Supernaturalistic: A West Coast Tale

On the beach: Tofino mudflats

Well, I was definitely out there. 

It took me over half a lifetime to return to the supersized environs of British Columbia. And while off exploring the massive old growth coastal forests surrounding Tofino on the westernmost edge of Vancouver Island, I couldn’t help but wonder aloud to the sky-capped cedars… What took me so long?

Giants of the coastal forest

I was lured out to the West Coast by an invite to speak in Victoria as part of The Hardy Plant Study Weekend – a grand annual convergence of hort societies in the Pacific Northwest. The event is truly pan-American, rotating between Portland, Seattle, and Victoria – routinely selling out to a crowd of over 400 serious gardeners and plantophiles.

For this year’s event, they assembled a dynamic speaker list of garden designers and horticulturists from the U.K. and North America, interposed with three days of garden tours around the super lush and sometimes theatrical gardens of Victoria. 

Home theatre garden

The weekend also hosted an open market with connoisseur plant vendors offering irresistible temptations for phytomaniacs.

Oh no, is that an ultra-rare specimen of Japanese Diphylleia grayi with the white flowers that turn translucent when wet? Might have to pick that up… 

Collectors catnip at the market

I’d been asked to speak about naturalistic planting design, a concept that’s still quite new to this region of the West coast where tastes can run to the conservative.

Having travelled clean across the country to get there, I wanted to squeeze the most out of the experience. So I made plans after the weekend to extend my trip with a few days of forest bathing and sea kayaking in the supernaturalistic environs of Tofino.

On the beach at Tonquin

Behind the weed curtain

Formerly a nesting ground for retirees, Victoria has reinvented itself as one of the most desirable small cities  in Canada with a succession of charming neighbourhoods clustered around panoramic views of island, mountain, and sea.

Arc of Diver

I wintered there many years ago after a season of working as a landscaper for Parks Canada in Banff National Park. I remember quiet days of unending postcard blue and long walks in Beacon Hill Park by the ocean’s edge with green islands rising in the distance.

The locals coined the expression, “Behind the tweed curtain” to describe the snooty lifestyle of the original Brit ex-pat community, but these days the city has grown to become far more cosmopolitan.

For gardeners, Victoria is something of a promised land – where one can seemingly grow almost anything from tender annuals to New Zealand exotics with incredibly lush and diverse gardens ranging from English-style borders to Japanese gardens, and jungle retreats.

And yes, given all this hyper-fertility, gardeners must deal with a potentially astounding number of weeds (and they were ripe for the concept of designing in layers.)

Japanese-influenced front garden in Victoria Primula x bulleesiana growing at the HCP

Local passions include zone denial, propagating collectible specimen plants, and deer aversion therapy to combat an out of control population that munches on all of the above.

The freedom to grow anything though presents a certain conundrum. If gardens can look like anything, then what is Victoria’s own identity?
The local gardens presented no one answer to this question – with a gradient tipping from aforementioned collector’s gardens towards variations on classic mixed borders.

Eryngium in fine form HCP Garden designed by the Victoria Hardy Plant Group

Interestingly, the actual local habitat is Zone 8-ish, summer-dry Mediterranean on mostly rocky ground. Victoria’s gardens typically depend on continual irrigation, mulching, and amending to thrive. In this day and age, that’s perhaps not the most sustainable solution.

On the weekend I visited, the temperature was roasting far beyond the normally temperate conditions. And in the province’s rain-starved interior, wildfires were running rampant.

Given the prospect of a changing climate and future water shortages, it might be worthwhile for Victorians to consider alternatives like xeriscaping, or steppe planting to cope with the seasonal aridity. Or look to the example of rain gardens to handle seasonal extremes of moisture.

For a biogeographical comparison, here’s how Le Jardin Champêtre, a nursery in the south of France (designed by Brit émigré Imogen Checketts) contends with much of the same elements in a highly plant-driven naturalistic style. Food for thought, perhaps?

Jardin Champetre: Dry Mediterranean planting

In Victoria itself, this driveway vertical rock garden designed by plant geek Janice Currie presents a compelling solution for local adaptation – drought tolerant and deer-proof to boot.

Vertical rock garden Rock garden with our ride: Daihatsu mini-truck

BTW: Special props to the Daihatsu micro truck parked in the driveway. That was my ride for much of the weekend, courtesy of my local host and program committee member, Don Lindsay. 

Spouting forth

The study part of the weekend was held in a community auditorium in Sydney with a series of talks to start each day for a rapt audience of over 400 gardeners.  

With a front row seat for the action, I was pleasantly gobsmacked by the quality of the presenters. In particular, the English designer duo of James Alexander-Sinclair and Joe Swift cracked it on every level.

James-Alexander Sinclair: The posh one Joe Swift: The loud one

Clearly great friends, they’re gardener designers and BBC garden presenters who both radiate great charm and humour with tales of exploring the edges in contemporary British garden design.

I’m not normally one to gush… but it was a tour de farce and force.

B.C. native and big bear of a plantsman, Egan Davis told incredible tales of communal digging and Japanese heavy-lifting methods in his role as Principal Instructor Horticulture Training Program at the UBC Botanical Garden in Vancouver. 

