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Fairy-tale garden in Victoria may be saved Builder holds off plans as funds are raised

The story of a prince and princess and their beloved Victoria garden that was slated to be bulldozed for townhouses may have a fairy-tale ending after all.

The epic romance of Prince Nicholas Abkhazi and Princess Peggy Abkhazi and their only legacy, a world-renowned garden that the couple planted more than 50 years ago, has captured hearts across North America.

The Land Conservancy of British Columbia received a two-week extension from a developer yesterday to buy back the property while donations continued to pour in from across Canada, the United States and as far away as England.

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"It's very good news for us to have this reprieve," said Bill Turner, executive-director for the conservancy, which has raised just over half the money it needs to purchase the estate for $1,375,000.

So far, the organization has raised $750,000 for the project to save the Abkhazi garden in Victoria's Fairfield neighbourhood and open it to the public.

The group is seeking a mortgage, to be paid off by donations, to assume ownership of the property by its new deadline of Jan. 31. The sale's closing date is Feb. 17.

The Garden Conservancy in New York has also joined the fight to save the Abkhazi garden, making it the organization's first botanical battle outside of the United States.

Horticulturalists, conservationists and neighbours joined to save the garden, renowned for its rhododendrons, after the Abkhazis' long-time gardener, Chris Ball, sold the sprawling grounds and modest bungalow for $1-million to developer Graeme Lee last summer for a proposed housing project.

Construction was to start soon on the 12-townhouse project if preservationists failed to raise enough money.

"It's very encouraging," garden historian Cyril Hume said. "Everyone I've talked to is captivated by this story."

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The fight to save the garden has even made headlines in the prince's native Georgia in a Tbilisi newspaper, The Dilis Gazeti. Prince Abkhazi, who was born to the Georgian monarchy in 1899, was exiled to France in the early 1920s after Russia's invasion and the Bolshevik Revolution.

He first met then Peggy Pemberton-Carter in Paris while she was travelling with her adoptive mother. Together, the two visited art galleries, museums and explored the streets of Paris.

Peggy was born in 1902 to British expatriates living in Shanghai. Both died of illnesses before she was 5, prompting her adoption by a wealthy, childless couple, the Pembertons, friends of her parents.

She returned to China after meeting the prince in Paris and it was years before their paths crossed again. During the Second World War, she was interned in a Japanese war camp in Shanghai while he was a French soldier and prisoner of war in Hanover. The princess turned to gardening in the intern camp as her choice of manual labour.

They tracked each other down after the war through letters. She had no surviving family and decided to move to Victoria in 1945 to join friends. He soon followed her to Canada and the two were married. She was 43. He was 47. They never had children and there are no known surviving relatives.

The newlyweds bought the Fairfield estate, transforming the rocky, weedy lot through a labour of love into their own special sanctuary.

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The princess often referred to the garden, which has been profiled in books and magazines, as their child. She called it "the garden that love built."

Acclaimed Canadian photographer Freeman Patterson featured the garden in his 1989 book, In a Canadian Garden, and has donated his photographs to the land conservancy's project.

Prince Abkhazi died in 1988, and the princess kept his ashes in a red urn. It was Princess Abkhazi's dying wish (she died in 1994) to have her ashes scattered in the garden along with the ashes of her late husband. The couple bequeathed most of the estate to their long-time housekeeper, Maria Camara, their gardener, Mr. Ball, and his wife, Pamela.

The garden's supporters hope yesterday's extension means there will be another spring for the garden that love built with many more for generations to come.

"In my heart, I feel it's going to work out," said Caroline Duncan, an expert in antique maps and heritage conservation, who moved next door to the Abkhazi residence last year.

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