Garden gazing, whether it's our own yard or someone else’s, is a favourite pastime. But be warned: contemplation inevitably leads to inspiration and the desire for change.
Translating inspiration into a working plan and then implementing it, however, can present a different challenge. Gardeners, like everyone else, are no strangers to procrastination, and fulfilling a vision for a garden can take many years, even decades.
But imagine taking the plunge and executing a master plan that results in a massive, magical transformation in a matter of months. It’s any gardener's dream.
Meet Doris McComb, a Charleswood resident whose ½-acre property had slowly developed over the past five years.
The centrepiece of the backyard, installed in 2008, is a 10-foot-high waterfall, cascading down natural Manitoba limestone from Mariash Quarry in Stony Mountain. Bark-lined pathways, flower beds, a fire pit, two ponds and a wooden bridge framed by a leafy backdrop of mature oak trees all combined to provide a pleasant view from the screened-in sunroom that led off the kitchen.
While visitors delighted in the garden, McComb envisioned a sunken garden and much more, taking some of her inspiration from a visit to the Butchart Gardens in Victoria, B.C.
"I absolutely loved all the colours and textures that I saw at Butchart," she says. "Some people think of Japanese-style gardens when they hear 'sunken garden'. All I could think of was having one beautiful tree lit and all different types of shrubbery."
In 2011, she was ready for an ambitious makeover of both her home and landscape. First, a paving-stone driveway with Roman pavers was installed last fall by J & D Penner. A narrow, nondescript concrete entrance to the front of the house was replaced with much wider brick steps of tumbled Roman paving stones in grey and buff, perfect for displaying McComb’s talent in creating eye-catching container gardens. A set of stunning new double-entry doors in wine-red now welcomes guests.
Over the winter months, McComb worked with her son Michael McComb (owner of Final Cut Creations Inc. in Cochrane, Alberta) to completely renovate the inside of the home. The most dramatic changes can be seen in the kitchen, where the warm, earthy tones of the new interior merge with the expansive garden in the back yard.
"When I designed the kitchen, the first thing I knew I was going to do was to remove the bank of kitchen cupboards and the counter that blocked my view of the garden," says McComb. Walls were removed, an additional window was added and the entire kitchen was beautifully reconfigured.
In February, McComb sat down with her landscape designer, Ken MacDonald, whom she met at Gardening Saturday, a local gardening trade show, to begin planning the outdoor phase. MacDonald was employed by Pendale Nursery for a number of years before starting his own business, PrairieSky Landscaping, nine years ago.
“Doris conveyed her vision for a sunken garden in the backyard and a front yard makeover,” Macdonald says. “At that time, we simply viewed the backyard through the existing sunroom. I made mental notes of our discussion and then made a scale drawing with corresponding plant material for when we met again in early April to discuss the specifics.”
The project got underway in the last week in May. The first step was to remove the pond located at the base of the existing large water feature and develop a sunken garden in its place. "I wanted to change from one element to another, and then other ideas flowed from that," McComb says.
"The sunken garden was a challenge," adds MacDonald. "These are not done routinely. With the garden actually below the existing grade around it, installing good drainage was critical. We installed four pump vaults so that when water collects, the homeowner is able to remove the top of the vault and pump the water out so that it will never accumulate to a large degree."
Pump vaults play an important role in vanishing or pondless waterfalls and won’t become clogged with small rocks or debris, “We retrofitted the waterfall using a water feature system called Filtrific,” MacDonald says. “It’s a top-grade vanishing water system and is superior in terms of construction design. The pumps and filters all fit in one tank and the whole system is designed to be hidden from view.”
Plants were installed in the sunken garden, a diverse mix that included samples from other areas in the landscape as well as newly purchased ones such as Karl Foerster grass, white and purple coneflowers, Ivory Halo dogwood, Center Glow ninebark, dwarf mugo pine and sedums.
Next, steps were installed at the entrance to the sunken garden, lending an overall terraced effect. McComb wanted something with a natural look to complement the natural stone of the waterfall and decided upon barkman’s Rosetta steps.
Once that was completed, the next project was to create a curved pathway in a neutral buff shade using large, irregularly shaped Rosetta Grand Flagstone that has a uniform thickness of 1.75 inches.
"The flagstone is very dominant. It had to be cut to fit the shape of a curved path, and Ken has cut it to perfection," McComb says. The new pathway curves through lush shrub beds dotted with the addition of limestone boulders, and CAST low-voltage lighting illuminates the garden at night.
"I can’t overemphasize the importance of the lighting. Its impact on the overall experience is really quite dramatic," MacDonald says, noting the solid sand-cast bronze fixtures are designed to withstand the most corrosive environments.
For McComb, it means that she can now enjoy the garden at night. Glare-free lighting shines on the waterfall and illuminates the newly planted multi-stemmed Amur Maple, resplendent in fall colours.
A trickling pond installed on the opposite side of the yard a few years ago flows under a red cedar wooden bridge crafted by Geppetto’s Fine Wood Products of Richer, MB. A bark-chip pathway will be replaced with grand flagstone in the next phase of the project. The edge of the pond is planted with intensely fragrant shrub roses from the little-known Pavement Rose Series, a barberry shrub and Tiger Eyes Sumac in blazing fall colours.
The landscape in the area of the waterfall, sunken garden and pond features rolling, gentle levels thanks to a berm that was created years ago to address drainage problems. "It’s visually interesting with the different dimensions — not one flat plain," MacDonald says.
Throughout the persistent rain in June, the property was busy with numerous other contractors arriving on the scene. Projects included replacement of the existing sunroom which had a rotting floor and worn screens. "I wanted my sunroom designed so that it was not a straight box, so typical of so many sunroom designs," McComb says.
The newly installed Glastar sunroom by Sunshade Products Ltd. is angled on both sides. The old sliding doors leading from the kitchen and dark wooden ceiling and floor have been replaced by garden doors, a white ceiling and a heated ceramic tiled floor in a two-tone grey-brown to complement the outdoor pavers. Instead of screens, floor-to-ceiling windows now flood the interior with light and afford a panoramic view of the garden. A ceiling fan adds to the indoor comfort and a forced-air convection heater will be installed next year for year-round enjoyment.
McComb wanted the sunroom situated high off the ground so that she could have an unobstructed view of both the waterfall and the newly installed 18-by-36 Krevco inground swimming pool. The pool’s True-Fit vinyl liner features a stunning mosaic border that blends seamlessly with the stone pavers above, while the bottom resembles small pebble stone, another striking visual. Nearby, a patio area, one of five separate entertainment areas in the garden, awaits installation of an outdoor fireplace.
The backyard is accessed by entrances on both sides of the property. Charleswood Building and Decorating built the tall, self-locking gates that are needed when you have a pool, with mini-pergolas adorning their tops. A new, 250-foot fence runs the length of the property on the north side, and next year the fence on the south side will be replaced.
Renovations to the front landscape continued this summer, beginning with regrading — badly needed since it was too high in some places and too low in others. MacDonald replaced much of the lawn and created two new shrub beds. Plantings mimic those installed in the back yard for a unified theme.
A new Roman stone walkway lends old European charm, but the most impressive addition is the oversized feature stone from Mariash Quarry — the house number was sandblasted into its smooth face by Larsen’s Memorials.
Still, like any garden, more projects await.
"I just know that when the garden grows in, it will be spectacular," McComb says.