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Creating climate-conscious, custom-designed gardens

Hugo Jackson of Vitae Gardens works throughout the Sea to Sky Corridor.

Any good gardener knows that everything starts with climate.

For Hugo Jackson, owner of Squamish-based Vitae Gardens, it was climate that first drew him from the U.K. to the west coast of Canada. As a specialist in Japanese-style gardening, he was looking for an environment where particular Asian plants could grow and flourish. And now that he’s developed a business servicing private and public gardens throughout the Sea to Sky Corridor, he can personally attest to the fact that this whole area is a lush gardener’s playground — a far cry from what he grew up around.

“In English gardens, you’ll notice they are very full, with everything all packed together. You don’t see a lot of soil underneath the plants, whereas in Canada people like to be able to see the black soil. They don’t want it to be too full, because they think that looks messy. You have a lot more structural planting in Canada, versus the mass planting they do in the U.K.,” said Jackson.

And it’s that element of artistry that he enjoys the most about his work. Having started his business shortly before the pandemic in 2019, he started out by supplying hotels in Whistler and the surrounding area. When that contact dried up, he spent some time landscaping for the city before pivoting his attention to private clients.

About that Sea to Sky soil

“The real advantage of doing different gardens in different pockets all around the Sea to Sky is you never end up doing the same thing over and over, because the climate will dictate what you can do. Within Squamish you have its normal climate, and then it has micro-climates — like a cul-de-sac in the road — and certain areas don’t get light, or maybe there’s extra wind exposure, or it’s warmer, and these micro-climates really dictate a lot of what’s possible,” he said.

“So the first thing I do when I’m looking at a design is I take out my compass and figure out which way the house is facing. If it’s south-facing, it will get tons of sun and be hot. So you’d have to put in something drought-tolerant or have really good irrigation. I could go to one house on the south side of the street and another on the north, and they could end up with two completely different types of garden.”

In the Sea to Sky, one of the primary concerns for taking care of your garden is soil erosion due to all the rain. This is something Jackson coaches his gardeners through during installation: the importance of top-dressing, which means routinely using a soil amender to replace the nutrients that have been washed away. But this is minor compared to some of the significant damage he’s seen from recent weather events, including the record-breaking heat dome and a particularly nasty winter — his past few months have been consumed with clean-up, in some cases reclaiming gardens that have been absolutely devastated.

When he’s helping gardeners identify their ambitions, he often encourages them to create a vision board that will help them clarify what they find important or pleasing. And he pushes them to think outside the box, exploring how aesthetic preferences in other areas of life may bleed over into the gardening world.

“I tell them take your vision board and throw on all the plants you’ve seen that you like. Then do the same thing with interior design, with fashion, with colours or prints. Whatever catches your eye and makes you think ‘cool’. Once you have that vision board together, it will help you narrow down what you’re looking for in your garden,” he said.

“You might want a hot tub and a steam room with a cedar deck and a rocky garden beside a putting green, and all of those things look great on your vision board, but once you try to fit it on a piece of paper and think that’s all supposed to fit in one garden you realize ‘that will look like a dog’s dinner’.”

Gardening coach

In a way, Jackson has become a sort of gardening coach, and it’s a role he relishes. The way he figures, gardening is a lifestyle pursuit that requires hard work and commitment, and not everyone is cut out for it. But if you are, there are plenty of benefits.

“You’ve got to be able to be outside. You have to enjoy being outside and religiously live by the quote ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather, just wrong clothing’. That’s massive. You have to enjoy being dirty. You have to be the sort of person where there’s nothing white in your closet because you can’t keep it clean for five minutes. Gardening is about knowing the work you’re putting in is helping to provide happiness and a life to a garden, and to people,” he said.

“I was reading some article and they’ve done quite a bit of research that shows if you garden without gloves on there’s a whole bunch of enzymes and nutrients that will seep into your skin and help with anxiety, depression, and a whole range of different things.”

As part of Jackson’s service, he provides garden owners with advice about current planting trends, weather issues, and tips for helping their garden survive these environmentally tumultuous times. For instance, recently Squamish released a new bylaw restricting the planting of cedar, yew, and juniper trees within 10-metres of your house, but they’ve continued to fly off the shelves at local big box stores. By making people aware of these issues, he can help them contribute positively in the fight to address climate change.

But most of his advice is pretty mundane, like reminding your kids to brush their teeth. And one of the most important lessons he imparts is the importance of mulching with the Sea to Sky climate. You can fertilize all your plants, weed properly and top-dress thoroughly to mitigate erosion, but it’s mulching that will get your garden through the winter months.

That’s one of the biggest pieces of advice he gives his customers.

“Mulching is massively important in today’s climate. It’s important to do it in the fall because it will insulate the plants over the winter, and it’s important in the spring because it will help hold the water from irrigation and rain. It really helps with water retention.”

Please note, this story is part of a special annual Home and Garden feature.

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