Daytripping – Innisfree Farm Botanical Garden

August 2, 2020 – Are you longing to expand your horizons a bit beyond your immediate surroundings, without taking a coronavirus express flight? Some of us have been wishing we could stroll around Milner Gardens again but, to date, Milner has not opened and there is no information available yet about when it might open.

However, solace is just around a couple of scenic waterfront corners. Less than an hour’s drive north of Qualicum Beach along the sparkling coastline of Highway 19A lies the Botanic Garden at Innisfree Farm, a member of Botanical Gardens Conservation International. At this seven-acre oasis of serenity, nature and pure fresh air, you can explore the property at your leisure, shop at the garden store, and enjoy a gourmet picnic (by pre-order) at one of the many delightful picnic areas located throughout the Botanical Garden. There is no charge to visit Innisfree Farm, but you may make a donation if you wish. Innisfree is open every Friday and Saturday, from 10AM to 4PM.

Picnic concert at Innisfree Farm July 4, 2020.

Made fresh, Innisfree Farm’s picnic baskets are available for Saturdays only. The baskets are filled with delicious salads, home-made breads, savoury spreads and house pickles, plus Innisfree’s famous home made sweet treats… and their delicious lavender lemonade. Gluten free and vegan options are available. Orders must be placed by midnight Wednesday for the following Saturday by calling 250-336-8768.

Innisfree Farm will host a Summer Bounty garden festival on Saturday, August 15, including a cooking demonstration from a chef in the garden.

Situated on a quiet country road near Royston, Innisfree Farm is a botanical learning centre. It is a labour of love for founders Chanchal Cabrera and her partner Thierry Vrain, who have had long and distinguished careers in science. Chanchal says she “always wanted to have a property open to the public that had an educational bent.” Innisfree Farm hosts classes in herbal medicine and horticultural therapy, and trains apprentices who also help to maintain the farm. A hot day was forecast the day we spoke with Chanchal so, she says, “the crew opted to start work in the garden at 7 AM!”

Chanchal and Thierry didn’t have a grand plan. “We started with a veggie garden. We had the first Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) in the Comox Valley,” Chanchal says, providing boxes of produce to local customers. They offered that service for seven years. Today, Innisfree Farm still supplies some local restaurants and specialized customers, and grows food for their shop and events. Chanchal and Thierry celebrated their anniversary this week at Locals Restaurant in Courtenay. Chanchal says it was a special treat to see the Innisfree Farm name on the menu.

Chanchal and Thierry literally moved mountains to create Innisfree Farm. Purchasing the land in 2005, Chanchal says, “for two years we did nothing. We watched. Watched the land, the water.” The first move they made was also the “single biggest purchase of my life, apart from the property,” says Chanchal, installing deer-proof fencing around the entire property. The land was flat and slightly sloping. It was also very wet. So they drained the property, creating a pond that irrigates the farm. That’s where the mountain comes in. Using the earth dug from the pond, 27 feet deep and 100 feet in diameter, Chanchal and Thierry built their mountain. They call it Mt. Costalot…

Today visitors can climb Mt. Costalot to survey the layout of the farm, the flourishing food gardens, the meadows where large-scale sculptures punctuate yet complement the waving grasses and wildflowers, the peaceful pond and the extensive medicinal and herbal garden, all surrounded by towering trees along the perimeter.

The metal sculptures are the prototypes of commissioned works created by internationally renowned artist, Douglas Senft. Many people will be familiar with some of Senft’s artworks. For example, the cutouts of coyotes and ravens are the same images that adorn Skytrain stations in Vancouver. The Douglas Senft Sculpture exhibit is now rusting in place at Innisfree, as befits an organic botanical garden. One particularly impressive sculpture is about 30 feet long and 8 x 8 feet high and wide. Improbably graceful curving scrolls of metal, this sculpture is actually lying on its side. The original work made of brushed aluminum, entitled “Smoke,” was installed at the new fire hall in Lethbridge, Alberta. It was the last piece created by Douglas Senft, who was present for the installation ceremony held just two months before he died in 2012.

This massive metal sculpture was the prototype for a brushed aluminum sculpture called “Smoke” installed at the new fire hall in Lethbridge, Alberta.

The scientific credentials of Chanchal Cabrera and Thierry Vrain are impressive. Chanchal holds diplomas in Botanic Garden Management and in Botanic Garden Education from Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (London). She obtained her MSc in herbal medicine at the University of Wales in 2003. Chanchal is also a certified Master Gardener and a certified Horticulture Therapist, and the author of the book Fibromyalgia – A Journey Toward Healing published by Contemporary Books. In 2009 Chanchal was honored with a Fellowship in the UK’s National Institute of Medical Herbalists for service to the profession over 25 years.

Thierry Vrain, co-founder (courtesy Innisfree Farm)

Husband Thierry, born and raised in Paris, France, completed undergraduate studies before moving to Montreal to teach plant physiology. After graduate studies in Raleigh, North Carolina, Thierry spent the next 30 years as a researcher for Canada’s Department of Agriculture. Beginning as a soil biologist, he retired as the head of the Department of Molecular Biology. About 10 years ago, Thierry began a “mission to educate” the public about chemical contamination of food and feed. He has lectured extensively across Canada and the United States about the risks associated with chemically sprayed crops, and the dangers of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). A true Renaissance man, Thierry also cooks at the Farm’s Green Dream Cafe.

Pre-pandemic, Chanchal would travel frequently to teach. Today, she says all her teaching is online, “every Wednesday in Halifax, and other days [online students] in Korea and London” (places she usually visited twice a year). Chanchal says she is “happy not to travel, and may not go back to it,” after the pandemic subsides since teaching online has proven to be very effective. With the advent of the coronavirus pandemic, Chanchal says most of the visitors to Innisfree Farm have been on-Island visitors taking in a day trip rather than international tourists. She considers this a good thing. With tongue in cheek, Chanchal say on-Island visitors are “a renewable resource” i.e. likely to make repeat visits, unlike one-time international visitors.