The Garden that Gives Back
By Michael Lascelle
That part of Surrey found along the Fraser River between the Pattullo and Port Mann bridges is often thought of as being quite industrial, given its many warehouses and railway lines. However, just up the hill is the residential area known as Bolivar Heights.
Nestled in the often foggy second growth forest lays the remains of a former strawberry farm and the garden of Ted and Nadine Staunton. They have called this neighborhood home since 1973 and purchased their current .9 of an acre in 1989, when they and their four children outgrew their last house.
It began as a sloped L-shaped lot surrounded by a bit of a ravine which had been used for dumping debris and boulders for as long as the area had been inhabited. The Stauntons' first project was to build a house on the lower part of the property and begin terracing the steep grade, which was proving difficult to mow.
Not one to waste local resources, Ted began the long (some might say perpetual) job of terracing the garden by recovering the boulders which had been bulldozed into the adjacent ravine when the land was originally cleared for farming. His forays down there have taken on an almost archaeological tone (given its former dumping status), with such finds as a cast iron bathtub, a vintage Austin car (whose door handles were salvaged for his greenhouse) and a myriad of 1920-30s era railway, military and household items (mostly old medicine bottles), including a beautiful silver bracelet.
As Ted puts it, "A house is just a place where you go to sleep between adventures in gardening," and given its many paths, hidden views and hand-made features, a tour of this landscape can honestly be described as an adventure. That said, it is an equal partnership with Ted (a former graphic designer who still dabbles in font design) handling the construction or reclamation phase, and Nadine (a retired financial planner) managing the plant selection and pruning.
But that's not to say that they don't disagree at times; take the pergola for instance, while Ted may have decided that one vine for each post (clematis montana Fragrant Spring, actinidia arguta issai, campsis radicans flava and jasminum officinale Fiona Sunrise) would be interesting, Nadine insisted that it was a bit too much and time has proved her right.
Still, like all wise gardeners, the Stauntons have come to realize that a landscape is constantly evolving and is never really finished, which suits Ted the expansionist just fine.
The entrance gate to the back garden is beautifully decorated with a piece of twisted hazelnut, and many of Ted's hand-crafted benches are made from wood salvaged here because recent city bylaws don't allow open-air burning, so, as he says, you might as well do something with it.
Just inside the gate one finds a gently sloped lawn alleyway edged in dwarf boxwood (Buxus sempervirens Suffruticosa), a classic garden shed (converted from a chicken coop) with a cedar shake roof and banks of hydrangeas and variegated shrubby dogwoods. The landscape here is north-facing and Nadine finds that the dry shade can be a real challenge. In her words, "You get to learn to love hostas," but she has also had to rely on a number of partial-sun perennials that provide a long season of colour but don't require a lot of pampering.
Prominent among these are daylilies (hemerocallis), threadleaf coreopsis (c. verticillata), hardy geraniums, goatsbeard (aruncus dioicus) and campanulas.
Nadine also makes extensive use of foliar colour throughout the garden, with burgundy accents including purple smokebush, ligularia dentata Othello, Japanese barberry (berberis thunbergii), red Japanese maples (Emperor 1 and Bloodgood) and lysimachia ciliata Firecracker.
The gold highlights she has chosen include the potted cupressus macrocarpa Wilma Goldcrest and spiraea japonica Goldmound in the front garden, numerous ornamental grasses (carex elata Bowles Golden, acorus and hakonechloa macra Aureola) as well dicentra spectabilis Goldheart in the back, with a stunning golden hops vine (humulus lupulus aureus) winding around a rustic arbor that empties onto the lower lawn.
But Nadine's favorite task is just wandering around the garden and speculating where changes are needed, and with the drier weather she has been actively phasing out the astilbes in favor of more drought tolerant plants.
The turf here does not get watered, and irrigation is limited to 15-20 minute timed sprinkler increments or watering individual plants with a can replenished by one of the rain barrels installed on the side of house.
Ted allows the artist in him to emerge through hand-made benches, arbors and the focal point of the garden, a beautiful rustic church with a steeple that began as a Victorian folly.
The many paths he has created throughout the landscape are an eclectic mix of mortared stone, interlocking pavers, patio slabs and even live moss for the less frequented walkways on the lower landscape, with all of it carefully transplanted from his own garden. In essence, they have created their own private park, which in Nadine's words is "not manicured to death," and they like it that way.
Ted is out there "every day, rain or shine," while Nadine seems to revel in the potential of the landscape rather than complaining about the work involved in maintaining it. "I really enjoy having a big garden, it gives me plenty of scope," she says, and that can-do attitude seems to have worked wonders, which Ted is more than happy to implement when given enough time (he is currently negotiating with Nadine for a new gazebo).
It is a very symbiotic relationship that the Stauntons have with this landscape; it provides water, leaves for mulch, stone for building materials, natural wood for arbors and even the occasional artifact, while they in turn nurture the land and enjoy the wildlife such as chickadees, coyotes, bald eagles, raccoons and even the occasional bear that shows up.
This place is also a focal point for garden tours (both are members of the North Surrey Horticultural Society) and other such gatherings, and with six grandchildren, the annual family barbeque often hosts upwards of 30 people.
Personally, I can't think of a better place to spend time with family than this serene garden, a peaceful landscape which is simply an honest reflection of the couple who created it.