Eccentric Escapism Passionate Fantasy Afloat and Flourishing Behind the Bungalow Parking Strip Picturesque Plant Life


Fearless passion made this gorgeous B.C. garden happen

It may feel like the Mediterranean, complete with sunset, palm trees and a chaise, but the view is of British Columbia's coastal range, English Bay and the skyline of Vancouver's west end.

"Through zonal denial we extend the range of plant selections we can use to achieve dramatic effect . . . this form of escapism goes back to Victorian times at least."

- Thomas Hobbs, in his book, "Shocking Beauty" (Tuttle Publishing, 1999)

Escapism often has a negative connotation, as in using movies, fiction or hallucinogens to avoid dealing with reality. But Tom Hobbs, renowned Vancouver, B.C., florist and nursery owner, cultivates escapism as diligently and successfully as he grows unusual plants. His highly personal, eccentrically gorgeous garden on a hillside above English Bay is pure escapism from the mundane concerns of gardening for any reason other than beauty and pleasure. How else to explain, in this Point Grey neighborhood of classic homes, azaleas and sleek lawns, the palm trees and chartreuse hedge of Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii in front of the peach stucco house that Hobbs describes as a "1930s Mission Revival-style oddity"?

No wonder the Hobbs house and garden attract attention in this traditional Vancouver neighborhood. Palms and magnolias display their spreading foliage above the euphorbia hedge, accented by spikes of allium and lamb's ears.
Trailing and flowering sedums and echeverias are planted into a mixture of fine gravel and sand atop a slant of stucco wall, creating one of Tom Hobbs' "garden incidents" that stop you in your tracks. Chinese polkweed (Phytolacca clavigera) blooms at its base.

Lest gardeners find such extraordinary, over-the-top, full-tilt gardening off-putting, or so different from their own style as to be unintelligible, it helps to remember the words of Alfred Stieglitz, an early-20th-century evangelist for the avant-garde. A photographer and art patron, Stieglitz was a champion of modernism, promoting the work of his wife Georgia O'Keeffe as well as Brancusi and Picasso. In 1903 Stieglitz was explaining how cultural change occurs when he praised forward-thinking artists by saying, "It is the fanatical enthusiasm of the revolutionist whose extreme teaching has saved the masses from utter inertia." It seems to me that the bold drama of Hobbs' garden and his constant pushing of the climate zone will help move us beyond inertia to find our own gardening inspiration. So, perhaps, will some of the bits of wisdom I've gleaned from his book and use here to talk about how his fabulous garden came to be.

"Timidity results in inactivity and a stagnant or nonexistent garden."

Hobbs didn't come by his fantastical house, which is the centerpiece and style-setter of his garden, through timidity. He first saw the house 10 years before he bought it, when it was decrepit and mostly hidden by overgrown shrubbery. But it was two blocks from the beach, pure California in feel, made of stucco with arches and grillwork - and it captivated Hobbs immediately. "I stalked the house," he says matter-of-factly. "I've always been fond of Norma Desmond and the whole Hollywood thing." In 1977 he wrote a letter to the owner of the old house, declaring he'd love to buy it and promising never to tear it down.

A decade later Hobbs, who by then owned a wildly successful flower shop that on occasion created arrangements for the Queen and Princess Diana, received a phone call from the man who had moved from California and built the house in 1933. He'd thoroughly checked Hobbs out, and was ready to sell. Fortunately for Hobbs, this was just before real-estate prices took off in Vancouver. The owner told Hobbs that at least once a day for the past 50 years someone had knocked on the door and inquired about buying the house. Such is its charm. Now Hobbs keeps the iron gate locked or the constant stream of inquiries would continue.

Hobbs at the front gate of his 1930s Mission Revival-style home in the Point Grey neighborhood of Vancouver, B.C. The home's California charm is accentuated by its Mediterranean-style garden and hardy palm trees.

The house and garden Hobbs and partner Brent Beattie bought in 1987 bears little resemblance to what they own today. The garden was a complete mess. All the garden structures were painted a glossy red, and the house had been a dingy white for half a century. The back garden was nothing but a cliff covered in blackberries and littered with junk.

