Mrs Malon’s Vargas Island Garden

By guest curator Stephanie Ann Warner

This spring, our museum has been exploring Clayoquot Sound's experiences during World War One. A key part of our look into "Vargas Island Ranchers at Home and at War" has been the diaries of Mrs Helen Malon, who gardened on Vargas Island during the war years. Being self-sufficient with home produce was an important part of the west coast experience, and never more so than during the war years, when slogans said "dig for victory". Mrs Malon's diary has given us valuable insights into what Vargas Island residents were able to grow in their gardens, and how they grew these crops (a clue -- lots of seaweed and lots of weeding!)

This portrait depicts Mrs Helen Malon, Vargas Island gardener. The photograph has been shared by Joan Nicholson.


These quotes are just a taste of Mrs Malon’s gardening experiences:

“Carted up some seaweed and staked out the asparagus bed after dinner”, Tuesday February 27 1917 

“Carted up a lot of herring roe and put it down on the garden as fertilizer,” Wednesday March 14 1917

“Fine bright day. Cool wind, darned stockings most of the morning. Also carted manure for the cabbages,” Monday April 30 1917

“Another lovely day and warmer. I hoed potatoes after breakfast. In the afternoon prepared ground and sowed a few seeds,” Monday June 11 1917

"Much rain last night and raining off and on all day. Hoed a few potatoes in the morning. Planted a few tomatoes and brussels sprouts in the afternoon,” Thursday June 21 1917

“Picked a few beans and put them in jar with salt,” Wednesday September 19 1917  

“Very foggy all day. Pulled onions and spread them on racks in the cellar,” Friday October 5 1917

Reading these quotes – and the many hundreds more – in Mrs Malon’s diary certainly makes one hungry for good local produce! It’s also a fascinating contrast to what was happening for her sons Arthur and Ted Abraham (and other Vargas Island ranchers at war), fighting in the trenches on the Western Front and eating canned “bully beef” and hard tack biscuits!

Seedlings on Vargas Island ready to plant in the spring.

As we near the end of our exhibit “Vargas Island Ranchers at Home and at War”, I would really like to take this opportunity to give a “shout out” to a few people who have helped our museum learn more about and understand Mrs Malon's wartime gardening. In order to understand about Vargas Island garden conditions mentioned in Mrs Malon’s diary, I was fortunate to connect with modern day Vargas Island gardeners. Julia Simmerling gardened on Vargas Island for two seasons with the Cedar Coast Field Station in exactly the same site as Mrs Malon. Julia enthusiastically shared her experiences of growing fresh vegetables. In this photo Julia Simmerling stands in front of original trees planted on Mrs Malon’s former property (apple tree in bloom at the right).


Julia related how much she had been helped to learn by her gardening neighbour “extraordinaire”, Una Ledrew. Una and her husband Dave Ratcliffe started clearing land on Vargas Island in the 1970s and are today enjoying a bountiful harvest of crops. Una has taken the time to share her insights into gardening on Vargas Island -- a wonderful way to put into context the words from Mrs Malon's diary and to see that even 100 years later, similar techniques are being used and similar garden produce is being grown. (Once again – lots of seaweed!) In this photograph Una Ledrew stands in front of a bed of daffodils. These bulbs came from original daffodil bulbs planted by Mr Hovelaque.


I’d like to give a very big “thank you” to Una and Dave for their hospitality in hosting me for a visit to Vargas. Una and Dave live on the former property of Mr P.A. Hovelaque, Mrs Malon's friend and neighbour, who was a long-time fruit farmer on Vargas Island. During my visit, we had the opportunity to go back in time to see what remains of the gardens of Mrs Malon and Mr Hovelaque -- a really meaningful way to bring the past to life. In the photo below I stand in front of an original acacia tree on Mr Hovelaque’s former property.

Finally, we are indebted to Joan Nicholson, who shared her grandmother Mrs Malon's diary. This unique piece of west coast history is a valuable resource for future historians of gardens or just life on Vargas Island in general. Joan has also shared photographs of Mrs Malon and her family that we have been pleased to use in our museum exhibit.

The museum is continuing to collect information on Vargas Island gardening, past and present. In the meantime, we are pleased to share Mrs Malon’s diary. Come in for a visit and explore Mrs Malon’s Vargas Island garden.

Our "Vargas Island Ranchers at Home and at War" exhibit runs until the end of May.