Victoria Times Colonist

Through the garden gate
Gates provide stylish passage into a garden paradise at Dita Von Aesch and Frances Sidhe's Fernwood home
Joanne Hatherly
Times Colonist

If good fences make good neighbours, what do gates make? A good welcome, says Dita Von Aesch, woodcrafting artisan and gatemaker.

"Gates are passageways," says Von Aesch. "They prepare the visitor to leave the public world of the street and enter the private paradise of the garden. They're an invitation to step into another world."

Von Aesch has spent some time thinking about gates. She started her adult life in art school, but spent much of the ensuing years as a sous chef, where she met partner Frances Sidhe, who at that time worked as a wine sommelier.

Artisan gates open to pebble and brick pathways that lead around the house to a series of secret gardens. The sound of water falling into the stone pond reduces street noises to a whisper.
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Artisan gates open to pebble and brick pathways that lead around the house to a series of secret gardens. The sound of water falling into the stone pond reduces street noises to a whisper.

John McKay, Times Colonist

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Von Aesch's hunger for artistic expression never left her, so she hung up her spatula to enrol in Camosun College's fine-furniture-making course. Together with Sidhe, she launched Victoria Wood Studio, a gate-and-passageway carpentry business.

Von Aesch shows what an artful passageway can do by installing a few in her own backyard, a 4,000-square-foot property in Fernwood.

Where once a flat grass lot surrounded the couple's 118-year-old heritage home, artisan gates open to pebble and brick pathways that lead around the house to a series of secret gardens.

It all begins at the backyard gate, a humble name for the passageway that Von Aesch erected as a showpiece for her craft. The covered structure shows how even an old house can profit from a new idea. The new gate starts where the old yellow picket fence leaves off with West Coast cedar pickets, bevelled and contoured to match the older fence.

The pickets run up to a covered gate, where Von Aesch wed architectural aesthetics from the house -- gabled roof and knee braces -- to a pair of gates fashioned in simple West Coast lines.

The style is new, but the detailed craftsmanship is old world, with mortise and through-tenon joinery, precision trimwork and bamboo pins to join the finer bones of the gate.

The gates open to a brick pathway, off which a second secret-garden gate is patterned in a graphic detail inspired by the works of Dutch artist/abstractionist Piet Mondrian (1872 to 1944).

A push through this gate reveals a large, circular stone pond surrounded by young boxwoods, lavender and daylilies. A stone-lined rill feeds the pond. It's more than just a tranquil vignette -- the sound of water falling into the stone pond reduces street noises to a whisper.

Gordon Doucette of Serious Ponds, who designed and built the water features, hauled in four truckloads of rock for the project.

Von Aesch and Sidhe found weathered red brick at a Rock Bay salvage yard for the pathway, which continues past the stone-pond garden and steps up to an outdoor dining area sheltered beneath an arbour. A turn to the left leads to a footbridge over the upper pond that goes to the garden shed.

Past the outdoor dining room, another gate takes a step down into a pebbled path cut in squared angles and bordered by more daylilies, hydrangeas and gnarled old trees. The garden path ends at the house's main entrance. Aside from the boulevard, there's nary a blade of grass for the couple to mow.

Von Aesch's garden design is all the bolder when one considers that the couple's companion Robbie is a yellow labrador, a breed sometimes called "the gardening breed" for its love of pruning (chewing) plants and trenching new flowerbeds (digging up lawns). At 10, Robbie is proof that an old dog can be taught new tricks, as he steers clear of the young garden beds and keeps to the pathways.

Other sections of the garden, including the beds flanking the boulevard entry and business entrance, were designed by Marian de Usatch, of de Usatch Landscape and Garden Designs on Yates.

Sidhe and Von Aesch purchased the heritage home from Jim and Cathie Stiven in 2001.

"It was the cheapest house in Victoria at the time," says Sidhe. "We paid $177,000 for it."

The Stivens' extensive restoration of the 1,100-square-foot Queen Anne-style house earned them a Hallmark Heritage Award in 1981. They had purchased the house from Rankha Anderson, who inherited it from her parents -- who had owned it, in turn, since 1900. The clapboard and fishscale-gabled house had remained in the same family for 75 years.

Sidhe says Jim Stiven's restoration included the yellow picket fence that borders the property. "It's an exact replica of the original fence," says Sidhe. "It's amazing in its detail."

While the restoration was effectively complete when Sidhe and Von Aesch moved in, they still had to make some painful choices. A vintage Majestic wood cookstove stood in the kitchen, but was deemed unsafe to use. The couple anguished over whether to keep it as a showpiece, or replace it with a working woodstove. The tightness of the house's dimensions ruled out space for both.

"In the end, we asked ourselves if we were living in a museum or a home," says Sidhe. The stove was traded to Capital Iron, which sold it to a buyer in Japan.

Other space-saving fixes included eliminating a shower to make room for a stackable washer and dryer unit, and adding floor-to-ceiling cabinets in the sunroom for extra storage space. The couple also repainted the home in heritage colours.

Jennifer Barr at the Victoria Heritage Foundation notes that the house is one of the few remnants of Fernwood's small, but vibrant Icelandic community.

"There was an Icelandic Lutheran church and bakery in the 1880s, but for some reason, many moved to Point Roberts before 1900. Rankha's family was one of the few that stayed," said Barr.

The garden was somewhat famous even in the last century, when James Anderson, Rankha's brother, grew and marketed delphiniums for export all over the world from this humble Fernwood patch. It can be admired in the upcoming Victoria Hospice Teeny Tiny Garden Tour on June 24.

The Stivens were not the first to rescue the old house. Barr says students from the Seventh-day Adventist Vancouver Island Junior Academy, a private school, took it upon themselves to paint the house for the elderly Rankha in the 1970s.

"It seems whenever it's about ready for the wrecking ball, someone comes along and rescues it," says Sidhe.

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 Times Colonist (Victoria) 2007