Brushstrokes of Giverny on Vancouver Island

How Rose Rogan transformed a former Christmas tree farm into perennial permaculture.

There are gardens, and then there are gardens… farms and farms… nurseries and nurseries… some purely pragmatic, some crassly commercial, some mundane and monocropped. And then, there are gardens and farms and nurseries in which horticulture transcends the merely functional to become an intricate ecology of form, interdependence, efficiency and beauty—an ever-changing kaleidoscope of life—the thinking gardener’s grail, perhaps?

While watching Monty Don’s French Gardens one Sunday afternoon, I was struck by his description of Claude Monet’s journey as a gardener: “Monet found this old cider farm in the village of Giverny in the spring of 1883, when he was looking for a home for his young family. At the age of 43, he was already an experienced gardener and was to spend the remaining 43 years of his life obsessed by this garden.” (My mind immediately wanders to Perennial Ridge, and I was struck with the similarities of the story.)

“Rose Rogan found this old Christmas tree farm outside the village of Duncan in the spring of 1997, when she was looking for a home for her young family. At the age of 38, she was already an experienced gardener/farmer and was to spend the rest of her life obsessed by this garden.”

On a beautiful Vancouver Island midsummer morning, it’s the annual sale at Rose Rogan’s Perennial Ridge Farms. The cheerfully painted gates are propped open and folks are wheeling out barrows spilling over with perennials of all descriptions. We’re in search of succulents today; as we wander up the drive, I am astonished by how the place has matured since I was last here, maybe 16 years earlier. In a word, it’s absolutely beautiful. On one side of the drive, the multi-storied canopy is a mix of mature mother trees, casting dappled light (and breaking our at-times-heavy winter rains) for the younger trees below; conifers and deciduous beech, katsura, ginko and maples add variety in shape and shade, while the rhododendrons, one of Rose’s serious obsessions, are in full flower, some 300 of them planted throughout the property and splashing colour whether they’re tucked under the canopy or glowing in a pool of sunshine. The overall effect is fantastic and made even more charming by the deeply mulched paths that meander through this forest of plants and light, the whimsical buildings housing goats and heritage birds, and the sculptures galore, from old rusting tractors to park benches carved from the trees that once stood here.

To our left is a long row of greenhouses, full to bursting with potted perennials of all imaginable varieties—succulents, rare exotics, and fruit and nut bushes and trees—you name it, it’s more than likely to be here and Rose will know exactly where to find it. If it’s rhodos or azaleas you’re after, there are currently some 6,000 in pots, ready for new homes. Strawberries are nestled between the greenhouses to take advantage of the warmth and relatively bird-free zone, and you would never know that this oasis was a monoculture army of Christmas trees a mere decade ago.

We’re suddenly surrounded by a crew of happy dogs, letting their mom know more people have come by. Rose herself emerges out of one of the greenhouses that line the south side of the long driveway and comes over to greet us and show us around.

It’s been 22 years since Rose and her young son moved from the lower mainland to settle at what they named Perennial Ridge. Life transitions can be as sharp as a left turn in a dune buggy or as graceful as an eagle’s glide as it circles the sun; in this case, a series of fortunate events allowed her to more or less evenly exchange her small-hold farm in a sea of suburban development for a 4.6-acre property not far from the Cowichan River, with rows of Christmas trees covering two acres, and a second-growth cedar forest and a peat-bottomed pond covering the remainder. Typical lowland forest land, it’s very much part of the Cowichan River Basin, with ponds and creeks running to the river filtered through ancient peat bogs under mainly cedar and Douglas fir, with salal, mahonia and huckleberry making up much of the understorey. Of course, that means acidic soil.

I ask Rose if she has consciously applied permaculture ideas in her design. She shrugs and says: “No, I don’t know anything about that. It’s just common sense! See, look here, for instance. Here’s the blueberry patch. Anybody knows that blueberries thrive in damp, acidic soil conditions. So here, in this bit of low ground near the pond, the soil is just right after centuries of cedars growing here. All I needed to do was let the pigs do their thing to clear it, and then fence it off and plant blueberries. The ducks live in there to keep the slugs under control until it’s time to pick, when they are shifted into the orchard for a month or so. Easy! You just use what nature has already provided as a framework, and work with it, not try to change and convert it to something else—why would you do that?”

(Common) sense and sensibility

Rose’s “common sense” is a small phrase describing a big process, built on her decades of work and observation of the land, water, plants, animals and weather patterns. As Bill Mollison wrote in Introduction to Permaculture, “Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against, nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation, rather than protracted and thoughtless labour; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system.” (Sounds like, um, common sense.)

Call it what you will. What’s important to realize is that Rose also has an extensive skill set: the passion and the sensibility to bring it all together. Summer jobs through her teen years? At local nurseries. Community-building work? Volunteer firefighter for 15 years (recently retired as a “lifetime member”) and the development of a local food drive with her fire department. Daily work includes animal husbandry, operating all sorts of machinery and building everything from fences to chicken coops. Did I mention pre-dawn to dark, seven days a week?

And yet, it’s the lifestyle that is, to the minds of many, the very best: creating and living in a web of self-sustaining biodiversity; supporting and enriching one’s community and relationships; living lightly on the earth; and really, as Rose puts it, “doing what you do best.” With all your heart, I might add.

Inventory Day at Perennial Ridge Farms

Rose Rogan’s list of available produce is diverse and ever changing, just like her motley crew of animals. The nightly roll call is not for the faint hearted! Here’s the current tally.

• Four dairy goats (and spring kids)

• Three dogs (who protect the birds from eagles, mink and raccoons and function as Rose’s doorbells and best friends; “if my dogs could fly, they’d be perfect,” she says)

• Four cats

• Six geese (a-laying and also a-braying)

• Forty-six ducks

• Multiple chickens of many heritage varieties

• Twenty-two turkeys

• An apple orchard of 84 trees (12 varieties) and growing

• Blueberries (eight varieties)

• Raspberries, strawberries, loganberries and tayberries

• Garlic, squash, tomatoes, rhubarb and so on

Beth Lischeron
Beth Lischeron

Beth’s career has spanned three continents over 40 years; from theatre to journalism, narration and documentary production; fibre arts and festival production and onto developing and pioneering organic plant-based body care “from the ground up”. Supporting artisans and artists, Indigenous peoples, sustainable living and ecological responsibility have been strong threads through her working life.

Posted on Wednesday, December 2nd, 2020
Filed under Canada | Travel | Uncategorised

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