Distinguished local writer and designer Cyril Hume spoke about what it means to downsize to a new smaller garden while finding rooms for the plants that matter most.

Ecologically-obsessed Rebecca McMackin, Director of Horticulture at Brooklyn Bridge Park captivated the audience with the story of how they coped with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

Rebecca McMackin: The smart one

Rebecca brings a deep-science awareness to most of her waking moments. Later in the gardens, she alerted me to the language of light used between flowers and pollinators and it was certainly new to me; catch her illuminations on Instagram.

These flower throats are like stain glass windows, luring pollinators in. #foxglove #digitalispurpurea

A post shared by Rebecca McMackin (@oroeoboeococoao) on

With so much talent on the lectern, someone had a very tough act to follow. (Oh yes, that would be me!)

My talk was entitled ‘Bringing the High Line Home‘. And from the moment I started to speak about the principles, ethos and practices of naturalistic planting design, I’ve never sounded so serious in all my life. 

Fortunately, the wow factor of my slideshow and the core of my message transcended my rather grave delivery. As I chatted with other gardeners over the course of the weekend, I realized that my essential message had, in fact, hit home. 

Read Wild-ish at Heart here on my blog if you want the overview.

This portrait snapped a few hours after my talk captures the mood. I’m sitting in a moment of contemplation on a bench at the top of Graham Smyth’s quite extraordinary garden dubbed Seaview.

Post-talk serious contemplation

Tumbling down a long slope, Grahams’s extensive garden presents an array of fusion plantings with a tropical palette drawn everywhere from Australia and New Zealand to South Africa. Deeply influenced by the work of West coast plant-hunter Dan Hinkley, his garden is that rarest of rare: a well-designed collector’s garden.

It’s anything but naturalistic but I admire his gardening obsession and the sense of place at Seaview, a destination also quite catchable on Instagram.


A post shared by Graham Smyth (@seaviewslope) on

The weekend wrapped up in the serenely mature garden of Alimay McNeil, a member of the Program Committee. As we toasted the weekend’s success with nectar-ish homemade wine made by her husband Robin. Alimay thanked me for delivering a talk with gravitas, “After all”, she declared, “We don’t call it the Study Weekend for nothing”.

Alright then, Mission accomplished.  

Mature mixed plantings at the garden of Alimay McNeil

Forest Bathing in Tofino

After the lively profusion of people and plants, I was happy to get on a small turbo-prop plane out to the post-hippie, surf town of Tofino.

Island flights of fancy Rockscape at Chesterman Beach

Travelling solo, each day I hit a different hiking trail or wild beach, marvelling at the cascading layers of vegetation that comprise the old growth forests. It was like learning the language of an ancient habitat starting with the mosses, deer ferns, bunchberry, and salal on the forest floor. Then rising up through the levels upwards still to sky-high stands of Western Red Cedar, Douglas Fir, and Sitka Spruce. 

Way up: Western Red Cedar Deer fern undergrowth in Tofino

I was especially taken with Tofino Botanical Garden, which had the feeling of a grand obsession gone sweetly awry. It meant you could take off down forest paths where it felt no one had walked for years. 

Every new turn revealed yet another striking tableau in the forest – an evolution of organisms and forms entwined in glacial harmony. 

Jungle VW bug Another cougar in the jungle mist Michael Dennis sculpture

The town itself had picked up the theme in the understated grace of its public street gardens. Somehow with slabs of stone, timber beams, and feathery grass, it expressed West coast soul in all its wild, raw and elemental beauty.

Tofino streetside planting

Next time out, I won’t take a lifetime to return.


Special thanks to the Hardys – aka the Victoria Hardy Plant Group for the invitation and opportunity to spread the word of new perennial planting design. 


5 thoughts on “Supernaturalistic: A West Coast Tale

  1. What a great weekend. Your photos are awesome.

    I did, however, pause when I read your sentence, “The freedom to grow anything though presents a certain conundrum. If gardens can look like anything, then what is Victoria’s own identity?”

    I hope you aren’t implying Victoria’s gardens must contain the same elements or plants to give Victoria an identity. When I’ve toured gardens in my former city, what I liked most was the diversity of each garden. I didn’t look to see if each garden contained an agave or a cedar, etc.

    I strongly agree with your sentiment that because of climate change, Victorians should “consider alternatives like xeriscaping, or steppe planting to cope with the seasonal aridity.” This is something we all need to do, and I will start with myself in my own garden in this regard.

    Wonderful post.

    • That’s a perfectly reasonable point of disagreement. My query was directed to what happens whe you embrace the character of a given habitat vs. circumventing it with elaborate things like irrigation. That still leaves all kinds of room for diversity and for imagination to roam.

  2. Textural, both in landscape terms and in your writing. I spent my first 10 years in Victoria, and it awakened in me the sense of the possible in things botanical, which I equated with ‘meadows’ and ‘natural’. Also a lovely solitude that is my preferred sense of being even today. But it was Beacon Hill Park, and the hand of my ‘nanny’, that introduced me to how one could have a garden and a camas meadow, on the shores of the Pacific Ocean. I always thought I might go back there, to Dallas Road, as an old woman. And this week, I’m officially on the road to being one.

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