Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

September 26, 2021
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Gardening Life

A Vancouver plastic surgeon has charted 40 years of history in his yard

Even on a bleak January day, the porch of the Courtemanche home in Vancouver is bright with tubs of pansies. By March, the shiny-leaved camellia bushes flanking the front steps are in pink and scarlet bloom. All this is just a small taste of the sumptuous and constant colour waiting in the wings. More than just a garden, the yard is a living record of family life that goes back over 40 years.

Vancouver was more large town than lively metropolis in 1961, when Doug Courtemanche -- a plastic surgeon specializing in pediatrics, now retired -- his wife Anne and their two elder sons, then aged three and one, put down roots in Shaughnessy. The neighbourhood remains a tranquil maze of winding, tree-lined avenues and homes dating back to the city's beginnings. Generously proportioned and filled with light, the 1920s house the family purchased came with a history too: it was one of several originally built for employees of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Following his training in Toronto, the Ontario-born couple had already spent time in Vancouver to see what it was like before embarking on almost three years of postgraduate work in the UK. Courtemanche's fervour for gardening went back to his childhood but it would be a while before he could get his hands in the soil. The demands of family and career meant that the yard of their Vancouver home -- "a big square lawn with a skinny little border all around it" as he describes it -- remained as it was for 15 years. It was a playground for the four Courtemanche kids, complete with inground sandbox, swing set and slide.

It's hard to visualize that today. From the massive holly bushes on either side of the front path to the wall of roses at the rear of the property, an astonishing variety of plant life is packed into the imaginatively landscaped 16.5 by 36.5-metre lot. The property is north-facing but luckily for all this ebullient life, it's still a sun-trap. The couple both enjoy the garden but admit that, for Doug, it's much more than a hobby, it's a vocation. One he pursues with the same vigour and skill that he brought to his professional career.

On his return from the UK he set out to establish a burn unit at Vancouver General Hospital, similar to a facility he was familiar with in England. Eventually he became head of plastic surgery at Vancouver General Hospital and the University of British Columbia (UBC). He initiated a training program, taught extensively and helped thousands of kids. Long hours were normal and it was only in 1992, when he gave up clinical practice, that he was free to devote more time to his garden. "I had a really great life," Courtemanche says of his distinguished career. He spent two years as president and 12 years as a member of council of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada, and was the postgraduate dean for the faculty of medicine at UBC from 1989 to 1995, when he retired at the age of 65.

The Lot Thickens
By then, his garden was already well on the way to its present incarnation. His garden book holds the hand-drawn plans, notes and photos that show the metamorphosis worked by wide borders and gently curved beds. In the late 1970s, Courtemanche extended the garage across the full width of the property. Heated to just above freezing, it provides a winter home for fuchsia trees and flowering baskets. The next major change came in 1980 when he installed a spacious brick patio and pathways on either side of the property. The evolution happened at a leisurely pace. "I always wanted a circular lawn," says Courtemanche, "but it didn't happen till about five years ago."

Garden work swung into high gear after retirement when, as well as constantly modifying his own property, he began to channel his energies into volunteer work at the nearby VanDusen Botanical Garden. Initially, he helped out with its annual plant sale and then, keen to understand the scientific underpinnings of plant life, he embarked on a three-month Master Gardener course, becoming Chair of the VanDusen Master Gardeners in 2002, a position he still holds. As a volunteer, he is also a regular fixture at gardening clinics held at local horticultural centres, and is involved in community projects with local schools and seniors. 


Courtemanche has no professional help in his own garden; he even prunes those five-and-a-half-metre holly trees out front. He also puts in the extra effort to maintain a totally organic plot. Before constructing a new bed or border, he first seeds the ground with winter rye, then chops and digs in this green manure. "I haven't used a pesticide for 10 years," he says, "and I have a healthier garden than ever." Seeing aphids makes him happy; he jokes that they're food for the ladybugs. He composts garden trimmings, enriching the black gold with mulched leaves from the maple trees at the front of his property. Lawns are hand-weeded, herbicide free, cut with an old-style hand-mower and the clippings left on as fertilizer.

The House Bloometh Over
Doug and Anne Courtemanche's love of plants is visible indoors too. Botanical prints adorn the walls of a home where scented geraniums line the windowsills, and even the coffee mugs have floral designs. The large kitchen window throws light on begonias, cyclamens and other plants brought indoors for the winter. It also frames a backyard that is picture-perfect, a far cry from what was once a utilitarian grassy square.

A passionflower vine, winter jasmine and Chilean potato vine tumble over a 40-year-old cedar fence on the west side. Among them are clematis varieties including Jersey Cream. All this is the backdrop to a metre-wide border whose colours are ever-changing from the drifts of purple and golden crocus in spring to summer's vivid blue spikes of delphinium and pink Sweet William.

By June too, the trellis across the garage blazes with climbing roses, among them the dusk-hued Royal Sunset, the yellow-centred red Altissimo rose, and velvety crimson Don Juan. Grapevines clamber over its multi-peaked roof and wisteria has been trained down the east side of the garage because, says Courtemanche, "I thought it would be nice for the neighbours to have something pretty to look at."

At the edge of the lawn, "bee condos" tucked in the trees lure Blue Orchard bees to help with pollination. Birdhouses provide homes for robins, bushtits and chickadees. A bird's eye view would show a lawn shaped like a clock face with a crab apple tree at one o'clock, a may tree and rosemary bush at three o'clock and a Montmorency cherry tree -- pie cherries -- at four o'clock.

While this is not first and foremost a food garden, it does contain a dwarf Golden Delicious apple tree while raspberry canes flourish alongside the house. Courtemanche grows snap peas too, as well as the occasional rogue zucchini or tomato that shows up courtesy of the compost heap.

The front yard received a major makeover. In 2001, Courtemanche replaced much of the lawn with circular beds for perennials with annuals like marigolds and tagetes added for summer-long colour. The garden contains almost everything, except a water feature. Plans to install a pond were put on hold when grandchild number seven arrived.

This remarkable place is always in transition -- from the patio where three generations still sit down to roast beef or salmon barbecues, to the now-pristine lawn that once thudded with the sound of little soccer shoes or the maple trees out front, far taller now than when daughter Nancy used to gaze at them from her bedroom as a small child.

Like the garden, that room has seen changes too. Today, the south-facing room flooded with sunshine has become -- not surprisingly -- an ideal spot for plants.


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