Hobbs left 100-foot-tall cypresses at the corner to offer privacy and stand guard over the house like fat sentinels. Despite their bulk, these huge trees undulate in the wind, adding graceful curves to the property as well as startling scale. Hobbs tore out the overly plentiful pyracantha, the big conifers and hideously topped blue spruce, and started buying palms at local nurseries.

About the same time Hobbs sold the innovative flower shop he'd owned and run since 1973 (and which still carries his name), and bought Southlands Nursery on Balaclava Street not far from the University of British Columbia. Owning a nursery was a longtime fantasy, and it made finding the best, newest plants for his garden all the easier.

"Gardening without fear means taking risks that saner heads would never contemplate."

Hobbs and Beattie grew up in the harsh climate of Winnipeg - due north of Minnesota, they say, by way of emphasizing the cold winters and the plentiful summer mosquitoes. Our Northwest climate seems particularly benign to them, and they take full advantage of their garden's especially mild, harbor-side microclimate. The Chilean fire bush (Embothrium coccineum) in full, fluffy bloom, as well as the towering hardy palms (Trachycarpus forunei), brugmansias and cannas, flaunt the glories of fearless plant choices. To emphasize the style and desert-like feel of the place, Hobbs has chosen spikily-textured Mediterranean plants. But this garden belongs not just to a stylist but to a dedicated plant collector who loves many of the more traditional, reliably hardy plants as well.

"Creating tapestries of plant material means leaving no bare earth exposed to break the rhythm of flowers and foliage."

Each plant in the garden has been chosen to harmonize with the peach color of the house. The fading heads of Allium 'Globemaster,' Lilium 'Lovelight' and the little blooms of Diascia 'Coral Bells' bring out the warm tones of the stucco.

The garden's design comes from the inspiration of plants rather than drawings or written plans. Hobbs plants for foliage interest, indulging his enthusiasm for the rare and unusual, from the delicately ruffled green primrose `Francisca' to more familiar magnolias, tree peonies, iris and daylilies. Of course, the primula is special. "It has so much chlorophyll (hence the green flower) that it thinks it is a leaf so blooms for six months," explains Hobbs. His latest obsession is daylilies, but his are daylilies unlike any you've seen, including Hemerocallis `Forbidden Desire' with a name as dramatic as its coloration. The flower is a deep, nearly black shade of claret, edged with bright gold.

Outside the wrought-iron fence and thick stucco walls lies the only lawn on the property, the euphorbia hedge, lamb's ears, a phalanx of allium and assorted perennials, with a carpet of sedums and echeverias.

Why a hedge of euphorbia? "It's a hedgey city," says Beattie. "It is the British tradition to have a closed-off area of the garden as well as an open one." Palms and magnolias display their spreading foliage above the wall, shown off to fine advantage against the pastel of the house. It is a surprise to see any lawn in a plant-fancier's garden, but it has been left as a flat, smooth counterpoint to the complexity and density of the rest of the space. "It takes more work than the rest of the garden," says Beattie, who cares for the lawn. "It is kind of a Zen thing - I use a pushmower."

Inside the fence, by the front porch, is an original fountain and pond, which Beattie has freshly tiled. He's done all the hardscaping in the garden - putting in all the paving, planters, art pieces and other architectural features that show off and support the plants. Beattie has also done much of the renovation on the house. The entire interior garden is tile, pavers, pots and plants, a space as well-thought-out and intensely arranged as the most elegant living room. (Hobbs also owns a Vancouver interiors shop.) So much is going on that it's easy to forget this is a fairly small garden. "We really don't need more garden space," says Hobbs. "You just fill it up and it becomes a nightmare."

"Planting heavy always looks better than trying to explain what your vision was meant to be."

The "Hotel California" part of the garden is paved and walled to create a suntrap, ideal for the display of pots and for relaxing with a tall drink.

How does a plant collector bring order and clarity to the garden? Hobbs has indulged his plant passions extravagantly, yet skillfully prevented visual chaos. The garden's abundant hardscaping balances out the lushness of the plantings. The paved areas anchor the garden, as well as providing visual pause, a chance to rest the eye. Some plants are in the ground and many are elevated in pots, staggering the layers and denseness of the foliage and flowers.

