A garden built around the view

Marnie and Jim McNeill’s garden on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, was planned to complement the gorgeous scenery surrounding their property.

Photos by David McDonald
MEDITERRANEAN STYLE: This Canadian garden is filled with colorful perennial plants, but the owners must cope with high winds and six months of dry weather each year.
Photos by David McDonald
CAT-FRIENDLY GARDEN: Marnie McNeill gardens on Vancouver Island, British Columbia.

Marnie McNeill lives in “an upside-down house” (her words) with a back-to-front yard on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. “Most of our living is done upstairs rather than on the first floor,” she says – because that’s where they can best appreciate their view.And what a view it is.

“We see the Pacific Ocean and the Strait of Juan de Fuca,” she says. “We look due southeast into Washington State.”

Which is to say their view is over the front yard, so that is where the McNeills wanted to intensify their gardening – not the back yard. “We live on a little dead-end street, and our house faces the garden,” she explains.

But the downside of having an elevated view over a front-yard garden is that you have to look at the road. Or tarmac, as they say in Canada.

But a friend at a botanical center advised Mrs. McNeill and her husband, Jim, to embrace this wide ribbon of gray instead of futilely trying to camouflage it.

So they did. Their solution: a Mediterranean garden planted in gravel, so that the soft gray of their “soil” blends almost seamlessly into the gray of the roadway.

“We weren’t geniuses about this,” she says. “There was a lot of experimentation. I had gardened in a minor way in Montreal – where I had a typical eastern Canada or American garden. But this is a much different proposition.” In many ways.

“Because we live so close to the ocean, we can garden almost 12 months of the year,” she says. “It’s a pretty moderating influence. You can grow lots of things you otherwise couldn’t. But the winter winds blow straight at us. On occasion it will hit 100 kilometers an hour [62 m.p.h.]. We end up with salt on our windows.

“And summer,” she adds: “Everyone thinks it’s always raining in the Pacific Northwest, but it stops raining in May and doesn’t start again until autumn. We have six months wet and six months dry. We can end up with watering restrictions. All this is a determining factor in what we can grow.”

That and the fact that she doesn’t want to put in more than a few tall plants because “we didn’t want to lose this zillion-dollar view.”

Thus she has a Mediterranean garden, but one with a colorful punch.

“At the moment, it looks like I live in the middle of Disney World,” she says. “The orange poppies are in bloom, the white hebes, tons of foxgloves, the tree poppies. It’s all purple and orange and yellow with nice dots of white. Nobody would call it subtle.

“It’s probably my personality,” she explains. “I’m a color lover. I would love to have all that pretty pale pink, but it won’t grow here.”

Marnie, a retired airline training instructor, and Jim, who retired from commercial real estate, also like the fact that their style of gardening is fairly low maintenance – leaving them more time to relax on their new deck, enjoying that “zillion-dollar view.”

In the distance, she notes, “you can see every cruise ship and every freighter going by.”

And just down below: “One of the miracles of my life is to have this incredible garden – that kind of just happened.”

Why a gravel garden?

In a Maritime climate that is alternately soggy and scorching, a six- to 12-inch layer of gravel over the soil accomplishes many things.
1. For starters, you don’t have to mow gravel, which saves you time and gas. Without a lawn, you also save on irrigation expenses.
2. Gravel provides insulation and excellent drainage for Mediterranean (and some Australian, New Zealand, and South African) plants during the winter rains, keeping them from freezing or rotting. In summer, that same insulation keeps the roots cool.
3. A gravel garden reduces the need to weed. Marnie McNeill finds that she does have to deal with “volunteer” plants on occasion. “But so what?” she says philosophically.
4. After a rain, you can go out and enjoy the garden immediately, without worry of getting into mud or tracking it into the house.
5. And then there’s this: Says Marnie, “In every way, it has a totally different feeling.”

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