Gardens - Featured Gardens

A Japanese-inspired garden that flourishes in fall

Karen York
Photography by
Allan Mandell

A Victoria couple applies the principles of Japanese flower arranging to their steep hillside property

Garden stats
Size: 0.52 hectares
Orientation: Southeast (backyard)
Conditions: Woodland soil; 
part shade with some open sunny spots Growing season: March to November
Garden focus: Japanese-influenced with a limited plant palette including moss, ferns, irises, yews, azaleas, dogwoods, cherries and Japanese maples
Zone: 7 
Age of garden: Bought the property in 1980; started the garden in 1991
Favourite tool: A Japanese moss broom made from the tops of bamboo Tips: When transplanting moss, rough up and moisten the soil, lay down the moss, then pound it with a cement trowel to ensure good contact with the soil.

It seems a quantum leap from ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging, to an exquisitely crafted, 0.52-hectare, Japanese-influenced garden, but Joan and Gary Cunningham of Brentwood Bay, near Victoria, British Columbia, insist it wasn’t that big a jump. “Really,” says Joan, “the principles of ikebana—such as space, balance, restraint, scale and line—apply to garden design, just on a much bigger canvas.” Easier said than done, one thinks, but the garden, with its superb composition of plants, pathways, rocks and water, is lush proof of this self-taught designer’s abilities to make that translation.

Over the last 20 years, the garden has grown organically, shaped by Joan’s vision and Gary’s perpetual willingness to manoeuvre large rocks and trees into place using giant plastic trays and come-along hand winches. “It’s insanity is what it is,” he says with a laugh.

Native Victorians, the Cunninghams built their house on the heavily treed property in 1980. Eleven years later, the extensive back slope was cleared of trees and studded with truckloads of boulders. “It looked like a moonscape,” says Joan. Already drawn to the Japanese aesthetic (“It suits my nature”), she took a seminal trip to Osaka and Tokyo in the mid-1990s with her colleague Lindsay Gibson, with whom she worked installing “intimate gardens in the Japanese style.” The pair toured public and private gardens with a landscape architect from the University of Tokyo. It was eye-opening. “One garden we visited brought me to tears,” says Joan. “I can’t say why, but it did.”

Brentwood Bay is not Tokyo, of course, and Joan says her aim was to capture the “feeling” of a Japanese stroll garden, within the dictates of her site and climate. She has achieved that and more. Paths of screenings set with stone steps meander across the slope, affording close-up views of moss, rock, twig and leaf, and ever-changing long views through carefully placed trees to the tranquil pond, stone terrace, wood-clad residence or charming tea house.

“Just as in a flower arrangement, it’s all about balance and scale,” she says. Balance, yes, but not symmetry. In the Japanese garden, balance is dynamically asymmetrical. A large Japanese maple in the centre of the garden is fading and Joan worries that losing it will throw the balance off. This could be another challenge for Gary and his come-along!


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