Photography by Janis Nicolay Credits: Photography by Janis Nicolay
Curb appeal like Leslie O'Connell's doesn't happen overnight. In fact, the lush landscape she and her husband cultivated from a steep slope in the West Vancouver community of Horseshoe Bay is a labour of love that's spanned nearly 20 years. "It's a hobby—probably too much of a hobby," laughs O'Connell, whose green thumb is only hinted at from the street.
Beyond the stately vaulted arbour lies a garden that reveals treasures at every turn: a wee sculpture nestled in the rocks; a tiny pot bearing a rare flowering succulent; or gnarled driftwood that O'Connell collected on her frequent walks along the nearby beach. On the tiered slope at the rear of the property, and even on the roof of the home's new garage, these surprises come to light in a series of cleverly defined "rooms."
Though it all looks painstakingly precise, O'Connell's easygoing approach to her pretty plot yields ample inspiration for your own outdoor space.
1. Focus on foliage
It takes a lot of work to ensure that a garden has blooms throughout spring, summer and fall. But if you choose plants based on beautifully textured foliage instead of flowers, blossoms simply become a happy bonus.
2. Arrange one-of-a-kind containers
Nurseries conveniently lead us to "thrillers, fillers and spillers," the three types of plants we're told every container arrangement needs. But keep an eye out for unexpected plants that will create a unique look, like O'Connell's distinctive grasses and sedums. She'll also add driftwood, shells and river rocks on top of the soil. "I'm always collecting something off the beach," she says.
3. Plant sensible succulents
Perhaps it's Pinterest's endless galleries of petite planter arrangements or the popularity of xeriscaping (growing drought-tolerant plants), but, suddenly, small succulents seem to be everywhere. It's good news for gardeners because it means greater selection at the nursery, but it's even better news for those who doubt their green thumb, as these tenacious plants are wonderfully low maintenance. O'Connell's garden boasts a few of her favourite succulent varieties: 'Dragon's Blood' stonecrop, with its burgundy leaves and red flowers; and creeping sedums, which make great ground cover.
4. Build outdoor rooms
Just as you might create separation in an open-concept indoor space, a yard can be divided into "rooms" to establish a more intimate feel. In O'Connell's garden, these rooms are defined by different hardscaping materials. The backyard's barbecue zone is set on top of irregularly shaped Pennsylvania bluestone, whereas the more formal outdoor dining room is situated atop poured concrete that's been cut on a perfect diagonal grid. Elsewhere in the garden, arbours, trellises, pergolas and other structures serve as physical dividers. "If it's a small room and you don't have space for containers, treat these structures like trellises for climbing plants," suggests O'Connell.
Tip: Consider traffic flow when creating outdoor rooms. This cooking area is conveniently close to the kitchen door.
5. Apply alpine gardening strategies
Instead of giving up in the face of challenging growing conditions, take inspiration from alpine gardening—the cultivation of plants acclimatized to the rocky soil and extreme weather conditions of high altitudes. Resilient plants such as sedum and sempervivum (also known as hens and chicks) thrive in these hardscrabble areas, making them the perfect choice for O'Connell's rock-garden collection of concrete and hypertufa pots.
6. Take colour cues from your plants
It used to be a nondescript black, but the gate at the property line now makes a dramatic statement in a chartreuse hue inspired by the highlights in O'Connell's foliage. Rather than disappearing into the background, the gate now serves as a high-impact focal point—and sneakily suggests that the garden continues beyond.
7. Tame a slope
A hillside lot presents a host of challenges, but they're far from insurmountable. At the front of the house, ground cover and the roots of the evergreen and deciduous shrubs help prevent erosion and run-off. To maximize the potential of the incline behind the house, the slope is carved into a series of flat tiers, surfaced in a mix of hardscaping materials, including basalt, Pennsylvania bluestone and river rock. "I think they work well together and bring great variety to the garden," says O'Connell.
8. Invest in perennials for continuous colour
If you're looking for bloomers, choose dependable, hardy perennials that will come up every year. Visit your local nursery periodically to get a sense of what's blooming throughout the seasons and how the foliage changes. O'Connell knows springtime will bring bright yellow forsythia blooms and the delicate scent of white Choisya ternata ‘Aztec Pearl' flowers, as well as hits of purple—alliums, tulips and grape hyacinth. Her lavender plants bloom from May to June, and her ample collection of succulents carries the garden through the hot summer months.
9. Turn an urn into a side table
Not all containers must fulfil their destiny of displaying plants. This one's fate was sealed when O'Connell found herself in need of an outdoor table in a pinch. She filled the lightweight urn with sand for stability, tossed in beach glass and a few seashells as decorative flourishes and topped it with an inexpensive slice of custom-cut clear glass.
10. Lose the traditional lawn
While municipal bylaws may dictate front-yard plantings, there's no rule that your backyard has to be a blanket of grass. In O'Connell's case, various outdoor enhancements, including the construction of a garage over what had been a street-level lawn, gradually whittled the home's grassy areas to a single backyard tier, which was ultimately turfed in favour of an herb garden. If you can't live without at least a small patch of grass, opt for a low-maintenance variety, such as Eco-Lawn, which can thrive with minimal watering.
11. Stretch out the season
Installing a heat source on your patio means you can enjoy the space earlier in the spring and deeper into the autumn. In fact, O'Connell singles out the custom gas fireplace in the outdoor dining area as one of the best upgrades she and her husband made to the yard. "We sit out there every evening," she says.
Get out in the garden and start planting with the help of our ultimate spring planting and gardening tips guide.
|This story was originally part of "Garden Artistry" in the May 2015 issue.
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