Magical Milner Gardens re-opens

Geoff Ball laughs and says, “I swear the garden sort of smiled the day the volunteers came back in mid-July. I think the garden missed its people.”

The “garden” is Milner Gardens and Woodland, and Ball is its Executive Director. Milner Gardens opened to the public again on August 6, 2020. Ball says, “it just felt good to hear voices and laughter, and people appreciating being in the garden again. That’s kind of how I feel today, seeing visitors back.” Currently, Milner Gardens is welcoming people again Wednesdays through Saturdays from 11 AM to 4:30 PM, with viewing until 5 PM.

The reflecting pool at Milner Gardens features a mimosa (aka silk) tree at the far end.

Like many other public venues not deemed essential services, Milner Gardens has been closed since the province declared a state of emergency in March 2020. I visited this crown jewel of Qualicum Beach the day it opened again to speak with Bell about the impact of the pandemic on the Milner Gardens and their evolving plans.

“We’re just taking it one day at a time,” says Ball. “We don’t want to put anyone at risk. Right now we’re just thrilled to let our members and volunteers and the community enjoy the garden again.” Ball is expecting that the gift shop and nursery can be opened in a couple weeks, and he says they will open the food service “when we can.”

To ensure a safe and healthy environment upon reopening the 28 hectare (70 acre) estate property, staff have designated main trails as one-way only. Visitors will now take one forest trail to the main house, and a different forest trail to return to the venue entrance. On some of the smaller trails, only one “household” is permitted to be on the trail at a time.

The Milner estate was originally established in 1937. Acquired by Vancouver Island University (VIU) in 1996, the garden was dedicated as “The Milner Gardens” in recognition of Ray and Veronica Milner. VIU’s goal is to maintain the garden in perpetuity for education and for the community’s benefit, in the Milners’ memory.

“For the tourism sector,” says Ball “collectively 80% of our business comes in the summer, but for gardens it’s even heavier in the spring. So, in talking with other public gardens across the province, it was a big hit to be shut down April, May and June. Those are seriously busy months for all of us. I’m not looking forward to my next budget meeting. We’ll survive, but it’s definitely going to be a major hit.”  

There was a silver lining of sorts to the shutdown though. “With all the cold and rain at the beginning of the year here,” says Ball, “this was the year to have a rainy season! We didn’t have to worry about the plants drying out,” or disappointing visitors.

In a normal year during peak season says Ball, to keep the gardens looking good, Milner Gardens has 3-4 full-time staff dedicated to gardening plus anywhere from 6-20 volunteers out working in the garden on designated mornings, usually once a week.

Shoots with Roots is a flagship program of Milner Gardens and Woodland, designed to foster a life-long appreciation of nature in young children. During the spring shutdown period, Shoots with Roots coordinator Pam Murray produced a dozen virtual field trips, everything from “Kitchen seed hunt” to “Safe in the intertidal zone” and “Cabbage chemistry.” These videos are linked to the BC Curriculum, and available through various online options.

Along the woodland boardwalk on the way to the mammoth “diva” tree.

Membership in the Milner Gardens and Woodland Society is open to anyone over 18 years of age, and members are encouraged to submit nominations for board positions. The next annual general meeting will be held September 22, 2020.

Milner Gardens does an annual fund-raising campaign in the fall through a mailout campaign. Ball says, “it’s thanks to our donors, to our members and to our volunteers that we have been able to evolve from what Veronica gave [to the public]. The university definitely supports the garden but it doesn’t have the capacity to follow through with the evolution of the garden as it has come along.”

One of the most recent enhancements to the property is spectacular. A boardwalk high above the forest leads the visitor around the west side of the property through ancient old growth trees, eventually arriving at the Milner house. One of the trees, a mammoth Douglas fir, is given diva treatment. The boardwalk encircles the tree, and a cut-out at the base accommodates a large burl. The effect is spiritual.

Back at the garden entrance, Geoff Ball tells me, “one of the common questions we’re getting right now is, ‘what’s going to happen at Christmas time?’ We know that the traditional format [would be classed as] a “Phase 4” [COVID-19] event. We know that we can’t have 1,000 or 2,000 people here at night, but we are brainstorming how to recognize [the Milner Gardens traditional event] “Christmas Magic” in some form. We want to have something the community can come and enjoy.”

Magic it is, anytime of the year.

Geoff Ball, Milner Gardens executive director hard at work on re-opening day.