With a deep love of the land, a sound knowledge of horticulture, and an appreciation of a good time— good friends, good food, good ideas—Warwick Hubber seemingly has it all on a rocky island in the far northwest corner of this country.
I connected with Hubber—Wocka to his friends— through Lisa Lee Benjamin, my guest co-editor on this issue of Pacific Horticulture. Longtime friends and cohorts, last summer Lisa paused her internationally peripatetic life to visit Hubber on San Juan Island where she described him as “big man on campus” within the community. She relates how, “Walking down the street every person offered a handshake, honked their horn, whistled, or whooped ‘wockaaaaa’.” Talking by phone and chatting by email (today’s version of an over-the-fence exchange) I, too, felt the warmth of his infectious good nature coupled with a deep passion for his work and an abiding respect for the environment.
The San Juans are a string of 172 islands approximately 80 miles north of western Washington’s central urban core, set within an intricate system of waterways that includes the Georgia Strait, Puget Sound, and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Collectively known as the Salish Sea, this body of water is named for the First Nations people who inhabited the islands and drew their existence from the abundant sea and fertile land.
Protected by neighboring mountain ranges, the island county enjoys a temperate climate; long summer days rarely get above 80°F, and the maritime influence ensures winters are moderate and mostly without snow or frost. The flip-side to glorious balmy weather and brilliant sunsets is that the rest of the year the islands are continually shrouded in clouds and pelted by rain but, nevertheless, enjoy a front seat to dramatic and thundering winter storms.
Far from the Pacific Northwest, Hubber grew up on an 800-acre sheep farm in southern New Zealand where, by necessity, his family lived on what they could coax from the land. After leaving the farm, he pursued a 14-year career in professional kitchens before turning his eye to the landscape; he deeply gets today’s yearning for a farm-to-table lifestyle. Today, this multi-talented designer, chef, and craftsman is principal of Garden Artisan, a full-service design/build firm. He and his wife Stephanie run a small catering business serving mainly clientele connected to his landscape practice.
Fertile farmland and meadows, verdant forests, and miles of coastal beaches make the San Juans a prime vacation destination as well as one of the country’s most desirable locations to settle. A state ferry system and airfields serve the three most populous islands; as one would expect, summer brings out the throngs while other times of the year are quite sleepy.
The region’s dramatic terrior is a salty mix of light, wind, water, and sun, populated by eagles, whales, shorebirds, wildlife, and humans (in season). Hubber’s projects are mostly residential and largely rural, with a recent uptick in small-scale productive landscapes or “mini-farms,” as people escaping the urban hustle and bustle turn back to the land and a life more in sync with the seasons than social media and a 24/7 cubicle life.
Trading ego and arrogance for respect, Hubber doesn’t try to compete with the dramatic natural setting. He provides creative and appropriate landscape solutions that sit comfortably within the surrounding topography. Deftly inserted into the landscape, his thoughtful, informed, and brilliantly executed designs are hidden in plain sight, as it were. An element of trust and adventure exists between the designer and his clients, which range from urban escapees with plenty of resources to longtime locals. As Benjamin observed, “He treats both with the same integrity and an easy smile that gets him a ‘yes’ to almost anything he proposes.”
Aesthetic concerns drive his work—but not at the expense of sound horticulture and protecting the environment. Like the ever-changing skies above these idyllic islands, Hubber’s landscapes are never static but follow the natural rhythms of their spectacular surroundings. Whether in the ground or on a rooftop, plant compositions continuously evolve as annual growth cycles and weather influence which plants flourish or senesce.
The result is a shifting, organic process highlighted by brilliant seasonal bloom and tawny summertime browning set against a predominantly green palette of broadleaf evergreens and conifers. There’s no guarantee as to how the picture will unfold from year to year. Like a hospitable party, the secret is in the mix and compatibility of the players.
Lisa recounts garden-hopping with Wocka: “We cruised the islands one behind the other, him on a Royal Enfield motorcycle and me on a Vespa, dashing by hayfields, orchards, and lavender fields he’d planted for a client 15 years earlier. We turned turn down a dirt road leading toward the water and ended up at a land- scape he designed that included an outdoor kitchen, entertainment area, and a custom kitchen garden. On another property in North Bay, three green roofs installed atop a modest custom home overflowed with blooming sedums presenting a colorful rainbow against the sparkling blue water of nearby Puget Sound. Down on the ground, a whimsical mix of fruit trees, poppies, and larkspur were impeccably placed for framing interior views or enjoying an open-air lunch on the patio.”
Hubber favors strong design with a modern sensibility: solid forms and disciplined, angular lines accomplished in rugged hardscape elements that echo and balance the island’s rolling meadows, glaciated peaks, and miles of rocky or sandy shoreline. Structure is central and serves as a framework for naturalistic plantings and the ever-changing influence of light, wind, and plant growth. Skilled stonework, cast concrete, and rusty metalwork display raw surfaces and the patina of salt and wind.
A recent roof project, set atop a stone guesthouse designed by architect Andrew Borges, reflects Hubber’s level of commitment to working in harmony with the existing environment. Prior to building, native seed and plant material was harvested from the site, custom propagated, and established on the roof once construction was complete. The result is a landscape that seamlessly integrates with the surrounding hummocks and grassy hills. On another roof, mosses and native sedums surround rough-edged boulders collected from the site, grounding the garden within the larger landscape and replacinghabitat displaced by development.
Much the same way his designs collaborate with the surrounding landscape, Wocka is continually building a community of like-minded creatives and talented artisans with stonemasons, metalworkers, plantsmen, and woodworkers. At the end of the day, gathered around a table in his backyard waiting for dinner to emerge from the newly installed outdoor earthen, wood- fired oven—topped with its own green roof planted with herbs within easy reach—Warwick, his friends, and family celebrate with fresh food and good company. As he put it, “We have ALOTTA fun up here!”
In pursuit of ocean-friendly rooftop landscapes, Hubber adheres to completely organic practices and his plantings are designed to thrive without additional feeding. Installations of up to 10,000 plants initially receive irrigation four times during the first dry season. Beyond that, supplemental water isn’t necessary; in fact, drier conditions produce more dramatic color in sedums. Irrigation remains in place solely as a backup should it be necessary. The rest of the year, the plants capture and slow the sometimes-heavy seasonal rains, protecting the nearby shoreline from erosion and nutrient contamination from the original soil mix. He cites weeds as the biggest rooftop maintenance challenge. Seed from berries and grasses introduced by birds thrive in the loose substrate unless routinely removed. Hubber adheres to indigenous plants and soil mixes and encourages normal life cycles. The result is a natural and native habitat requiring minimal overall maintenance.