European gardeners have the enviable benefit of visiting and supporting specialist nurseries with beautiful gardens (Marchants Hardy Plants; Henk and Dori Jacobs; Le Jardin Plume; Jardin Sec) whereas North American gardeners must search for them. One find is Free Spirit Nursery, run by Lambèrt and Marjanne Vrijmoed in Langley, south of Vancouver and close to the U.S. border. The nursery sells a wide assortment of herbaceous perennials and grasses propagated on-site and grown sustainably, and some of these perennials, such as German rodgersias and Molinia caerulea ‘Poul Petersen’ are yet unavailable in United States. Their 2013 catalog states: “All our plants and mother stock are grown in garden loam or containers with a composted bark and coir (coconut fiber) as a base medium…Except for a minimum amount of quality slow release fertilizers for the containers and about 3 applications of Safer’s slug and snail bait, no chemical herbicides or pesticides have ever been used here. All weeds are picked by hand and pests are controlled with appropriate (and sometimes quite novel) organic methods.” These methods result in well-hardened plants rather than the mollycoddled ones from larger commercial firms. and such plants are all better for gardens. In addition, the Vrijmoeds have selected and introduced Epimedium ‘Free Spirit Spring Chocolate’, Clematis tubulosa ‘Sheharazade’, and Patrinia triloba ‘Blushing Lace’. Like any resourceful nursery proprietors, they too created a garden, a private laboratory of some sorts where ideas are born and tested before deployed in their private design commissions.
Intimate and small in scale, the Vrijmoed garden unfolds and seduces slowly like a silent film. The remnants of the old-growth forest, largely Douglas-firs (Pseudotsuga menziesii) and cedars (Thuja plicata), outside of the garden, dictated the Vrijmoed’s naturalistic look, and the resultant gardens, sunny or shade, are in tune with their surroundings. The coniferous trees gives the garden a mature scale harder to achieve in denuded or open landscapes, and become the foremost structure during wintertime when the herbaceous layers have retreated.
There is nothing brazen or ostentatious, none of the modern gimmickry like glass and shiny metallic surfaces seen in contemporary garden designs. Instead, rustic materials dominate – stones, driftwood, and ceramic tiles. Where modern touches are included, they feel in symbiosis with their surroundings.
Hedges are quietly threaded throughout the garden that their essential presence is easily overlooked.
The woodland garden is filled with unusual shade perennials of such rude health, a testament of Vrijmoeds’ horticultural skills. Epimediums, podophyllums, ferns, and grasses entice one to study them either individually or in consort with others. It was hard to tear away from this area, and endless photography and questions were tossed about.
A feeling of airiness suffuses the atmosphere of the sunnier areas. Shrubs are permitted their natural silhouettes that continually shift and change with the light, playing off their herbaceous partners. The colors may be too muted for some people, but they are sensitive to the place.
Despite being farther inland from the coast, the garden pays tribute to its cool rainy climate through a pond, which allows for reflection between the plantings and the wilder landscape. It too functions as a wildlife habitat.
Kept narrow, the paths force you to embrace and study the plants up-close. Sometimes surprises, such as ceramic cones popping forth like the teeth of a mythical creature, bring you out of your plant-centric mindset.
The front planting that immediately greets and bids farewell to the visitors before the nursery is a homage to their landscape – the alliums (Alllium senescens and A. ‘Summer Beauty’) and salvias symbolizes the Fraser River, the thalictrums the clouds, and the wattle fencing the mountains.
Free Spirit Nursery is as charming and grounded as its owners who are creative and knowledgeable (Lambert once worked for Piet Oudolf and Marjanne trained in ceramics). Lambert and Marjanne have designed private gardens in the area, and the one we did see during the trip was a beautiful refinement of their ideas with an impressive Douglas-fir wooden house (unfortunately photographs cannot be posted due to the owners’ request).
Visit their site at http://freespiritnursery.ca/