In the fertile soil of southern Vancouver Island, a couple has built a dream garden to share with others.
There is no love sincerer than the love of food,” wrote George Bernard Shaw, and it was that love that impelled librarian and teacher Noel Richardson and her geologist husband, Andrew Yeoman, to develop Ravenhill Herb Farm on the Saanich Peninsula of Vancouver Island in British Columbia.
Twenty years ago, Noel and Andrew lived in Calgary, Alberta, where they maintained a small vegetable and herb garden even though the winters were long and cold. When a successful career as an oil and gas investment adviser enabled Andrew to take early retirement, the couple headed for Vancouver Island, where Noel was raised. Its hills remind Andrew of his native Yorkshire, England.
A gardener’s paradise
Southern Vancouver Island dips south of the 49th parallel, which otherwise forms the U.S.-Canadian border for more than 3,000 miles. The island’s latitude, proximity to the ocean, and location in the rain shadow of Washington State’s Olympic Mountains put the Saanich Peninsula in USDA Zone 8. The word Saanich means “fertile earth” in the language of the local Salish Indians; indeed, the island’s favorable climate and productive soil make gardening a passion for many residents.
From October to May, Ravenhill receives an average of 35 inches of rain. The soil is so easily worked that Andrew doesn’t even own a rototiller. He tills, weeds, and waters by hand for about an hour a day during the summer.
“One of the first things we did at Ravenhill was make raised beds in an existing vegetable garden,” says Andrew, author of A West Coast Kitchen Garden (Whitecap Books, 1995). “Soil in raised beds warms up more quickly, and they solve the problem of poor drainage.” Andrew has also built brick pathways, stone walls, and a stone thyme bench (a mass of thyme that forms a garden bench, designed to be sat on).
Lusty herbs, wily ravens
Although I visited Ravenhill on one of the coldest, wettest spring days on record, I was awed by its thirty-five beds, some for production, others for display. They were filled with more than 100 varieties of herbs including thymes, colorful sages, 3-foot-high garlic, and 5-foot-high lovage and bronze fennel. Although the garden’s emphasis is on culinary herbs, some medicinal ones, including St. John’s wort, echinacea, and valerian, are also found here. A massive bush, unrecognizable at a distance, turns out to be a fifteen-year-old rosemary. Seventeen chickens, five sheep, five geese, and an alpaca named Topaz contribute to Ravenhill’s character and compost.
Noel and Andrew named their property Ravenhill because of the ravens that nest in three trees behind the house—and because of the raven’s reputation in Native American legend as a wise old trickster. A bird of ill omen in some traditions, the raven is an emblem of God’s providence in Christian art (ravens fed Elijah and St. Paul the Hermit). God’s providence, as demonstrated in the fertile earth, is an apt way to describe Ravenhill’s herbal cornucopia.
Bruce Burnett of Pender Island, British Columbia, is developing an organic herb farm while running a company that imports medicinal herbal creams from Germany.