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The New Canadian Garden: Tropical Plants in British Columbia

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The New Canadian Garden: Tropical Plants in British Columbia

June 15, 2017

The garden of Graham Smyth in Victoria, British Columbia faces southwest and drains fast, sloping at 20 degrees over half an acre. Tangled in Himalayan blackberry and English ivy in 2001, Smyth first restored the native Garry oak landscape and then built carefully upon it to create an exceptional garden. And exceptions really are the rule here. From rocky outcroppings studded with succulents to semitropical areas, Smyth’s “foliage first”approach has redefined the Canadian garden.

Photography by Christin Geall except where noted.

Dense plantings of southern hemisphere foliage plants define Smyth&#8
Above: Dense plantings of southern hemisphere foliage plants define Smyth’s aesthetic.

Smyth’s plant choices are guided three simple principles: Foliage first, site second, flowers last. Adhering to these rules ensures the garden performs year-round.

With a Pacific climate that pours rain in winter and yet endures summer drought, Smyth’s choice to use hardy semitropical plants and succulents is site specific. If there’s summer sun and drainage, he indulges in Aeoniums and Echeverias. Where the soil deepens in pockets of level ground, he has planted exotic shrubs and trees from the southern hemisphere.

Layers of foliage envelop the front door landing, with the contrasting textures of a  blue Agave americana and  creeping rosemary. The South African Melianthus major emerges from behind the palm Butia capitata, adding a &#8
Above: Layers of foliage envelop the front door landing, with the contrasting textures of a  blue Agave americana and  creeping rosemary. The South African Melianthus major emerges from behind the palm Butia capitata, adding a “jungly” feeling to the east side of the house. Photograph by Graham Smyth.

Smyth’s success can be attributed to his willingness to take risks: not solely with design, but also with plants. Smyth grows plants from the temperate regions of Chile, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa.

The front path edged with lavender and Crambe cordifolia just coming into bloom. Photograph by Graham Smyth.
Above: The front path edged with lavender and Crambe cordifolia just coming into bloom. Photograph by Graham Smyth.

“I grow backups,” he says. “Try a plant in the ground and hold another in a pot, just in case.” Through that method of trialling new varieties, Smyth claims he’s growing plants “up to zone 9.”

A collection of textural grasses lines the front path. Photograph by Graham Smyth.
Above: A collection of textural grasses lines the front path. Photograph by Graham Smyth.
Situated at the highest point of the garden is the summer house, designed to complement the Arts & Crafts style of the main house.  Smyth salvaged the materials from a neighboring property. It provides “a destination, a focal point,” Smyth says, as well as a peaceful retreat and accommodation for guests. Photograph by Graham Smyth.
Above: Situated at the highest point of the garden is the summer house, designed to complement the Arts & Crafts style of the main house.  Smyth salvaged the materials from a neighboring property. It provides “a destination, a focal point,” Smyth says, as well as a peaceful retreat and accommodation for guests. Photograph by Graham Smyth.
The entrance pathway is lined with Petasites ‘Golden Palms’, from which the Australian plant Baloskion tetraphyllum rises. Acacia pravissimia arches overhead, with Phormium cookianum ‘Tricolor’ at left.
Above: The entrance pathway is lined with Petasites ‘Golden Palms’, from which the Australian plant Baloskion tetraphyllum rises. Acacia pravissimia arches overhead, with Phormium cookianum ‘Tricolor’ at left.
Smyth&#8
Above: Smyth’s greenhouse serves as a propagation house and a dry storage area for succulents.

A self-taught gardener, Smyth sources his exotics from horticultural societies, specialty nurseries, and plant groups. “I do the research. And I’m not afraid to start things from seed.”

Such experimentation requires patience, passion, and education. Smyth has gained inspiration from the The National Botanic Gardens in Dublin; Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens in Dorset, England; Cistus Nursery in Oregon, and Dan Hinkley, the horticulturalist behind Heronswood in Washington state.

An old enamel-topped table in the greenhouse offers a practical and pretty setting for a collection of succulents.
Above: An old enamel-topped table in the greenhouse offers a practical and pretty setting for a collection of succulents.
Steve Ansell (at left) helps Smyth in the garden one day a week. Smyth pictured here with Echium wildpretti.
Above: Steve Ansell (at left) helps Smyth in the garden one day a week. Smyth pictured here with Echium wildpretti.

A true plantsman, Smyth estimates he’s growing hundreds of different species on his property. “I do try to make combinations work so there’s some coherent flow,” he says. “But it’s a lot of one-of-this-and-one-of-that.”

Zone-defying and genre defining, the garden of Graham Smyth is about seeing possibilities. It’s also a beautiful testament to hope.

For more of our favorite gardens in Canada, see:

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