Van Buskirk Garden

The Van Buskirk garden, Edmonton, Alta.

Story by Dorothy Dobbie, photos by Dorothy and Shauna Dobbie

The first thing we notice upon driving up to the home of Colin and Leona Van Buskirk was a sense of déjà vu. Had we been here before?

The second thing is a wave of beautiful sun-tolerant lobelia spilling over the edges of three attractive planters. This display sets the stage for what is to come: a journey through meticulous planning and planting outside this Edmonton home. The yard is a vision of well-balanced grooming: shrubs are neatly pruned and shaped, the curved beds are carefully planned, with low plants at the front, harmonious colour schemes, and careful attention to texture and form.

These virtues are all lacking in my own tumultuous garden, so I gaze with wonder and admiration.

It is late June in Alberta and peonies are in their full glory. Everything is lush and brilliantly green, except the blue spruce, which are decidedly blue, contrasting with the bright yellow-green of a northern lawn well fed with summer sunlight. A blue nesting spruce is edged with pink geraniums, set off by deeper blue lobelia and clumps of white. Leona has an eye for balance. Well planned annuals baskets are set among the perennials at heights that please the eye. Yellow and magenta, deep blue and white seem to be made for each other.

This is clearly the work of a skillful gardener and Leona confesses that indeed she is a scrupulous gardening planner. She escorts us to her front door to show us a portfolio of her carefully kept records and planting maps, every detail recorded over yards of plantings. Plant names are precise: Hosta ‘Blue Elegans’ (note: blue green leaves and white flowers) is placed in front of Heuchera ‘Purple Palace’, flanked by Arctic phlox and low-growing sedum. That is just the front row. This part of the map is five plantings deep, each chosen according to height, colour, spread and sometimes the date of the planting. It is an incredible guide to the garden.

As we leave the front steps, I spy something that sets bells ringing: a unique water fountain that I have only seen once before, in Edmonton, its mirror-like exterior and shape unmistakable. “Have we done your garden before?” I ask in bewilderment, although I know that where I had seen the fountain in the past was not a corner lot as is this one.

Colin chuckles. “That was Leona’s sister,” he declares. “You covered her garden two years ago.” Memories of Laura Lucyshyn, her husband, Steve, and the two little grandsons they babysat come flooding back. The garden was very different in some ways but very similar in style and sensibility. It was not as large as this garden, although just as lovely. And the badge of sisterhood is that sparkling fountain. Steve got a deal on four of these some years ago and gave one to Leona and Colin, the lucky things.

When they aren’t co-operating, the sisters compete with one another in a gentle familial way and to wonderful effect.

We continue along a walkway by the side garden, which is a study in perfect planning and execution, until suddenly the vista opens to a park surrounding a manmade lake at the back of the house. Here is another lovely garden accessed by a small bridge and some paving-stone steps interplanted with low growing thyme. The back garden is surrounded by a fence, barely visible for the plants and a row of tall, healthy cedars. Through the gate at the bottom of the steps this small private space is protected to a large degree from prying eyes by the cedar plantation.

A round stone table and some polished stone stools on a brick patio are backed by interesting greenery nestled against the house. On one side, a potting shed is partially hidden behind some cedars.

The garden here has borrowed from a Zen aesthetic, with oriental lanterns and metal ornaments of cranes and small animals. The eye travels onward to the other end of the garden, where there is an arbour to lend shade on hot Edmonton afternoons, complete with seat and table beneath it.

There is an aura of serenity around the entire garden, although Leona says this can be deceptive. Not that long ago, some passers by stopped their car on the street; a woman jumped out and ran up to the outside of the garden, reached over the fence and snatched one of the ornaments. The Van Buskirks have it all on video. Now Leona has moved temptation out of arm’s reach, but it is disappointing that someone would take these liberties with private property.

Especially when they are doing this to such nice people.