A Garden Sanctuary Where Activism Blooms

Des Kennedy's spiritual & environmental journey on Denman Island, BC.

Summary: Des Kennedy has made a career of combining his passion for the earth and love of the spoken and written word. A former monk who left his order for an even greater calling, Des’s depth of knowledge on gardening has earned him a loyal Canadian audience for his writing, television and public appearances. Des reveals how he has managed to create a spiritual lifestyle which enables him to merge his passion for gardening and the environment with his public life as a humourist, writer and journalist.
Garden Contact Information: The Kennedy’s garden is located on Denman Island and is not open to the public other than during the annual Denman Home & Garden Show. This usually occurs on the third weekend of June. The tour is definitely Denman’s most popular tourism event and serves as a fund-raiser for the Denman Conservancy Association, a community land trust.

Des & Sandy Kennedy can be contacted at: Box 3, Pickles Road, Denman Island, B.C. V0R 1T0

The Garden: “The first commandment of colour, I should think, is to execute whatever colour
compositions you please, without regard for what appears to be fashionable at the moment”.

-Des Kennedy

*Almost thirty years ago Des and Sandy Kennedy bought eleven acres of woodlands on one of British Columbia’s fabled gulf islands, abandoned the relative comforts of professional life in Vancouver, and set to work on an adventure that still seems far from over. Reinventing themselves as bushwackers, carpenters and goat herders, they also became gardeners -- initially to supply themselves with fruits and vegetables, then for the shere mad intoxication of it. They were profoundly poor at the time and even more poorly-informed, but blessed with a beautiful site and endowed with the boundless optimism and energy of youth.

Today their homesite sits comfortably on that land in a tiny valley sculpted with gentle slopes. "I’d rather have a hollow than a hill," Des remembers reading in one wise gardening book, and it’s true. Their garden comes cascading down a slope, then spills across the little clearing around the house. Seen from below, the vista is one thing; from above, completely another. Inside the startling jungle, another again.

Large conifers surround the clearing - big western red cedars, Douglas firs and western hemlocks. Stunning in themselves, the trees provide a forest green backdrop against which almost any colour combination looks good. The edge of the clearing is feathered with native elderberry bushes, vine maples, salmonberries and huckleberries. Huge bigleaf maples dominate the skyline to the south. The effect is one of enclosure, a condition at the historic heart of gardening.

No matter how charming its particular genius, every site also has its disadvantages. Here the balmy climate -- one of Canada’s most benign, considered a half-hearted zone 7 -- is still far from ideal: torrential rain all winter and searing summer drought are not to every plant’s liking. In place of soil, there is a thin layer of gravelly sand underlain by fractured sandstone and hardpan. Water goes through it as through the proverbial sieve. Any loam that’s to be found is the product of their hard labours -- they’ve hauled in manure from cow barns and horse stables, raked seaweed from winter beaches, purchased truckloads of fish compost, and made countless compost heaps and leaf mould piles. Thirty years of soil-making have lifted them only part-way from sandy gravel to garden loam.

Sandstone blocks, once unearthed, have been embedded as the bones of the garden. Des and Sandy terraced the hillside by laying up dry stone walls and executed a flight of fancy stone steps down the hill. Thick blocks of stone edge most of the beds and flat slabs make a crazy paving on the pathways. They put in a rock garden with trickling cascade and a stone-walled alcove chiselled into the hill.

The Kennedy’s second hardscape component is western red cedar. Using mostly downed logs in the forest, they milled much of the timber for our hand-built house and outbuildings, and split by hand countless cedar shakes for the roofs. They carried the same motif into the garden, using split cedar rails for fencing and for fashioning an arbour that doubles as a deer-proof fence. Some of the paths are cedar bark over plastic. As well, they left a number of big old-growth cedar stumps in the garden as natural architecture. Weathered silver-grey, these big beauties are colonized by mosses, lichens and liverworts that create fantastic miniature gardens that glisten brilliantly in winter. The stump tops are colonized by native shrubs, most dramatically red huckleberry, Vaccinium parvifolium, which they use as a structural component throughout the garden. They’ve incorporated many native plants -- wild aquilegias, Aquilegia formosa, and bleeding hearts, Dicentra formosa, native ferns and broad-leafed evergreens -- because they’re perfectly adapted to local growing conditions, great for wildlife and just plain beautiful.

"Design" is perhaps too lofty a term for how the garden evolved over time. The Kennedy’s divided the enclosed area (roughly fifty metres by thirty metres) into sections -- a woodland corner with rhododendrons, enkianthus and the like, under flowering cherries and Japanese maples. A sunny hillside upon which we massed old shrub roses with silver groundcovers for a foil. A rock garden through which a little cascade trickles down to a pool. A hot, dry area for herbs, sempervivums and other small heat seekers. A mixed border for Pacific Giant delphiniums, summer phlox, herbaceous peonies, monkshood and other old cottage garden favourites. An arbour for climbing roses and massed clematis, underplanted with herbaceous peonies and trumpet lilies. A yellow bed where daylilies, foxtail lilies, tiger lilies and California tree poppies can be as yellow as they want. Masses of hostas, Solomon’s seal, London pride, ajugas, lady’s mantle, hellebores, sedums and hardy geraniums as ground covers. Lots of lacecap hydrangeas and big perennials like Joe Pye weed, filipendula and black snakeroot, Cimecefuga racemosa. They have put in several islands of evergreens to hold us against soggy winters and unite the garden with the surrounding forest. Five white and rosybloom crabapple trees cluster in the lower part of the garden, a new grove of ’Skyline’ gleditsia aims to shade the house some day, while a ragged line of Cornus kousa dogwoods rambles up the hill. Big ornamental grasses, heavenly bamboo, Nandina domestica, and fountain bamboo, Sinarundinaria nitida, provide strong accent points.

