of permaculture-style planting, but I’ll save that for another post.  For now, I’m pleased that touring these beautiful gardens in fact made us happier about where we are, and has inspired us with visions of how we might be able to make our own garden even more joyful and productive.


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