Back to the Land

Creative properties and sustainable living highlighted on this year’s Denman Island Home & Garden Tour

“This tour always reminds us that we live in paradise, <a href=

viagra order ” says Des Kennedy, injection with his wife Sandy on their Denman Island property. The Kennedy’s 11-acre property is once again featured on the Denman Home and Garden Tour, caries which takes place June 15 and 16. ” src=”×401.jpg” width=”602″ height=”401″ /> “This tour always reminds us that we live in paradise,” says Des Kennedy, with his wife Sandy on their Denman Island property. The Kennedy’s 11-acre property is once again featured on the Denman Home and Garden Tour, which takes place June 15 and 16.

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

This June 15 and 16, hundreds of people will flock to Denman Island to attend the 20th Denman Island Home and Garden Tour. They’re going mainly for the Island’s renowned gardens and homes, of course, but there’s more to it than that. After all, these days there are garden tours all over. What draws people to Denman, an otherwise tranquil 95-square-kilometre chunk of forested rock with just over 1,000 inhabitants?

“Not to downplay our gardens and homes—they really are the big draw—but people also come to get an intimate look at what the dream of rural Island life looks like in reality,” says Home and Garden Tour coordinator Autumn White.

Since being settled by Europeans in 1874, Denman, like many Gulf Islands, has been a prime destination for people wanting to turn their backs on cities and create some kind of alternative life that is closer to nature, less defined by commerce, and, in theory, simpler. The early settlers were true homesteaders who cleared the land and laboured to create the first farms. Then, in the 1970s there was an influx of back-to-the-landers, some of them ‘political refugees’ from Vietnam-era USA. Many of these people are still on Denman. Their vision and their land projects have matured over the years, just as they have.

And today, in spite of daunting land costs, younger people are again taking up the back-to-the-land life, although these days there is new terminology: words such as “sustainability,” “locavore,” and “permaculture.”

Two different properties on the Home and Garden Tour together offer an intriguing insight into what back-to-the-land looks like as practiced by two different generations.

Des and Sandy Kennedy moved to Denman in 1971 from Vancouver, buying an 11-acre recently logged property, with the intent to live off the land. This is exactly what they have been doing since then, hand-building a house primarily out of salvaged materials, creating extensive food gardens and a spectacular ornamental garden, all while Des was making a name for himself across Canada as an award-winning writer, broadcaster, public speaker and national gardening personality.

Tracy Horovatin and Shayne Barker bought into a Denman heritage farm as land partners in 2007, with the goal of building their own house using natural, non-toxic, locally-sourced materials—no drywall or plastic. They delved into learning about permaculture, putting their new knowledge into practice to develop the farming operation, which is intended mainly to feed themselves.

Their house is a not just an exemplary green building, using no drywall or plastic throughout, but also a work of art, with gorgeous cabinetry made by Shayne (a European-trained woodworker) and Tracy’s colorful mosaics built into the natural plaster walls. The farm area is extensive, and busy, with vegetables, fruits and a bunch of classic farmyard animals—cows, pigs, turkeys, ducks, chicken, geese and a few pets.

There is plenty that these two couples have in common: a do-it-yourself spirit that applies both to feeding and housing themselves, a love of nature, an environmentalist ethic, and a strong commitment to “living better with less,” in Des Kennedy’s words. They both love Denman Island equally for its natural beauty and its vibrant, engaged and artistic community. They both contextualize their ‘alternative’ lifestyles as conscious choices that have political and social significance.

“What we’re doing here is really a sign of the times,” says Tracy Horovatin of living ‘back-to-the-land’ on a Denman heritage farm with partner Shayne Barker.  “I don’t see myself as changing the world.  All I can do is lead by example and change my immediate surroundings.”

“What we’re doing here is really a sign of the times,” says Tracy Horovatin of living ‘back-to-the-land’ on a Denman heritage farm with partner Shayne Barker. “I don’t see myself as changing the world. All I can do is lead by example and change my immediate surroundings.”

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

But their stories are, in many ways different.

