Labour of Love

An Edmonton family has spent more than two decades building their outdoor space.

Photography Curtis Trent

The sound of water running through Arti Koshal’s yard is a constant in the summer, while colourful plants, flowers and pathways intermingle. Giant windows span across the Koshals’ late 1960s home, which has several balconies that overlook a garden that could have been the inspiration behind a Van Gogh painting.

Instead, the expansive space inspires Koshal, her husband Arvind, their grown children, their young grandchildren and friends. The outdoors is an extension of the indoor living space, with multiple levels allowing for outdoor dining, entertaining and viewing the garden space from many different angles. A walkway crosses over a lush pond full of perennials, and a stairway leads up to a deck overlooking the yard.

Just as she’s changed the colours of the interior of the house over time, Koshal likes to revise the exterior with different coloured potted flowers marking the steps leading to the deck and in various spaces in between the garden area.

In 1991, when Koshal and her husband, along with their three boys – then aged 9, 12 and 14 – moved from Eastern Canada to Edmonton, the yard looked completely different. In Ottawa, Arvind had worked as a cardiac surgeon, and he had just been offered a position in Edmonton, becoming the Chief of Cardiovascular Surgery for Capital Health and eventually the Director of Development and External Affairs for the Mazankowski Alberta Heart Institute. Twenty-seven years ago, the yard did not have water features with perennials overflowing into the waves, or containers of peas and tomatoes interspersed throughout. In fact, it was quite the opposite. “When I first saw the yard, I thought, ‘oh my God, I have so much work to do,'” Koshal says. “We were trying to settle three boys in the city and Arvind was starting a big job.”

She points to a photograph of the yard that dates back to the early years, and you wouldn’t know you’re looking at the same yard. A concrete pad sat where the water feature is now, and there was a large building at the bottom of the lawn, obstructing the current impressive view of Whitemud Creek’s lush ravine.

Fairly soon after moving in, the Koshals hired a contractor to build the deck that opens onto the main floor of the house. There, the couple often eats dinner in the summer and entertains friends and family. Since retiring a few years ago, Arvind has taken up cooking, serving his wife elaborate meals using herbs from their yard. Before they started travelling in the winter, they had a vegetable garden.

The rocks that make up the side of the deck match the rocks used in the water feature that was built later. First, the Koshals had to decide what to do with the big concrete pad at the base of the deck. For a while, their kids used it as a basketball court but, once they were done with it, Koshal was determined to transform it into something much more visually appealing.

But it would have cost $40,000 just to remove the concrete, so Koshal scrapped the idea of removing it entirely, instead asking the advice of her then-neighbour across the street. His suggestion: to use the concrete as a base for a rock garden. Koshal went for the idea, which became the initial incarnation of yard’s focal piece.

She also had wooden walkways constructed, forming pathways and, of course, a pond full of perennials. There’s a weeping crab apple tree in the middle of the garden’s design to give some form, surrounded by two fir trees, and plenty of smaller plants added over the years, creating a Japanese-inspired look complete with a Buddha statue and small pagodas. The Zen vibe is intact throughout the yard, as Koshal believes in letting plants grow as they come up – she’s had rose bushes and other plants grow spontaneously, likely leftovers from the previous owners.

The garden is an art form to Koshal; the initial blank canvas did not intimidate her. “I love art; I have no fear. I just put my soul out there,” she says.

The couple, who grew up in India, bought their home and moved to Edmonton without ever having visited. “Moving to Edmonton was the best thing for our family – it’s so community-minded, they make anything happen, so giving,” says Koshal.

And their love of people is evident in how they use their yard. Koshal sees it as a place that should be shared, and as a result, they’ve hosted many special occasions over the years including a 60-person wedding for Koshal’s friend’s daughter, over 100 people for their neighbour’s nephew’s wedding, and many garden parties. Koshal often rents a clay oven for the events, set up on the top of the deck where fresh naan is baked for guests. Each year, she secures the help of their friend Leo, who helps tend to the yard on weekends in the summer months.

Eight years ago, when the Koshal’s son, Anu, was interested in getting married in the yard – though it didn’t end up happening – the most recent large-scale change was made to the space. The structure that was blocking their view was removed, and in its place, they put a round fire pit with seating, creating just another way to enjoy the expansive yard.

“He’s a doer,” says Koshal, with pride, pointing out the pipes that take water between pots, just one of her husband’s projects. In the winters, the couple live in Palm Springs where they have a whole other garden, meaning they can pursue their passion for plants year-round.

A few stray cacti in pots sit next to the couple’s second-level door, but they’re the only links to a yard that looks completely different, says Koshal.

“It’s been a really interesting change. I really like it. I love a challenge,” she says.

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