A summer cottage becomes a place to dream and create.
When Sarah McLoughlin passed away on February 10, 2021, at Mount Saint Joseph Hospital in Vancouver—her husband Brian having already passed in 2014—an extraordinary legacy was left for the Comox Valley community: the cottage and gardens that the couple had built and tended for over 40 years.
The McLoughlins donated this serene property, situated along a stretch of pristine foreshore in Merville, to the Comox Valley Regional District (CVRD) in 2002, with a conservation covenant held by the Comox Valley Land Trust that it be preserved in perpetuity as a pedestrian-only public park.
Rewind to the late 1960s. Seeking escape from Vancouver, Sarah, Brian, and their children would spend their summers at Alders Beach Resort on the shore of Merville’s secluded coastline. “It was just a magical place,” recalls their daughter, Margo McLoughlin. “An amazing sandy beach, woods to explore… We could go barefoot for weeks on end.”
The McLoughlins relished the area so much that in 1975 they purchased an 18-acre waterfront parcel a few kilometres down the shore, at the end of Tasman Road, off Williams Beach Road. Sarah, a landscape artist and accomplished gardener, designed a house that was constructed the following year and furnished with treasures from junk stores in the Lower Mainland.
Once settled, Sarah began to work on her gardens, building stone walls and creating a drought-tolerant, deer-resistant seashore landscape. From the gate to the beach, and the house to the gardens that surround it, her sense of design is visible throughout McLoughlin Park today.
The house became a home that inspired freedom and fascination—an artistic haven for Sarah to pursue her other passion, painting—and under her keen eye, the garden took shape and bloomed with colour.
Wearing a straw hat and gardening gloves, Sarah would step out every morning after breakfast to stroll the garden, observing what required her attention. She would often load up the old station wagon with tools and drive up the hill to begin weeding, mulching, or pruning filbert trees, systematically working down the slope of her nut orchard, row by row. If the sun were too powerful, she would move to the shade, tidying up the borders along the side of the winding grassy road, staking the flowering currants, considering how she might next add to her garden mosaic.
“She’d move around the garden and my dad would follow later on and pick up all the trimmings,” says Margo. Brian and Sarah enjoyed teatime together every day while admiring their gardens.
In the late 1990s, the couple began to envision creating a legacy from their space so that it would remain a sanctuary of birdsong and quiet coastal creation long after their passing, and in the following years they took various steps to make this dream a reality.
In 2016, the McLoughlin Gardens Society was formed with a dual purpose: preserving the gardens and hosting creative residencies in the house.
Margo explains that Sarah loved having people come and look around her garden. “For my mother, the landscape was her canvas,” and the garden was an art piece people could actually walk into.
During the spring of 2020, board members Susan Healy and Tom King volunteered many hours on site, becoming gardeners-in-residence for almost three weeks.
“In the garden, Sarah worked with shape, with light and dark, with a painter’s understanding of composition. It is so exciting for me, as a painter, to see how we share the same sensibilities, our paint palette serving us as our guide in garden design, creating form, contrast, and depth,” says Susan.
Tom adds, “The garden beds out front, with the surrounding rock work, are like an extension of the marine environment, the grey rocks on the beach, and the pale colours of the sky.”
The society runs an artist-in-residence program for visual artists and poets or writers. Past artists who’ve stayed and worked in the cottage include playwright Marcus Youssef, poets Maleea Acker and Arleen Paré, ceramicist Rachel Grenon, and multi-disciplinary artist Rita McKeough.
Due to COVID-19, no visual artists will be in residence at the McLoughlin Gardens in 2021; however, Jennifer Manuel, author of The Heaviness of Things that Float, will be arriving in late June to be the writer-in-residence.
The gardens are open to the public, and, as Margo reflects, “It’s wonderful that Tom and Susan have been restoring the gardens and the CVRD is on board to support the project. I’m sure it would mean a lot to my mother to know that members of the local community are coming out to see the gardens and experience the place. We all need a place of quiet and beauty to restore the spirit.”
For more information, please visit mcloughlingardens.org.