The lavender-hued gates to this enchanting garden in Vancouver’s Point Grey are open metalwork—deliberately so, says owner Susan Koelink. “That way, passersby can peek through and if I’m outside, I can invite them in for a closer look.” Always happy to share her plant passions, Koelink walks about with notebook in hand and pockets stuffed with plant tags for easy reference.
And what plants! Here, a clutch of stunning double hellebores or a constellation of ‘Globemaster’ alliums; there, the glowing cinnamon trunk of paperbark maple or the scarlet leaves of ‘Pink Pagoda’ mountain ash. Holding court in the south-facing backyard is a Franklinia, a rare tree with camellia-like white blooms. Exquisite vignettes—such as a magenta peony flower hovering over velvety black coralbells—greet the eye in every season.
“If there is one word to characterize this garden, it is ‘woodland,’” says Koelink, leading the way down a shady path lined with a distracting array of luxuriant hostas, delicate epimediums and feathery astilbes. “And I think the feeling you have in a garden is important—beyond just having nice plants. Here I feel very calm but also experience great delight.”
The Koelinks moved into the Cape Cod-style house set on a double lot in 1979. Initially, it was a family garden for their three young children, featuring mostly lawn, an old plum tree complete with swing, a “victory garden” in one corner and, surrounding it all, a white picket fence. Koelink’s two daughters had their ballet school pictures taken every May under the two pink flowering dogwoods in the front yard—“their little pink tutus were a perfect match,” she says. The first garden renovation in 1981 saw the installation of a brick patio, raised beds edged with railway ties (all the rage then) and a sumptuous red Japanese maple that still anchors the backyard.
But once the children were grown, Koelink wanted more as a gardener. “I was raised in Fernie, BC, by an aunt who was a committed gardener,” she says. “We had lilac hedges, magnificent peonies and lots of colourful annuals. Gardening is hard-wired into my nature, but education was what I needed.” She started devouring hort information and enlisted Vancouver landscape architect Ron Rule to create “a grown-up garden.”
The backyard was transformed with fabulous hardscaping, including a patio of concrete pavers interspersed with Pennsylvania bluestone slabs; a sunken terrace with a glass roof replacing an old sunroom; a potting shed; dry stone walls; elegant pathways; and those handsome purple gates. “It was an involved and engineered undertaking,” says Koelink. “All the plants I wanted to save were potted up and stored in the front garden. Almost everything came out except the Japanese maple, some cotoneasters and the wisteria by the back gate. Doing such a thing forces you to look carefully at the house and garden and how it all relates.”
Sightlines from every angle, and views from every window of the house were considered, as Rule divided the garden into “rooms,” some more formal than others, but never losing the overall calm, woodland feeling that Koelink loves. One “room” features a grassy rectangle bounded by tall evergreens and mixed borders. At one end, a Lutyens bench is framed by a low boxwood hedge and irises. At the other is a narrow pond with a dancing-frog fountain and Rule’s trademark row of large pots, planted with golden New Zealand flaxes and ivy.
An equally dramatic change came in the front garden a couple of years later with the removal of a big laurel hedge that ran across the front of the property, as well as two yews by the front door. “That was one of the best things we ever did,” Koelink says. “It brought the house and garden into much better scale.” It also gave her additional planting space for the many treasures she was acquiring from plant sales and trips to nurseries near and far.
But Koelink is careful to keep the space coherent by “sticking to a few genera, then indulging in the many species within those genera.” Her favourites—which she will enumerate only when really pressed—include epimediums (“perfectly named ‘fairy wings’”), hellebores, hostas(especially ‘Halcyon’, ‘Sagae’, ‘Patriot’ and ‘June’), toadlilies and sedges. She also loves to repeat a plant, in this case ‘Dickson’s Gold’ bellflower, throughout the garden, thus maintaining continuity and drawing the eye through the space.
Despite her penchant for plants, “I’m not into chasing after the latest and greatest or pushing the zones,” she says. “I want interesting but reliable performers, with no coddling.” An organic gardener, she top-dresses the beds every year and doesn’t hesitate to go mano-a-mano with pests. “I don’t see a reason for slugs being on this earth, so I go on slug patrol every night at 10. I have special slug scissors; one snip and they’re gone!”
Rule’s structured framework affords Koelink room to put her own stamp on the space. “I do have a lot of tchotchkes,” she admits, “but the emotional investment in a garden is just as important to me. Many objects here—and plants, too—hold memories of people and places. For example, a daylily called ‘Lexington Avenue’ commemorates a trip to New York.” Her latest acquisition is a curvaceous wrought-iron piece more than four feet tall that is both sculpture and bird bath. Cast in the form of a blooming star magnolia branch, it’s the impressive work of Victoria artist-blacksmith Jake James.
Watching the chickadees darting in for a drink, Koelink acknowledges the continuing delight she finds in her little piece of Eden. “It’s a testament to the garden that, after all these years, I’m still so enamoured of it.”
**Check out the elements that transform this property into a backyard haven**
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