A Lifelong Passion for Gardening
Developing landscapes and ecosystems across continents
by Brenlee Brothers
Sarah with freshly harvested carrots. Sarah Valentine photo
Sarafina Valentine has been gardening her whole life. As a child, she spent lots of time meandering through her grandmother's garden, which seems to have been the spark that led to her passion many years later.
Now, her home garden in Pemberton, British Columbia is a labor of love and means of sanity for Valentine. She grows a wide variety of food, herbs and pollinator flowers and works to develop structure in the landscape by using a range of shrubs, trees, bulbs and grasses. “We get heavy snowfalls and jaw-dropping cold temperatures here, so having winter interest in the landscape is crucial,” she said.
The backyard garden on Sarah's property. Sarah Valentine photo
Valentine has saved her seeds ever since she started gardening. “As much as I like lazy gardening, I like free gardening even more,” she joked. And she has recently started collecting seeds from the wildflowers she grows, with plans to start a local native seed website in the spring.
After completing a university degree in Tropical Ecology, Valentine decided to return to her homeland of Australia, where she was born and lived for several years before immigrating to Canada. She ended up falling in love with the country and spent the next 10 years living in the Far North Tropics. “Being the tropics, you could literally throw pumpkin seeds into your compost heap and before you know it, there’s a massive pumpkin vine growing from it.”
It was while living there that Valentine started to explore landscaping and ecosystem development. The little cottage she rented was in a small clearing in the middle of a lush jungle. Valentine wanted to recreate the same lushness closer to home, so she developed little ecosystems around the house, using propagated ferns to create a gully around one corner of the cottage. She collected bromeliads (which are from the pineapple family, and have bright colors of magenta and lime green), and collected stones from a nearby river to create a spiral pathway from the front door of the cottage, lining the path with the bromeliads. “On the far side of the cottage, I had planted huge tree ferns that created a shady north-face area, so every side of the cottage had a different ecosystem room,” she said.
A bowl of nature's bounty. Sarah Valentine photo
When she moved back to Canada, Valentine worked as a concierge at a hotel in Whistler for 13 years, spending most of her free time gardening at home. I was obsessed with my garden, she said. “I spent most of my money at the nursery.”
When the pandemic hit, Valentine was laid off from her job at the hotel, and was forced to think of other means of making an income. It was her husband who suggested she pursue something in relation to gardening, so Valentine started searching for opportunities on the internet.
When she found Gaia College, she was thrilled, and quickly enrolled in the Organic Master Gardeners course. “I fell in love with it. I was taking every single garden book out of the local library and rereading the good ones,” Valentine said.
Within two and a half years, she completed the diploma program. The courses completely changed her mind-set on how to garden ecologically, she said. “Gaia College was a huge shift in my knowledge. Reading the course book changed the way I thought about nature. What I suspected about connections between plants and animals were proven with science; I like that.”
Another colourful summer harvest from Sarah's home garden. Sarah Valentine photo
It’s important for humans to realize that we are all connected to Nature down to the smallest microbe but beyond that, we are all connected to Earth, she said. ”I also found a lot of inspiration in how Heide teaches her courses, her writing is inspirational. I loved the community that she helped create and she made me feel positive about my life’s path to share my love of gardening and plants while also creating wildlife habitat.”
In the summer of 2020, Valentine was offered a job at the hotel again, but she decided to follow her passion instead. “I wanted to do landscape design, using permaculture and what I was learning at Gaia College,” she said. And so she started her own landscape and garden design business that specializes in creating biodiverse, functional spaces.
Her landscaping company Sarah Valentine Design is growing slowly, and she has a few large clients to keep her busy. “I prefer a slow growth, so I can create unique designs that are suitable for the property, as well as putting a few automated systems in place,” she said.
“I’m more interested in creating mini ecological garden systems than pretty gardens, but I also want to show clients that ecological gardens can be beautiful.”
Since moving to Pemberton, Valentine has witnessed the growing season shift with the changing climate. When she first moved there, Pemberton was a strong zone 5-6, now it’s a full zone 6. “We know how severely B.C. has been affected by drought, wildfires and then flooding, but I’ve noticed my migrational bird visitors are decreasing,” she said. “The hummingbirds have been having an especially hard time lately.” Since having very low temperatures last winter, there were hardly any sightings this summer, which is not a common thing, she said. Typically they have dozens of hummingbirds fighting over the same feeders. “I’m devastated as I am guessing that they might be our canaries in the coal mine.”
The hummingbird is drinking from a Beebalm flower. Sarah Valentine photo
In today's world, it's hard not to feel completely dejected over the state of the planet, she said. But she is hopeful that as more people develop a deeper connection to the natural world, they will be more inclined towards healing the planet than using it for unsustainable means.
Going forward with a holistic approach is what is needed in life right now, she said. “We need to think deeper about the cause and effect as the caretakers of the planet.”
Sarah will be launching Yogardens Wildflower & Native Nursery in late spring. Please contact her for more information.
Perennial garden. Sarah Valentine photo
Before and after photographs of Sarah's yard transformation:
Kid #1! Sarah Valentine photo
Sarah's husband installing makeshift irrigation. Sarah Valentine photo
Kid #2! Sarah Valentine photo
Sarah testing out the slackline! Sarah Valentine photo
Transforming the yard to become more wildlife friendly. Sarah Valentine photo