Taking a trip down the garden path

Gardener Collin Varner's vision encompasses the forest and the trees

by Bruce Mason staff writer

As Collin Varner puts it, he's "been down the garden path." Countless garden paths. Many, he created himself.

Among other things, the horticulturalist/aborculturalist is responsible for approximately 10,000 trees on UBC's campus. He recently published his first book, Gardens of Vancouver, with writer Christine Allen and photographer John Dowell. Canada's gardening guru Marjorie Harris says the in-depth look at 26 Lower Mainland gardens "sets new standards in gardening books."

The seed for the definitive, 191-page, three-year labour of love was planted in France a decade ago. As he paged through a volume of gardens of Paris in a bookstore, he thought, "We don't have this architecture back home, but we've got better gardens."

Varner should know. He's designed more than 500 local gardens.

"At the age of seven I made business cards offering to work in people's gardens and slid them through mail slots all over Kitsilano," he recalls. By the time he was finished high school he had his own landscape business. Starting work at UBC's Botanical Garden in the mid-'70s under the tutelage of Dr. Roy Taylor his career began to flourish.

"He wanted to learn more about plants and we encouraged him," says Taylor, founding director of UBC's garden. "At the time we didn't know it, but he represented the best of a new generation which would revitalize gardening in this region."

On Taylor's advice Varner earned a diploma in Horticulture from the American Association of Arboretums and Botanical Gardens. He also became certified with the International Society of Arborists and the American Society of Consulting Arborists.

While he hoed UBC's Physick Garden he cultivated a dream: to create his own botanical garden. In 1980 he purchased 35 acres near Duncan on Vancouver Island and within a few years his Beechwood Arboretum comprised at least 500 species, the largest private tree collection in the country.

"I brought trees from Japan, Holland, Germany, Scotland and the States," he recalls. "In the end our only customers were serious plant collectors who might purchase a rare dwarf conifer or, at best, a few specimens. We were isolated. Ahead of our time."

He and his wife Wendy, with their young daughter Amber, returned to the Lower Mainland and Collin was offered his current position at the university in 1986.

Anyone who has wondered if the trees that grace UBC's campus are in good hands should thumb through Gardens in Vancouver and wonder no more.

The bones of the book are Varner's meticulous landscape plans. "My father-in-law taught me how to survey when I was in college and I rented a transit, which came in handy," he says, recalling the painstaking detail.

While he calculated exact dimensions, he identified and catalogued every plant and every object in each garden. "None of the owners could provide an exact inventory. So there were surprises for everyone involved."

"I started by drafting 3 foot by 4 foot blueprints," he explains. "They were reduced to 11 by 17 inches and hand colored, then reduced again to 9 by 12 inches for the book. Each drawing took two weeks."

"Drawings covered the dining room table for more than a year," reports Wendy, who has worked in UBC's Fine Arts Library for 15 years and met her husband back when they were students at Kits High School. "Amber and I are extremely proud. I was his harshest critic and know, professionally and personally, that completing a book such as this is a huge accomplishment."

Vancouver's climate and geography make it the envy of gardeners around the world but this is the first time anyone has presented diverse local garden artistry on the page.

John Dowell's 140 photographs provide glimpses down cul-de-sacs and over hedges and fences. There are shots of windswept woodlands and mountainside gardens, micro-jungles and Japanese influences, scenes of Hollywood and prairie nostalgia and the kitchen garden on the roof of the Waterfront Hotel.

Some of the gardens have been in the families of their owners for generations, while others have sprung from the ground only recently, fed with potfuls of money.

Author Christine Allen describes the essence and unique personality in each -- from cottage style to courtyard, grand estates, exotic tropical visions and eclectic plant collections that flourish in the city. She also tells Vancouver's story through the waves of fashion, fads and immigrants that washed along the West Coast over the seasons and decades.

"Gardening is at a zenith in Vancouver right now and there are many gardens we couldn't include in the book," says Varner, whose own garden stops passersby in their tracks and attracts experts from all over. It surrounds a turn-of-the-century home which he has carefully restored to house the antiques he and Wendy have collected. He left it out of the book along with those he's designed.

"It is not only the wealth of plant material we have at hand today which is making this phenomenon possible, it's also the hardscape, the rock, the statuary and pools which are available," he adds. "We're creating a unique West Coast garden style. It's exciting and contagious."

Varner is a consulting arborist with local legal and engineering firms and one of the first people the police called when trees were butchered in Pacific Sprit Park. He's testified in court in personal injury, property damage and pesticide poisoning cases.

"One of the most memorable experiences didn't make it to court. It concerned an elderly couple in West Vancouver who had lovingly planted a row of Deodara cedars in their youth and watched and enjoyed them grow to maturity. They returned from a vacation to find them cut down. My estimate of the damage was $70,000. The culprit, a neighbour behind them said, `No problem" as he stood between his two Rolls Royces and cut a check. It was a cheap route to a million- dollar view."

Varner is conducting an extensive inventory of UBC's trees including those planted by graduating classes and ceremonial trees dating back to 1919. His favorite trees on campus are in the original Botanical Garden located by the Main Library, which date back to 1927. They are the Camperdown Elm, Chinese Fir and Judas Tree. Or as Varner would say, "Ulmnus glabra `Camperdownii,' Cunninghamia lanceolata and Cercis silquastrum."

Gardens of Vancouver is published by Raincoast Books and can be purchased for $49.95 at the UBC Bookstore, Shop in the Garden and other fine bookstores.