For years, the small front yard of Marnie and Jim McNeill’s home in Victoria, British Columbia, had been a near wasteland. Shallow soils above granite bedrock, full exposure to the south, and persistent winds off the Straits of Juan de Fuca combined to frustrate Marnie in her attempts to create a lush garden—something more than the ubiquitous junipers and turf that seemed characteristic of their neighborhood. Garden designer Peter Symcox suggested replacing the mangy lawn with a gravel garden, letting the underlying rock dictate the placement of planting beds.
The mid-century modern house is a departure from the traditional architecture of Victoria, and, combined with the starkness of some new stone walls, encouraged a change from conventional plantings. Given the exposure of the site—and Victoria’s northerly version of a summer-dry mediterranean climate—Peter and Marnie decided to focus on an informal planting of water-conserving plants, making maximum use of the site by pushing a mediterranean theme. While their goal was not to create a “mediterranean garden,” what resulted seems to mimic the wild gardens seen on ancient stone terraces along the Italian Riviera
They also created a series of people spaces in the garden—in good mediterranean fashion. Widened gravel paths at various locations provide space for simple benches from which to enjoy the expansive views of the water, passing ships, and occasional pods of orcas. A somewhat larger area near the house became an intimate dining terrace for warm summer evenings. Beneath the second-floor deck is another sitting area near the front door, useful on hot afternoons or when a light rain is falling.
The garden—no more than sixty feet by forty feet—sits on a low mound above a driveway shared with neighbors. That slight rise, enhanced by the mounded plantings, provides visual screening for the first floor rooms and the dining terrace, and partially blocks views of neighboring houses on the downhill (ocean) side of the drive.
From Bedrock Up
Marnie and Jim cleared all the plants that had been struggling for years and removed any trace of turf. They built low walls of local stone to level off some of the planting areas, at the same time defining several distinct spaces within the garden. They brought in truckloads of good soil, topped it with landscape cloth, and several inches of gray gravel. An informal gravel path now connects all parts of the garden, interrupted by broad stone steps where the topography demands.
With the soil in place, the fun of planting the garden began. Marnie gathered plants from all sources available to them: local and mail-order nurseries, public garden plant sales, and friends who were happy to share plants from their own gardens. Most of the plants were herbaceous perennials or shrubby perennials of Southern European origin. Some were West Coast natives, especially selections of Ceanothus and various wild annuals. A few larger shrubs, such as Pittosporum _____, several cultivars of Hebe, and hybrid brooms (Cytisus) were incorporated to screen the new garden from the more conventional one next door, and to provide some wind protection for the dining terrace.
To screen the driveway, Marnie planted a low, informal hedgerow of Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii ‘John Tomlinson’, rockroses (Cistus), and rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Arp’). More rosemaries and lavenders (Lavandula angustifolia ‘Hidcote’) enclose the herb garden, where thymes, oreganos, and sage overflow the formal beds and naturalize in the gravel pathway.
At Home in the Garden
A number of plants have seeded themselves throughout the garden, occasionally constricting the pathways but giving the garden a long-established look. California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) dominate, but sea holly (Eryngium), and mullein (Verbascum olympicum) seem perfectly at home in the gravel.
From spring through midsummer, the garden is alive with flowers. Smaller selections of New Zealand flax (Phormium) and Cordyline provide visual accents throughout the garden, along with a number of ornamental garasses that sway in the breeze. Gaura lindheimeri and G. ‘Siskiyou Pink’ flower throught the summer, their delicate stems in constant motion. Cupid’s dart (Catananche caerulea) offers months of clear blue daisies. Its seedheads, along with those of sea holly and yarrow (Achillea) are allowed to mature, their tawny colors blending with those of the grasses.
Along the driveway and parking area, a good deal of bedrock was left exposed. The narrow cracks between the rocks are filled with small geraniums, thymes, and dianthus—all happy to take the exposure and the occasional footsteps of gardener and visitor.
Don Duffus, known locally for his imaginative container plantings, works with Marnie in the planting of containers for summer and fall color near the front door and along the parking area. While these are watered by hand, the remainder of the garden is irrigated at intervals with a hose-end sprinkler—but only occasionally during summer’s dry months; rainfall provides the majority of water for most of the plants, their roots finding moisture deep in the rock crevices.
The first two winters were mild and the garden thrived. The winter of 2003-2004 offered colder temperatures and a snowfall. Only the the cordylines, phormiums, solanums, and succulent aeoniums suffered.
Whether viewed from the driveway, from the deck and windows above, or from within, the garden is rich with colors and textures. A visitor cannot help but feel the joy in the garden’s exuberance and sense the pleasure that Marnie and Jim get from their wild mediterranean garden.