Shayne and Tracy were initially motivated by a desire for permanent housing. Living in a rental on Denman didn’t meet their needs for stability and for a long-term relationship with a piece of land. But they couldn’t afford the escalating land prices of the early 2000s. Through community connections, they partnered with a farming family and set up a unique land-share arrangement that allowed them to buy in affordably and build their own home. The farming aspect came along with the deal, as a sort of surprise bonus.

“I like to call us ‘accidental farmers,’” says Tracy.

Des and Sandy, on the other hand, were living the urban dream in Vancouver and made a major life decision to move to Denman.

“We were living in Vancouver, making decent money and doing neat political work, and really, really liking it,” says Sandy. “But we just knew, in our hearts, that we wanted to grow our own food and be close to nature.” Des had visions of sitting in a cabin in the woods, writing all day (he soon realized he hadn’t factored in the sheer amount of work involved in the back-to-the-land life).

Finding, and affording, land was arguably easier back then. “The Gulf Islands weren’t discovered. There was no new highway and no monster ferry. So it was less expensive than up the Fraser Valley or the Sunshine Coast,” says Des.

The 1970s back-to-the-land wave was in its infancy, and the Kennedys’ choice mystified their friends and family.
“It was horrifying for them. Back then only weird people would do such a thing. Grow-your-own-food was so weird! We were seen as hippies,” says Sandy, laughing.

Des continues: “We were lumped in with all those stereotypes. It was considered dropping out of society and failing to make something of yourself.

“The first half-dozen years I was wracked with anxiety: ‘What are you wasting your life here for, digging out tree stumps when you could be doing something meaningful? I thought maybe I should get a law degree… I should do something.

“Back then, only weirdos would eat health foods,” he adds. “Now, organic food is sought-after. People all over seem to be wanting to move to the land and grow their own food. These days I imagine that people making similar choices to ours get more validation.”

Shayne and Tracy’s experiences so far suggest that he’s right. What they’re doing reflects social and cultural trends that most North Americans, at least, understand.

“The more you pay attention to the news—the meat scares, the reports on the amount of salt, sugar and chemicals in our food, and the virtues of the 100 mile diet—the more we are reminded that this is the right path to be on,” says Tracy.

Their project garners lots of interest, with people lining up for WWOOFing sessions (Willing Workers on Organic Farms—a global work exchange program), Denman community members showing up for work parties, and productive partnerships forming, ranging from a “boar-sharing” project with another Denman farm to a relationship with a local permaculturist who has come on board as a co-farmer. Currently they have a young couple settling in for a residential six-month work exchange program.

“My friends and family are all supportive. Actually, they’re envious,” says Shayne.

Nonetheless, Shayne and Tracy do share some of the anxiety Des described: “There is always that questioning—does this make sense, how do I justify what I’m doing?” says Tracy. “But you know when I was working [as a non-profit organization administrator] I was having a lot of anxiety over my job, and then when I quit Shayne was watching me have anxiety as I headed out into the garden… So the question was, ‘Honey, do you think it’s your personality?’” she says, laughing.

Shayne figures that a certain amount of existential anxiety goes along with being human, at least in the Western world. “I have those kinds of questions no matter what I’m doing. I never had the sense that we’re just growing moss out here. There’s no feeling that we’re not living up to our potential.”

And aside from those early moments of self-doubt, Des and Sandy Kennedy have always felt the same way. Validation came to Des as his writing and broadcasting career took off, much of it based on his sharing of his and Sandy’s homesteading life. “Being a writer is a way of doing outreach. I get feedback from all over the country about how my books have influenced people. And I do tons of speaking engagements,” he says.

Even though Denman is tiny, and relatively remote, Des and Sandy have never felt that they turned their backs on the wider world. “From the beginning we were very engaged in the world!” says Sandy. “Living here gave us great access in terms of protecting the natural world. We were involved in civil disobedience [protesting logging, mining and nuclear weapons]; feminism was huge, just starting to take off here. It was an exciting time. I was involved in setting up women’s groups all over the North Island. Des was working on Native issues back when the concept of land claims was practically unknown.”

The Kennedy's home and garden will be open to the public for the Denman Home & Garden Tour.

