Inspiring Gardens

Denman Home and Garden Tour—set for May 9 and 10— showcases the unique features of Island living.

Jimmy Tait’s garden in bloom.

Jimmy Tait’s garden in bloom.

When Strathcona Park on Vancouver Island was threatened with logging, the Kennedys, both ardent environmentalists, jumped in to try to save it, leaving their Denman home base for weeks on end to join the blockade at Strathcona. The excitement of civil disobedience, the passion stirring in their blood, the powerful energy created by being part of a community of committed activists—all this got poured into their garden.

“We’d live up at Strathcona for a while, then head down to Denman on weekends and just frantically move these huge, huge rocks. We were full of adrenaline from blockading and being arrested; we had all this extra energy and this stress and needed an outlet. I look at it now and think there’s no way I could ever do that again. It was just ‘let’s terrace this way and let’s terrace that way,’” she says, laughing.

Eventually, the blockade was successful and the Kennedys had a beautiful garden structure, with rows upon rows of rock-walled terraces holding as-yet-unplanted beds.

“Well, we had to plant flowers,” says Kennedy. And they did—but nature had her own plans, which turned out to be good ones. “Once you open up the ground, all these seeds find it,” says Kennedy. “The beds ended up full of foxgloves, poppies, and wild lupins, and very little of what we had started. It was so beautiful.”

About that time, Des and Sandy took a six-month sabbatical from homesteading and went to Europe. While in England, they were exposed to the British National Garden Scheme, in which people open their homes and gardens to the public for a fee. For Sandy, the proverbial light bulb flashed on.

“I thought, why not use our Denman gardens to try to make money?” she says. At that time the Denman Conservancy Association was in its infancy, a tiny grassroots organization with few resources beyond enthusiasm. However, Kennedy, and a few others, had what at the time seemed like a wild ambition.

“We believed Conservancy should make money to buy land, which sounded totally out of the question. So many people said it’s crazy; there’s no way to do that. I hit on this idea that I thought was brilliant, to do a home and garden tour. But other than Des and I, the idea didn’t fly with anyone at the time. There were no garden tours around here then; the closest one I think was in Victoria and I’d heard very little about it.”
Other forces were conspiring to help Kennedy bring her idea to fruition. While the Kennedys were in Europe, Des’ first-ever article for the Canadian national media was published—an article for Harrowsmith Magazine about homes on Denman Island. This article inspired another national magazine to publish a feature on homesteaders on Denman Island, presenting several more homes.

Kennedy had a hunch that it would be easy to publicize a tour featuring properties “which had been profiled in the national media.” Ready to put the idea to the test, she, Des and a handful of others organized the first tour in a short two-month period. Kennedy’s instincts turned out to be right.

“The first year, tickets sold out weeks before the event. People were phoning and begging for tickets. It was an instant success. People loved it. You get on that ferry and come to Denman and you know you’re in a different place. For most people it’s a lifestyle they would dream of having and for some reason can’t. To walk down those driveways and peek into a glimmer of that alternate lifestyle was totally enchanting for people,” says Kennedy.

Another draw of the tour, over the years, she says, has been the more-or-less equal emphasis on both homes and gardens.

“Most other tours don’t include homes. But Denman homes are all so unique, and people love to see them,” she says.

Denman homes are almost always custom built, often wholly or partly by their owners, who often are artists or visionaries. They are usually designed by locals and use local materials, including driftwood and wood milled from the property. Typically, a Denman house is built slowly, in order to create a specific home in a specific place for a specific person, rather than to fulfill a generic market demand. As a result, Denman houses tend to be powerful aesthetic reflections of their natural surroundings and of the unique human community on the Island.

Because the houses are a big draw, as well as the gardens, the Denman tour pulls in more men and young people than many other tours, says Sandy Kennedy.

Thanks in part to the Garden Tour, Kennedy’s initial “crazy idea” to buy land for conservation has turned out to be extremely sane. This goal been achieved beyond her most optimistic imaginings. The Denman Conservancy Association is now a well-established, well-respected charitable organization with a proven track record, a solid funding base, and a substantial membership. It now owns, manages, or holds conservation covenants on nine substantial properties on the Island, totalling 772 acres.

All these lands are monitored and managed under the guidance of professional biologists in order to maintain and enhance their natural beauty and vitality. Intact ecosystems remain undisturbed; clear-cuts are encouraged to regrow; animal habitat remains intact; endangered species have been identified and given the best chance possible to flourish. Recreational use is encouraged but is controlled so that there are no negative impacts on the land.

Sandy Kennedy vividly remembers the intensity of conviction that accompanied the birth of the tour, and is heartened to see just how powerful it has turned out to be.

“There was a feeling of connecting ourselves to something way bigger than we were. We felt really strongly that politically, it would be great to make money from our land to buy land, that there was another purpose to our gardens beyond our own enjoyment, that we shouldn’t just keep them to ourselves but instead make money from the beauty we had here.”

The years have shown how important the work of the Denman Conservancy, and other similar organizations, has been. Since the tour first started, a third of Denman Island has been clear-cut, destroying precious habitat and playing havoc with the ecosystem. The population of the Island has more than doubled. Skyrocketing property values have brought huge social and economic changes, including development pressures that could radically change the Island and its surroundings. What’s more, the environment has moved from a fringe topic to arguably the biggest issue of our time.

The wisdom of conserving large chunks of land is now readily apparent. The idea of using our love of gardens and gardening as leverage to finance this has proven to be wondrously successful. Thanks to all those people who have “moved to Denman Island to garden,” and to all of those who, while dreaming of doing just that, made the annual trek to visit this Island’s gardens, 10 per cent of Denman Island is now safely protected for conservation. And the Island’s reputation as a garden mecca remains firmly entrenched.

The Denman Island Home and Garden Tour takes place Mother’s Day weekend, May 9 and 10. Tickets are available at Home and Garden Gate in Courtenay and Cumberland; Art Knapp Plantland in Courtenay, and Blue Heron Books in Comox.

For more information visit the Denman Island Home and Garden Tour web site.