Why Abkhazi Garden matters to me.
– by Bill Turner
I first saw Abkhazi Garden in 1999 shortly after it had been sold to a developer. The development proposal, which had approvals from the City of Victoria, was to build 12 townhouses on the site of this unique and beautiful garden – a plan that would have completely destroyed this significant part of our community’s heritage. Even though it was beginning to show signs of being left to its fate, I was amazed at its beauty even then. It still had the “bones” of a wonderful and intriguing garden. I have seen many of the world’s great gardens but as soon as I saw Abkhazi Garden it was right up there among my favorites (along with Sissinghurst and Hidcote).
As Executive Director of The Land Conservancy, I’d been asked by a number of community members to see if we could do something to protect the site. Soon after I visited again, this time with one of TLC’s biologists, who agreed with me “we must save this garden!” And we did. I was able to negotiate a purchase arrangement from the developer for his costs plus a small profit. Although we had very little time, the community came together and, through the work of a dedicated group of volunteers, we raised enough money to protect this magnificent treasure (with a $1,000,000 mortgage).
A short while later we were able to purchase an adjacent lot, which had always been a part of the garden but had been already been sold to another speculator and was being sold as a building lot. Funds for its down payment was raised by a second campaign and two TLC members put up the remaining dollars needed through small mortgages.
Through the tireless efforts and dedication of hundreds of volunteers and a very small number of staff the garden was soon restored to its former glory. We pushed to make sure that it was open to the public (not a private preserve for a limited few) and we succeeded. Under the brilliant direction of the Head Gardner the second lot was carefully restored to its original design and made a seamless part of the garden.
In the following years, we continued to improve the garden , restoring the spirit and character that the Abkhazis first established, we enhanced the functioning and programming of the site to accommodate thousands of visitors and make this truly a community space, and we continued to service the mortgages.
So many wonderful things have happened at this garden over the years, including some that are particularly important (and personal) to me. A very special friend of mine was married in the garden (the first wedding in the garden after TLC purchased it). My mother celebrated her 90th birthday there. She loved the garden, and we brought her there many times for tea. We also held my mother’s memorial ceremony in the garden 5 years later. My niece held her 2nd book launch in the tea room.
But Abkhazi wasn’t just meaningful for me personally. It was also a very special place for the whole community. The garden gave back to a lot of people. Many do not know of its gifts to individuals. There was a gentleman who regularly brought his Saturday morning paper and read it in the garden. There was the member who, while going through a course of radiation therapy at the Cancer clinic, kept his hope alive by coming to the garden after each treatment and sitting with a cup of tea while letting the garden heal him. He told me that “looking forward to sitting in the garden” was what allowed him to endure the treatments. So many have been healed by Abkhazi. At TLC we had a policy of giving entrance passes to extended care hospitals in the area and we had just developed a new program for critical care physicians to send appropriate patients to Abkhazi when the management changed and programming was discontinued.
The site was also a focal point for so much of our activities at TLC. It has been the location for some important public announcements, such as TLC’s purchase of the Sooke Hills, the completion of the Matthews Point Regional Park on Galiano Island, the successful acquisition of the Sooke Potholes and the launch of the Be The Change campaign, and so many more. The house has been the venue for lectures, performances, staff retreats, board meetings (not only of TLC but of many other not for profit organizations – usually at no cost). The annual Christmas open house was held at Abkhazi for many years, as was the annual volunteer’s lunch. So many very productive meetings. So many great experiences.
I can never forget the many conversations I’ve had in the garden with the dedicated volunteers. Those who have sat in the cold at the gate to greet guests, those who come every week to dig and weed, those who served tea and who worked in the gift shop. All were amazing people who gave so much to their community.
This garden has meant so much to so many people. I think of those who put up the mortgages – not to make money, but to help save the garden. I know how much it meant to some of these folk. I remember, in particular, one wonderful elderly lady, a lender, and regular visitor to the garden, who has since passed away. I remember her telling me how happy she was that the garden was to be protected, forever for everyone, and that she had been able to help.
That’s why Abkhazi Garden matters to me.
So what happens to Abkhazi now? The Board of TLC has now decided that only natural areas matter to TLC, and that important cultural sites like Abkhazi will have to be someone else’s concern. They’ve determined that these special places – particularly those in urban areas – are no longer part of TLC’s mandate, and they now view those sites primarily as a source of dollars, instead of the precious places they are.
Abkhazi ‘s future is now very uncertain. The second garden lot, now being relabeled and marketed as a “parking lot adjacent to Abkhazi Garden”, has already been put up for sale. (It most certainly is not a parking lot! It is an integrated and critically necessary part of the functioning garden, containing important garden beds, the greenhouse site and other support areas, a service and emergency entrance, as well as a couple of parking spots necessary to meet the City’s zoning requirements that allows the garden to operate as a public amenity. It is not “adjacent” to the garden, it is the garden, and always was a part of the garden). As for the remainder of the site, the gardener has been fired and the site left to a small number of volunteers who are valiantly trying to keep it from deteriorating again.
I have to question what kind of an organization TLC is becoming that can turn its back on the volunteers and supporters who have put their hearts and souls into this (and other) sites. It’s not the TLC that I and many others were trying to build. Times may be tough for TLC, but this isn’t the answer.