The Kennedy’s home and garden will be open to the public for the Denman Home & Garden Tour.

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

Des continues: “In terms of participating in the world— I think to some degree it’s people doing what we did that triggered an enormous revolution in terms of how people approach not just their food but their lives. We didn’t call it sustainability back then. We just felt we had to live in a way that fits with the needs of the planet. These sorts of ideas have now permeated our culture. The idea of doing better with less—well, now it’s apparent that the whole culture has to adopt this. The alternative is unthinkable.
“In terms of the future for our kids and grandkids, I think we made a much more profound contribution to what the world needs than if we’d gone off and become, say, stockbrokers. To some degree the whole back-to-the-land movement of that time was the progenitor of a radical shift in consciousness and lifestyle.”

This ‘shift’ may be the same thing Tracy talks about when she says, “What we’re doing here is really a sign of the times. We’ve been hearing about back-to-the-land for a long time but it’s very present right now. The young people who come here to work with us are looking for something, and that something is connection— reconnection. To the earth. To community.“I like to think of what we’re doing as a process of devolution, evolution and revolution,” she adds. “We need to devolve before we can evolve. This means stepping back from where our culture has led us, away from fast food and mindless consumption, and really questioning a lot of things. It means having our hands in the dirt, touching the ground, growing our food, devolving back to who we were before.”

But she and Shayne are both careful to distance themselves from any sort of missionary zeal.

“I don’t see myself as changing the world,” says Tracy. “All I can do is lead by example and change my immediate surroundings.

“I had a MA in public administration and worked in that field. It meant working as part of a system I had no control over. After a while I just wasn’t prepared to bang my head against that wall. Maybe it’s more meaningful for me to do it this way.”

Living with very little money is a key component of what Tracy calls “devolution.” She and Shayne have scaled back their spending, partly so that the need to find paid work doesn’t distract from the farming, and partly because they find stepping away from consumption has in fact enriched their lives.

For instance, there’s no need to spend money on movies, restaurants, cable, etc. “We don’t need to be consumers of entertaining—rural living is actually very entertaining,” says Shayne.

Tracy continues: “It’s amazing how long you can spend watching a mama duck cruising around the yard with her ducklings.”

To cut their spending, she and Shayne ‘shop’ at the Denman FreeStore for clothes, household goods and more, and as much as possible they eat food they’ve produced themselves, even if it means going without foods they’ve been accustomed to. They gotten rid of their cell phone, they drive less, they use salvaged, recycled and free natural materials for their building projects, and more, although they have no interest in cutting out skiing or the occasional sunny vacation.

The Kennedys have been following this path for years. “We live very cheaply and feel incredibly rich,” says Sandy.

The Kennedys see the Home and Garden Tour as a chance to share that wealth—not just because this event is a fundraiser for local conservation, but also because they see how inspiring the experience is for the hundreds of people who explore their property.

Tracy Horovatin and Shayne Barker with a group of people who work the land with them, at their "Farm Stand" location on Denman.

Tracy Horovatin and Shayne Barker with a group of people who work the land with them, at their “Farm Stand” location on Denman.

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

Tracy hints at the same thought, but comes at it differently: “Permaculture tells us about the importance of interconnection— between plants and soil and water and creatures. To thrive we can’t be in isolation. We need to connect.”

As many as 1,500 people visit the gardens and homes of Denman Island during the annual or bi-annual tour, wanting to connect, whether they are thinking about permaculture principles or simply soaking up the beauty. “This tour always reminds us that we live in paradise,” says Des.


The Denman Island Home and Garden Tour takes place June 15 & 16 from 9:30am to 5 pm. There is a 9am ferry leaving Buckley Bay. Tickets $18 (kids free). If you can’t make the whole tour, but would like to visit one or two locations there will be a $5 single location entry fee. Tickets are available at, Art Knapp Plantland and Home & Garden Gate in Courtenay, Blue Heron Books in Comox, Rusty Rooster in Cumberland, and Apple Seed Cottage and Something Special in Campbell River, or call 250-335-2148. All cyclists will be entered in a free draw—enter at the ticket table at the Community Hall.