Surprisingly, and most effectively, Hobbs has consistently followed what he calls his "color-as-dictator missive," selecting plants in tones that harmonize with the strong, warm peach color of the house. Throughout the vast tapestry of bulbs, perennials, annuals, trees and shrubs, Hobbs has minimized reds, strong yellows and pinks, emphasizing the rusts, peaches, salmons and corals that play off the background color. He uses purples and mauves as contrast, as well as silver and dark foliage plants. This slimmed-down selection of colors prevents visual static, lending calm in the midst of profusion. A favorite iris, 'Champagne Elegance,' blooms in shades nearly matching the pastel of the house, and 'Lem's Cameo,' which Hobbs describes as "the most beautiful of all rhododendrons," is a soft shade of peachy-apricot. Diascia 'Coral Bells' and Lilium `Doeskin' continue the color theme.

"A creative person will have no trouble staging an incident or two . . . incidents must stop you in your tracks."

The slate and tile terrace, which used to be an awkward slope, displays pots in a warm sun trap. Its most distinctive feature, certainly worthy of being called an "incident," is a slant of stucco wall, the top planted thickly with trailing and flowering sedums and echeverias. While sedums are reliably hardy, succulent echeverias also can take more cold than you might expect, more often expiring from excess water than from winter temperatures. They can even withstand a light frost. Kept in a greenhouse over winter, they are planted out in a mixture of fine gravel and sand, never in soil that retains too much water.

A path leads from the Mediterranean-inspired patio around the corner of the house to a shady side garden. Hobbs explains this abrupt change of atmosphere (another "incident") by saying, "Just because I'm a Gemini I have to have a woodland garden, too." As a fellow Gemini, I totally understand this need for diversity. Three ornamental cherry trees (Prunus 'Mount Fuji,' also known as 'Shirotae') line the fence, pruned up to reveal trunks chosen for their weird shapes and glossy bark. Hobbs calls this the Heronswood side of the garden, in tribute to the many plants that have come from the Kingston nursery. Large-leafed Petasites japonica and Kirengeshoma palmata flourish in the shade, as does Hobbs' "dream plant," the bizarre Podophyllum delavayi, that Heronswood's Dan Hinkley brought back for him from Japan. Hobbs stops to pet its pink-veined, mottled brownish-burgundy leaves, and it truly does look more like a creature than a plant. (By the way, don't bother looking it up; you won't find it anywhere for a few years.)

"Placing pots is an art form."

Out back is the most stunning "incident"of all: an outstanding view over treetops to the coastal range, English Bay and the skyline of Vancouver's west end. The blackberry-infested cliff is gone, replaced by a retaining wall and expansive terrace brimming with potted plantings and a luxuriously large tiled hot tub from which to watch the ferryboats sail into the sunset. Only a strategically placed palm interrupts the scene. "It makes it more Hollywood," Hobbs explains.

The contrast between the enclosed, intimate front garden and the open sweep at the back of the house is stunning. Here gardening is done in clusters of various-size terra-cotta pots, where phormiums and cannas, diascias and yet more echeverias continue the Mediterranean theme. The other strong theme here is that of a personal pleasure garden, with cushioned lounge chairs, complete privacy and that deep, beckoning plunge pool. An antique iron urn holds an arc of the hazy grass Molinia caerulea 'Variegata,' Oriental lilies provide perfume, and phormiums are positioned so the setting sun illuminates their striped blades.

It's clear Hobbs is living the tenet expressed with such conviction in his book: "The human spirit needs plants: we use them to access our true self."

Hobbs in Seattle

Thomas Hobbs will be in Seattle to give a slide lecture about the design and care of his garden on Friday, Sept. 14, at 7 p.m. as a kickoff for the Northwest Horticultural Society Plant Sale. Cost for the lecture, including a wine and cheese reception and rare-plant auction, is $15 for society members, $20 for non-members. Call 206-527-1794 for information and reservations.

Valerie Easton is a horticultural librarian and writes about plants and gardens for Pacific Northwest magazine. Her e-mail address is Richard Hartlage, director of the Miller Botanical Garden, is a garden photographer and designer.

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