To look at the spectacular grounds that surround Vancouver Island’s iconic Sooke Harbour House, it probably appears like the man who tends the waterfront property has been doing it forever. However, it took head gardener Byron Cook 40 years to switch to gardening. The Georgia native relocated to British Columbia and has spent the past 23 years maximizing 2.5 acres for Sooke Harbour House owners Sinclair and Frederique Philip.
During his guided tour of the property, Cook pointed out brilliant Lollo Rossa and red Grenoble lettuces, lovage, nasturtiums and many more of Sooke Harbour House’s more than 400 edible flowers, herbs and lettuces. Cook has become so attuned with his surroundings that during our walk, he heard a bird call and immediately recognized a bald eagle, pointing out the stately bird on a branch when we rounded a bend. Cook plans to retire on Vancouver Island this fall, but before he does, he shared insights about his background and approach.
How did you become so interested in gardening?
I was about 40 and decided I wanted to do something I enjoyed for a living, rather than all the other things I’d done with my life. I was living in Georgia.
How did this opportunity come about?
A friend of the owners, and a friend of mine, said, “I hear Sinclair and Frederique need a gardener.” So I came down and talked to them, and they hired me.
What state were the gardens in at that point?
There used to be a gigantic maple tree here, about four feet across. There were raised beds where that building is right now. There were a quarter of what they are now. The land was here but it wasn’t being used very well. They knew that. I was the first full-time gardener they had. I love raised beds, and they had raised beds already, so we started putting in raised beds. And these are about 15 years old…They used to curve around back here, underneath the maple tree. I learned quickly. I found it fascinating. I had been gardening with all sorts of chemicals and things like that. And landscaping was getting all industrialized. I was really breaking bad habits, working in a nursery in Victoria. It was a great learning experience, but I’ve enjoyed this a lot more.
Do you have total freedom as far as what to plant? Do you work with the chefs?
Not at first, because they really didn’t know any more than I did at first, really. They would use anything I would grow. My only mandate was to continue growing what they were already growing, which was mainly herbs and edible flowers. They’ve been doing it for 30 years. I would find new plants. We would expand the amount on certain plants. It was basically take it in there and they would use it. Now it’s a little more formalized, in that they write down what they want. Then the gardeners go out and get it. They know pretty much what’s in season at any particular time. Especially after they’ve spent a year here, so I know what to expect.
How’s your relationship been with chef Robin [Jackson]?