When she moved to coastal Canada, this English transplant learned a completely new kind of gardening.

By Carla Albright
August 12, 2008
Maggie McLaren

Monica Stuart can’t remember a time when she didn’t love getting her hands dirty. Tending the family garden was a part of life during her growing-up years in England. But when she and husband Tony moved to Vancouver Island eight years ago, she had to adapt her gardening techniques to suit a new, coastal climate.

“Our winters [here] are much wetter than in the UK,” Monica says of her Qualicum Beach home. In addition to learning about plants that could survive drastic seasonal changes, Monica had to adjust to maintaining a garden in sometimes intense winds. Instead of planting a windbreak, which would have blocked her neighbors’ views of the water, she opted for perennials that tolerate wind and winter storms. She also chose rosemary and lavender, which survive wet winters and thrive in hot, dry summers.

The weather wasn’t the only factor that demanded adaptation. Monica had to work on a grander scale. When she hired a local landscaper, he built flower boxes that were nearly 3 feet in size. “I thought they were enormous. But I was basing my request on a small English garden, not the large ones we have in Canada,” she says. “He was right to build them the size he did.”

To give the large garden a more accessible feel, Monica divided it into several plots. A dry bed, which grows without additional watering, incorporates plants such as California poppies and nasturtiums. Monica’s favorite bed is planted with a blue-and-white palette of hydrangeas, delphiniums, and Shasta daisies. “They mimic the colors of the Strait of Georgia on a lovely day,” she says.

While the waterfront location adds to the beauty of the garden, Monica cautions that you have to work with Mother Nature—as she learned when she tried roses in a bed close to the shore. “The hybrid teas couldn’t stand the wind, so I moved them to the other side of the house,” she says. “I tried the hardier rosa rugosa, and they did quite nicely.” Monica rounded out the seaside plot with grasses, poppies, and lavender to give it a natural, wild look. With curving walkways that lure visitors, and a new plant to discover at every turn, Monica’s garden may not look like the one she tended in England, but she loves it just the same. “I never expected the challenges of a coastal garden,” she says. “Nor the rewards.”

Monica’s tips for a thriving, inviting garden

Prepare the soil. “It’s a basic tenet of gardening to take care of the soil,” Monica says. “Many novice gardeners will go to a nursery, buy a plant, and stick it in any kind of dirt, trusting it will grow. If you nurture the soil first and feed it every year, your result will be a good, healthy garden.” Amend any type of soil with compost. It will improve the drainage of clay soil and add nutrients to sandy soil. Mixing sand or small gravel around the roots of Mediterranean-style plants, such as rosemary and lavender, will also help the drainage in clay soils.

Be a greener gardener. Fertilize naturally with seaweed, mushrooms, and aged farm manure that will break down into the soil slowly. Don’t overfertilize coastal gardens, as the extra nutrients will be flushed into the water table.

Design a secret garden. “I strive for a sense of surprise,” Monica says. “A hidden garden, special plant, or seating area at the end of the path accomplishes this nicely.” She combines curving walkways with large shrubs and perennials to make the discovery of the view more dramatic. In Monica’s favorite garden, the surprise at the end is the sea.

Stimulate the senses. Monica believes that the scent of a garden is just as important as its look. She recommends planting lavender or rosemary along a path, allowing it to grow into the walkway, where you’ll brush against it. Placing a bench near a fragrant plant will let visitors enjoy it longer. “Sitting in the garden in the evening when you get a whiff of a special rose or a lily can be magical,” she says.