BY VALERIE EASTON PHOTOGRAPHY BY RICHARD W. HARTLAGE
How the desire for a few cut flowers led to full-blown borders
IT ALL STARTED WHEN I PLANTED some extra flowers for cutting. I never meant to end up with a jungle. But you need bunches of lilies and scads of sunflowers if you want to enjoy them in the house as well as in the garden, and I didn’t have space for the old-fashioned luxury of a separate cutting garden. I was also as interested in foliage, pods, cones, and berries as I was in flowers. So why not plant up the whole garden so extravagantly that a few snips here or there would never show? However, ten years down the overgrown garden path, I realize how small a quarter-acre garden truly is, and understand—slightly too late—the need to make choices and exercise a little discipline.
Carefully chosen ornamental features—a small fountain, a bronze heron, a pillar—reveal a controlling hand at work among the lush plantings near the pond.
My garden is on a steep hillside overlooking Lake Washington in Lake Forest Park, a little town just north of Seattle. We bought the house a decade ago for the property, certainly not for the 1950s rambler that sat in the middle of a ratty lawn, surrounded by lanky rhododendrons and a prickly expanse of juniper-clad rockery.
One of the few charms of 1950s architecture is that ramblers, being all on one level, have the potential to connect with the garden. After living in the house for a year, watching the patterns of sunlight and shadow and paying attention to views of Mt. Rainier, water, and the Cascade mountain range, we undertook a major renovation focused on linking house and garden. We pushed the new wing of the house all the way to the property line, in order to wrap it around a small courtyard. Only ten feet wide, the courtyard provides a spot for shade-loving plants. We also put in large wrap-around corner windows with window seats in the new dining room and master bedroom, creating a visual link between indoors and out. Outside these windows and the new glass-paned front door, we chose plants to focus interest close up in order to provide a foreground to the larger view out to the lake and mountains.
HARDSCAPE AND PLANTING FOR YEAR-ROUND INTEREST
I grew up in Seattle, and despite all the talk these days about the Northwest’s Mediterranean climate, the truth is that we have long months of dank, dreary, drizzly weather. I was determined to be able to walk out of any door and to each part of the garden on a clean, hard surface. How else to pick the first snowdrop of spring or to kill slugs before work in the morning without changing into waders? A first step was to create a network of paved terraces that connect to stepping stones and then to gravel pathways, which lure me outside even on the wettest days to see what is blooming. I’ve removed all the lawn except on the top level of the garden, and I’m determined to take that out once both my kids have gotten past the croquet and Frisbee stage.
After we’d torn out the lawn and old shrubs, a main goal of the planting that followed was to have something in flower every day of the year. Despite my gradual evolution into a less-flower-centered gardener—I love flamboyant foliage, especially any kind of cream or yellow variegation, which adds welcome warmth on overcast days—I want to see flowers when I go outdoors. I try to always have some weird and impossible-to-ignore bloom or branch in a vase on the counter where my kids eat their breakfast. Sometimes they even ask what it is. It’s a joy to venture outdoors on a cold January afternoon to cut a piece of vanillascented sarcococca or twig of witch hazel pungent enough to scent an entire room, or in June to fill a bowl with sweet peas. You can’t have this kind of luxury any other way than by maintaining a year-round, overplanted garden.
My next priority was to attract birds, bees, and butterflies to give life, color and movement to the garden. Our second summer after we’d remodeled the house, my husband dug a pond in the back garden and we stocked it with frogs and goldfish. Now a great blue heron sometimes swoops in to fish, dragonflies hover, and birds bathe in the shallow margins. I think of the pond as light-reflecting, wildlife-encouraging ground-cover, for it is easy to care for and is a way to keep space open without paving or lawn. And keeping space open is always a challenge for those of us who long to plant every possible inch of ground.
The far back border is a wild garden, inspired by the idea of a mixed English hedgerow. Many of the plants back there are old-fashioned favorites, all crowded in so thickly that even horsetails have been shaded out. Monarda, buddleia, rugosa roses, every kind of elderberry I can find, mock orange and lilac for fragrance, Viburnum tinus ‘Spring Bouquet’ for winter color and cutting, and even a gunnera, added for a dramatic change of leaf size, thrive and mingle. This thicket is so alive with birds eating berries and nesting, squirrels running along the fence and jumping into the trees, that it seems to vibrate with vigor even on a still, windless day. While I do try to thin things out a bit to give newer and smaller plants a chance, and prune to let in light and air, I generally leave the plants to nudge each other into accommodation. In doing this, they make patterns of color and texture that I couldn’t have designed with all the sharp pencils and graph paper in the world. Sure, you lose a few plants, and sometimes even pathways or patios, but such losses are a small price to pay for the daily theatrics played out in a dynamic garden.
NEAR THE HOUSE
The areas around the house are the tamest and tidiest parts of the garden, consisting of paved terraces delineated by a pergola in back to shelter a dining table and support wisteria and climbing roses. A step up from the entrance walkway in the front leads to a little patio just big enough for two Adirondack chairs, a table, and potted flowers. Lilies, roses, fragrant daylilies, rosemary, ornamental oregano, and hardy fuchsias crowd the beds alongside the seating areas to provide an ever-changing extravaganza of flower, color, and perfume.