The Kennedy’s like a garden that reflects the reckless fecundity of nature herself, so they encourage a wild profusion of bloom, especially of scented plants to lure in butterflies, hummingbirds and bees. Volunteers are especially useful here, and the garden features successive flushes of self-seeders: forget-me-nots, lenten roses and native bleeding hearts in spring; then dame’s rocket, Hesperis matronalis, which the swallowtail butterflies prefer to any flower; biennial foxgloves in pinks and whites to intermingle with delphiniums; next opium poppies, Papaver somniferum, for their cool green foliage and brilliantly blazing blooms; jewelweed, Impatiens roylei, the "poor man’s orchid" that the bees love so well; and Queen Anne’s lace late in summer, that roadside weed fit for a queen.

According to Des “There’s no question it’s a great privilege to be given the chance to create a garden of one’s own from scratch, especially a big country garden”. Knitting the garden into the ecosystem, using native plants and local materials, planting to attract wildlife, practising water-wise gardening and designing the garden in a way that tries to reflect the perfect wild gardens of nature -- here is a recipe for ecstasy we could scarcely have dreamed of those thirty short years ago.

* The information about Des’ garden is taken from a feature article written by Des Kennedy for Gardening Life - 5 January 1999

The Gardeners' Story: Des Kennedy is an award-winning journalist, broadcaster, author and environmental activist who is widely known across Canada. He has lived for the past 30 years on Denman Island, British Columbia, and the gardens he and his partner Sandy have created on their island acreage have been featured in numerous books, magazines and calendars. For the past 20 years he has contributed feature articles on environmental issues, gardening and rural living to a wide variety of publications in Canada and the United States. For the past seven years he wrote a gardening column for The Globe and Mail. He currently writes a column for GardenWise magazine and contributes feature stories to Gardening Life magazine. Kennedy appears regularly on a variety of regional and national television and radio programs, having been featured many times on such TV shows as Harrowsmith, Country Life, The Canadian Gardener, and the Guerrilla Gardener. For the past eight years he’s been a weekly columnist on the national CBC television program Midday, contributing pieces on gardening, country living and natural history. He is the host and co-writer of a documentary mini-series titled Reinventing the World, broadcast on Vision TV in the spring of 2001. This series features five one-hour documentaries on Food, Work, Economics and Sustainable Cities and includes interviews with leading thinkers and activists on these topics from Canada, the U.S. and Brazil. A subsequent television series, Finding the Future, consisting of 13 half-hour programs in each of which Des interviewed a celebrated thinker/activist, was broadcast on Vision TV. Des’s one-hour documentary of Living Things We Love to Hate will be broadcast on Discovery TV in spring 04.

Kennedy is the author of three books of essays and two novels. The Globe and Mail described his first book, Living Things We Love to Hate, as "a howlingly funny, unbearably enlightening, relentlessly fascinating and endearingly charming collection of essays." About the second book, Crazy About Gardening, the prestigious American magazine Horticulture wrote: "It is a rare delight to discover a compelling new voice in garden writing, and Kennedy’s is a fascinating one." Crazy About Gardening was shortlisted for the 1995 Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour.

Kennedy published his first novel, The Garden Club, in 1996, which was shortlisted for the 1997 Leacock Medal. Author Jane Rule described it as "rich with local legends, yarns, gossip, political controversy all contained in the seasonal rhythms of rural life. A beautifully written, funny, hopeful book." In reviewing his last book, An Ecology of Enchantment: A Year in a Country Garden, The Globe and Mail stated: "With An Ecology of Enchantment Des Kennedy proves himself one of the best gardening writers in Canada." Maclean’s magazine featured the book saying it showed "Kennedy at his contemplative best." In his syndicated column, Allan Fotheringham described Kennedy as "the Dennis Rodman of gardening" who "writes like a dream."

His second novel, Flame of Separation, was released by Insomniac Press in spring 04. The Globe and Mail praised the novel’s "vivid imagery," and its "unfolding of a human mystery that has plenty of pleasing twists and turns" and eventually presents "something more subtle yet perfectly in line with Kennedy’s theme of the extraordinary dwelling within the mundane." The Vancouver Sun called it "a gem of a book" that exhibits "power and grace" and "an open-hearted novel the likes of which are too rarely seen."

Des has hosted two tours of "The Gardens of Ireland" and one of "The Gardens of New Zealand." He’ll be returning for a repeat tour of New Zealand gardens in February 06.

Des Kennedy is a celebrated speaker, having performed at numerous conferences, schools, festivals, botanical gardens, art galleries, garden shows and wilderness gatherings in Canada and the U.S. His humour, irreverence and passion for gardening and the natural world have made him a "must see" speaker in demand across the country. As well, Kennedy has been active for many years in environmental and social justice issues, including co-organizing the civil disobedience campaign in Strathcona Provincial Park in 1988 and getting arrested at Clayoquot Sound in 1993. He worked for several years in the 70s and early 80s as a land claim consultant for two Indian bands in north-central B.C. and was a founding director of a community land trust on Denman Island.

Behind the Scenes: Executive Producer: Merit Jensen Carr
Producers: Merit Jensen Carr & Barry Floc’h
Director: Gwynne Basen
Writer: Ingeborg Boyens
Narration Writer: Robert Lower
Narrator: Bonnie Dickie
Director of Photography: Barry Lank CSC
Stills Photography: Paul Bailey
Editor: Chris McIvor
Composer: Michael Plowman

Date: 2003
Length: 30 minutes

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