By Hetty Stuard
When Bill and Dawn Loney, teachers by trade, bought their Georgian Bluffs farm in 1977, they had a dream of creating a sustainable little community where friendships are as important as livestock. Their new job as farmers included resurrecting an old down-trodden farm with poor soil and waist-high grass growing right up to the abandoned house, sharing it with the help of students. While Bill and Dawn are not as spry and energetic as they once were, their personalities have become seasoned and flavourful with time. They have faced major hurdles in the farming scheme of things, creating, in the process, relationships through their gardens. But their steps are firm, their hospitality is unbeatable, and their imaginations as vivid as ever. Welcome to Keppel Croft Gardens!
We arrived after a night of gentle rain in June, fog softening the edges of the bluffs where apple trees grow abundantly. Late spring frosts will not touch the northerly sweep of the slopes, thus an apple orchard of many varieties grows with abandon. We sat under a flowering crab tree that was at least as old as the farm - dating back to the 1860s. Bees buzzed, and hummingbirds dove about us, while a chorus of spring birds and peepers sang in the background. Lush vegetation made us relax into the greenery of leafy leisure: but, the truth we learned, was that every single plant, shrub and tree planted on this 76-acre parcel of farmland was wielded into place by a pick axe! How indeed could a farm thrive in such poor soil?
Many years ago, this farm extended across the road to Big Bay Beach, “the skipping stone capital of Canada”, or so claims the sign. Rightfully so: the beach is a major source of smooth, flat, rounded stones, as was the farm - “The shore came up in ancient shingle beaches,” remembers Bill. “The beach shoreline had been severed from the farm, but those smooth stones were as profuse on the remaining acreage as they were on the beach. My uncle, who plowed up the garden in the front, on the stoniest part of our farm, claimed the stones were as plentiful and large as potatoes.”
Very quickly, Bill and Dawn realized that their land would be good for nothing more than grazing. They first tried their hand at raising goats, and built a goat-house. “But you know how goats are,” laughs Bill. “You need good fences.”
Their passion for Highland cattle became their next project. “We bred them with the Angus strain, and became friends with each new calf - called them Gaelic names, made them into part of the family. Their horns were very distinct - long and slightly curved at the ends. They would walk to the neighbours’ gardens, and go across the road to swim in the bay. A neighbour down the road would pipe them home with his bagpipes. Friends, neighbours, and volunteers of the garden invested with us, turning the venture into a co-op system. When the time came to butcher these lovely cows, I thought I would not be able to eat the meat, but it was so tasty and tender.” Bill’s love for their animals is palpable.
“We also raise sheep on our farm,” chimes in Dawn. “We’re expecting our shipment to arrive any day now.” They don’t winter their flock, the neighbour does that. “We raise Corriedale sheep, from New Zealand, my country,” she adds. The lambs, that look like teddy bears, are fattened for individual consumption - cottagers along the bay will buy the meat.
When Bill begins to talk about the fowl that they raised, the stories turn to their biggest predators — foxes. Behind his laughter and stories is a tight wire of frustration — who outsmarts who? Raccoons stole the eggs and killed the guinea hens, but did not eat them. Weasels slit the throats of 40 Buff Orpington chickens, and drank their blood. The foxes would come and steal the eggs, and laugh as they did so.
“Once,” says Bill, “I heard the “FOX-FOX-FOX” warning cry of the guinea hens. I grabbed the gun, and checked the rail fence where the hens were sitting. Two little ears perked up, over the grass. He ran like a shot through the gate, and sat in the field, watching me. I raised the gun, but my eyesight is going, the gun site is shot, and I am not a good aim. I took a pot shot in the general direction of the small orange dot. The dot jumped up, and split in too! One ran to the east, one to the west — it was two foxes! They both got away. Later in the day, as I was working in the fields, about 75 feet yonder was sitting the handsome fox, watching me. We learned to live together.”
Bill is on a fox-story roll, and Dawn has been serving us fresh home-made bread and cheese with tea. We have moved into their breezy veranda, thankfully, as a neighbour had sounded the warning of a bear sighting. While Bill is a story-teller, I get the strong notion that Dawn often fills in the gaps of their life with her planning schedules, and hard work. In fact, Bill eludes to the fact that he could not have run this farm without her vision, and the constant, back-breaking work that they share. It is obvious that his wife and their friends have become the top priority in this ever-evolving piece of land.
“We had to learn a kind of shingle technique to planting the gardens,” says Bill. “First, we had to excavate the hole with a pick axe, screening out the stones. We lay down newspaper, then a plastic layer, over which the amended soil and manure came before the plant was inserted in the depression. The stones are then arranged from the stem of the plant, slanting upwards to ground level: in that way, dew is collected on the shale rocks and is directed towards the roots of the plants. We have very little rain here, so this gardening method keeps our gardens alive.” In this fashion, they have created four incredible acres of gardens, which include perennial borders, rock gardens, xeriscape gardens, and vegetables, all linked by paths. As Bill states, “We try to treat the land gently, and still get a profit.” Thankfully, there are some volunteers who help with the work.
“We feel we don’t own the land,” admits Bill. “We are like the Indians in that way — the land is only in our safe-keeping. We share it with others who love to snowshoe, ski, snowmobile, ATVs. We share with the little kids who want to know more about plants. There are also the city folk who like to sit in the midst of the shade and converse with the trees, and others who enjoy forest bathing… all are welcome. There are so many different types of people, and we learn from everybody.” They are able to host weddings, picnics and other celebrations.
The Loneys tapped into the WWOOFer program — Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms of Canada — a part of an international effort to link visitors with organic farms. In exchange for free room and board, the young people work in the gardens, learning about organic agriculture, earning a report for their various agriculture/horticulture colleges. And of course, lasting friendships were made along the way.
One of their most impressive structures on their farm was built just at the turn of the century: their own Keppel Henge, a group of over 12 granite and limestone monoliths located on one of the wide, flat fields. Bill, a lover of stone and landscape, and his friend Steve Irvine, a lover of astronomy and history, are the designers behind this project. Irvine worked out the design so the slender central stone of granite casts its shadow on others to indicate the seasons as they pass. Summer Solstice is celebrated in this meadow when the shadow thrown by the marker stone, lands on the Solstice Stone, right on time, every year. It has become a place of reflection and meditation.
Greenhouses, where succulents and native plants are for sale, are nestled beside a pen of exotic birds and fowl. There is also a gift shop and art gallery on the premises: pre-Covid days, an annual art show and sale happened every mid-July. The Bay boasts an artsy community, making the event well-attended. It would be remiss if mention is not made of “The Splendid Keppel Croft Outhouse”, a “loo” that was rated one of the top 10 Canadian outhouses by Our Canada magazine. Such structures play on the humour of the guests as well as the hosts, as do so many other whimsical garden designs and nostalgic decorations.
Originally, the property had been purchased to be farmed. Now, their passion for gardening and cultivating relationships has far exceeded any farming endeavours. Both Bill and Dawn exhibit a delightful enthusiasm for Keppel Croft Gardens. By the same token, Dawn says with quiet dignity, “When the time is right, we’ll be signing off with pleasure.” ◊