The plant palette of a Japanese garden is limited, but there is still plenty of room for plant passions. “I love ferns,” says Joan. “My favourites are lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina), western sword fern (Polystichum munitum) and deer fern (Blechnum spicant). I’ve tried Japanese painted ferns (Athyrium niponicum var. pictum) several times but for some reason they don’t like it here.”
Magnificent Japanese maples (Acer palmatum cvs.), with their texture, form and spectacular fall colour, are the garden’s linchpins. “You want some of the red, but include green ones, too,” says Joan. Adding additional height are mature cherries (Prunus cvs.) and native Pacific dogwoods (Cornus nuttallii). “I have a real love-hate relationship with the dogwoods,” she says. “They’re beautiful early on, then look miserable the rest of the time.”
Like bass notes throughout the garden, evergreens provide depth, structure and abiding interest: cascading large-leafed rhododendrons, sensitively shaped pines, and yews sheared into deep green ovals. Joan does all the pruning herself; “I took some courses—and I have the necessary ruthless streak,” she says with a smile.
Her favourite shrubs are the small-leaved Satsuki hybrid azaleas, ‘Gumpo Pink’ and ‘Gumpo White’. “Their flowers are plentiful; the foliage is fine-textured; they’re slow-growing and take clipping well,” she says. “It’s not enough to get the planting design—you have to keep things the size you want.” And resist the urge to plant every square inch of ground, because open space is as significant an element here as the rocks or trees.
There’s little bare soil, however, thanks to undulating carpets of various mosses. “We’d go to building sites and scoop the moss onto tarps before the bulldozers arrived,” says Joan. “Some of it even came with little shooting stars (Dodecatheon spp.) embedded in it.” Rescue and recycle has always been their mantra—“we were known as scroungers,” says Gary cheerfully. Mature Japanese maples came from an estate up-island, cedar shakes from old roofs, granite from demolished buildings in Victoria, and sandstone steps (once window ledges) from a school. “We just used what came our way,” adds Joan.
Well, as she says, the challenge of ikebana is making something beautiful and meaningful out of the materials you’re given. It’s a lesson she’s clearly learned well, deftly applying that knowledge to create an evocative Japanese-style garden that feels totally at home on her West Coast hillside.