West Shore Culture
Interview By Anne Marie Moro
Photo credits: Various Artisans
Look! Are those hand-sewn toys? And those beautiful hand-painted cards and wind chimes, who made those? Oh my gosh, they’re local! The hand-crafted jewellery is gorgeous and those tiny, little succulent plants in retro cups would look great on your desk at work. Imagine how you could fill up those colourful, repurposed planter pots.
And there’s a huge greenhouse with an abundance of plants & flowers and upcycled, solid-wood home accessories inside. If you have time later, you can sign up for a workshop on building a hanging basket or your very own wood planter. By now, you might need a break. So, how about we just sit a while and relax in this beautiful space with a specialty coffee and a treat from the coffee bar.
The Artisan’s Garden is a hidden gem in Sooke and it’s too good to keep secret any longer. Let me introduce you to Gwen Fisher, the owner and founder, of this enchanted place.
Q: So, Gwen, before we get to how ‘The Artisan’s Garden’ came to be, I’m interested in how you discovered Sooke?
A: Well, I’m from Alberta and my husband, Ed, is from Ontario. In the eighties, he was a builder in Alberta when interest rates were so outrageous, people were just not building. To support his family, he enlisted with the Armed Forces. That’s what brought us out to Vancouver Island. We still kept our acreage in Alberta because I had a hard time leaving Alberta to be honest. After a three-year posting spree to Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, we came back to Victoria. In 1996, we ended up coming to Sooke, because we found a perfect home with an in-house salon. For me to work and raise three kids in a smaller town was ideal, especially with Ed away so much for work. I like small towns and, as much as it’s populated, Sooke still has a small-town feel.
Q: Did you move right to this location when you arrived in Sooke?
A: No, once my business grew and the kids got older, I was ready to move our business out of the house. In 2005, we found this place and it was in the future OCP zoned area for a residential-commercial mix. Once I saw the house, I knew it was perfect for our salon and spa business. You can’t beat the view and I got my big Alberta sky. It is wonderful for the salon to always have fresh air and natural light. It also came at a perfect time as we needed more room. In 2001, our family grew by 2 more beautiful boys.
As I worked upstairs overlooking the garden and Olympic mountains, I kept dreaming of what else I could do with this beautiful property. As Sooke was in need of a garden center—and my husband and I both love gardening—the vision began. I also dreamt of a bistro or bakery with outside seating.
Q: Really! That’s a far cry from what you have here now. How did that evolve?
A: There is no space for a full commercial kitchen, especially within our budget. So, we decided to create The Artisan’s Garden. In the beginning, we had this passion to get people growing their own food. We quickly learned that the clientele was more interested in creating beautiful colourful gardens with unique planters. And veggie growers are like us, they collect and grow their own seeds already.
My daughter talked me into an Espresso bar in the gift shop and this helped fill the niche for a service that encouraged people to come and enjoy our space. I love more artisan works and vintage and repurposed accessories, so we are continued to evolve and expand from there.
Q: Mackenzie’s Espresso Bar with snacks makes total sense. It’s a very hospitable and a welcoming addition with its Vancouver Island’s Creekmore Coffee, Westholme Teas, and Sooke’s local tea company, Honestly-T.
A: It is a wonderful addition, because people will sit and relax a bit longer to enjoy the art and the gardens. Mackenzie uses ‘Vienna Bakery’ and ‘Bits of Bliss’ here in Sooke as well as the ‘Portofino Bakery’ to source her baked goods. What happens is we get Monday morning rowers, running groups and walking groups, Moms and babies or people on their own just wanting a quiet space to read. We are building that sense of community that I feel is important. There are always little areas that people can sit and visit or set up an easel and paint. Our salon, ‘Pure Elements’ upstairs is well known for destination wedding services so we now have even more to offer our tourists along with The Artisan’s Garden amenities.
Q: How did the boardwalk come about?
A: Well, there was quite a slope in this yard in the beginning. We realized that we needed a boardwalk to provide accessibility. Once Ed showed me how high the back of the deck was to be, I knew it had to be a feature or it would take away the organic feel of our garden. It was important to me that it wasn’t just any old boardwalk; we needed to capture the views. It had to contribute to the overall experience. For example, we designed a special fence so you can see the view right from the top of the gate all the way through this boardwalk. I had a fantastic carpenter who worked with me and saw my vision.
Q: And the Greenhouse?
A: First off, I was budgeted for a plastic, coup-style greenhouse., Once I saw the grand size of the boardwalk, I knew we had to step up our game. We needed a beautiful greenhouse, not only to keep our plants safe in the early spring and to start some seedlings, but also to house more retail and host DIY workshops and events. Last fall, we filled it each weekend with pop-up markets and we look forward to evolving into this space more in the future. It is only our second season, so I know things will just get better.
Q: I see you still have your hair salon and spa operating, too.
A: I actually retired from the hair salon last year as a stylist; but I still own it. My youngest daughter, Shelby, took over my chair and we still have our amazing team who have been with me for years. My sister got sick last year and, when we knew it was terminal, I knew I needed to take some time off to support her and to heal my broken heart. Full retirement was a hard decision to make. I had so many loyal, salon guests. We were like family. In the end, I made the decision to retire. As I’m recovering from the loss of my sister and I’m in the garden center more, I get to stop and have a coffee with my old salon guests and catch up. I love that.
Q: And you’ve been working with your staff for a long time. They know what to do!
A: Everybody has a role and they all know their roles. I’m really big on job descriptions and clear about how the number one thing is customer service. I tell them that’s the only thing that’s important. Everything else that they have to do for their job comes after that. As soon as customers walk in, we’re hostesses. I would not be here without my teams in both areas of our business. Mina and Dana have been here for over 10 years. They are like family to us. As well, I have 2 daughters, Shelby and Mackenzie and our daughter in law Kelly-Anne, that work here. I’m truly blessed.
Q: You are, Gwen. You know, I’m sitting here with you, watching things ebb and flow all around us. I love how welcoming and inclusive this place is for everyone.
A: It’s a place that welcomes all ages. It’s multi-generational. A place to meet friends even if it’s only for a coffee. There is always something different to look at and the space creates a kind of peaceful ambience. Our visitors never have to feel like they have to spend money to visit us. I want them to come in for the experience and just let [everything] go. And hopefully feel inspired to create either in the garden or their home.
Q: I’m sure they will. What are you planning for summer?
A: We look forward to hosting pop up markets starting in May. They happen every Saturday and Sunday for local artists, farmers, and any hand-crafted vendors who want to sell their goods. Our popular Vintage Market is scheduled for July 29. This draws over a thousand people to Sooke. We encourage guests to check out other great businesses in Sooke, too.
The Artisan’s Garden!
Discover Sooke’s most charming and delightful garden oasis and artisan marketplace.
6689 Goodmere Rd, Sooke, BC V9Z 1H9. Call (778) 352-3353