After several years of rashes and frustration, I gave up trying to uproot the juniper in the front rockery and called a contractor. He arrived with a dump truck and one of those machines with a big claw and wrestled out the juniper, whose roots were so pervasive that the rocks needed resetting. I ended up with a huge expanse of bare dirt and boulders across the front garden. I moved the red Japanese maple from the top of the rockery, where it was suffering from lack of water, to the bottom, where it grows lush from all the runoff. Instead of the usual small, fussy rockery plants, I chose bold, drought-tolerant plantings that change with the seasons to make the rockery feel like part of the rest of the garden. Now silvery Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’, Japanese blood grass, staghorn sumac, cistus, various euphorbias, slow-growing bristlecone pines, Fothergilla gardenii, and a draping of Ceanothus gloriosus cover every inch of ground and give seasonal bloom, autumn color, and evergreen continuity. Garrya xissaquahenis ‘Pat Ballard’ drips spindly catkins over the edge of the rocks in winter, and little birds cling to the flower spikes of the two yellow Cortaderia selloana ‘Sunstripe’, plucking off the white fluff for their nests.
THE PLEASURES OF AUTUMN
The Northwest is known for its springtime bloom, when rhododendrons and azaleas burst into a cacophony of color. Unfortunately the weather, especially in recent years, has been cold and wet all the way into June. It is the autumn, which is long, warm, and dry, with exceptionally pretty slanting sunlight, that is a fine time to be outside. So I’ve emphasized that season more than any others in the garden, lacing a sourwood tree (Oxydendrum arboreum) with a Clematis tangutica, whose pale, fluffy seed heads show off the vibrant red of its autumn foliage. The three Yoshino cherry trees along the street turn an elegant shade of yellow, and the staghorn sumac in the rockery blazes with color. Smoke bush, the brilliant red berries of Rosa glauca, Japanese maples, katsura (Cercidi-phyllum japonicum), and serviceberry (Amelanchier xgrandiflora ‘Princess Diana’), underplanted with asters, nerines, and autumn crocuses, provide fireworks through Thanks-giving and beyond.
I love my garden, but as it comes up on its first decade, I’m beginning to fully appreciate the downside of overplanting. A garden that is full, fluffy, and naturalistic means an astounding amount of sheer biomass to deal with each year, either through composting or carting it away. If I don’t develop carpal tunnel syndrome from all the cutting back, it will be a miracle. And throwing more plants at a problem area sometimes creates only more problems. It has taken me a long time to learn that subtraction is also a solution, and sometimes the better one.
So I’m taking out, pruning back, trying to recapture the long-buried lines and edges of the garden. I’m becoming more interested in formality and order (not very interested, just a little bit). I force myself to take something out for every new plant added (but I cheat on this by adding more and more containers; they don’t count). I’m trying to strike a balance between a garden sufficiently lush to amaze, excite, and teach me about plants, but controlled enough so that I don’t despair over the amount of work needed to keep any semblance of order. H
Plants for Cutting
The following are a few favorites to keep vases filled with foliage and flowers from earliest spring through late December:
DAFFODILS: The smaller narcissi never look stiff or formal in arrangements, and their dying foliage isn’t such a problem in the garden. My favorites are the pale, fragrant N. poeticus—the dainty ‘Thalia’, and scented, double ‘Yellow Cheerfulness’.
LILACS: A couple of lilacs supply fragrance and flower for nearly a month; especially effective cut are Syringa vulgaris ‘Sensation,’ with its white-trimmed purple blossoms, and the pure white ‘Mont Blanc’.
MOCK ORANGE: It wouldn’t be spring without the perfume of mock orange in and out of the house. Philadelphus ‘Dame Blanche’ is a fragrant double, and the white blossom of P. ‘Belle Etoile’ is set off by a dark purple center blotch.
ALLIUMS: A. cristophii and A. giganteum have a dramatic presence in the vase, retaining their color for months: as a bonus, they dry to a starry buff in the garden.
SWEET PEAS: If you cut them every day, they’ll continue to bloom most of the summer. I plant only the most fragrant kinds, like ‘Black Knight’, ‘Old Spice Mixed’, and all of the Spencers.
HYDRANGEAS: H. macrophylla, H. paniculata, and H. quercifolia are sumptuously summery fresh, and then slowly dry in the vase, turning shades of parchment through all the pinks and wines to deepest purple.
SENECIO GREYI: Each silver leaf has a white underside and is trimmed with white, providing background foliage in arrangements year round.
HYPERICUMS: H. androsaemum has long-lasting coral fruit and leaves that turn to burgundy in the autumn; other species have plum-colored, golden, or variegated foliage.
ASTRANTIAS: Few flowers last as long when cut, and the elegant little blossoms, in shades from white to ruby, add character to any arrangement.
STRAWBERRY TREE: Arbutus unedo has handsome, narrow, evergreen leaves, and in autumn a single branch is an entire arrangement, with white flowers blooming at the same time as the plump, bumpy fruit turns vivid shades of yellow through orange to brilliant scarlet.–V.E.