EXCEPTIONAL ALASKA

As bold and spirited as her garden, transplanted Teena Garay defies all northern expectations

by LES BRAKE photography by JULIE RILEY

When Teena and Pete Garay moved from Washington State to Homer, Alaska, with their three small children in 1990, they considered the change temporary. Pete had accepted a posting as a ship’s pilot in Alaska’s treacherous western waters, and the family planned on returning to the Lower 48 once his turn was up. Teena, passionate about plants since the age of 12, when she was asked to care for a neighbor’s rock garden, figured that she wouldn’t be able to garden in the frigid north. She was willing to forgo her real zeal for Pete’s three-year hitch, if he followed one strict condition: don’t even think about buying a house in that frozen wasteland.

Unbeknownst to Teena was the fact that Homer’s climate, although still terrible for much of the year, is mild enough (compared to the rest of the state) that it’s often called the banana belt of south-central Alaska. Also, the town’s location at the head of Kachemak Bay offers views of some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet. Combine the two, and in a year the Garays’ leased house became their purchased home. Time to call in the Bobcat to do some extensive terracing.

SUPERIOR FROM THE START

The first time I visited the Garays was in August of 1997, and I can still recall telling Jerry McEwen, the friend who had accompanied me to Homer, “This is a garden.” That’s a presumptuous pronouncement, I know, but it was the only way I knew to express my happiness at being in a garden so well thought out. Although several of the most important structural elements had yet to be built, the relatively young garden packed a punch because of its impressive stonework and the exceptional plantsmanship evident.

When I expressed my surprise to Teena that, with three children under the age of seven, she had chosen to put so much energy into gardening, she shot me a “you dummy” look and said, “Gardening is too important to wait.” (The kids, meanwhile, hadn’t been too thrilled to be losing the front lawn to a garden. It had been their baseball field; in protest, one of them stuck a baseball bat down the standpipe of the underground septic tank.)

Stones for terraced beds were picked by Teena from one of the local beaches. She built a 40-foot-long wall, steps, and 12-foot-wide perennial beds. Her touch is so deft that it looks as if the work was done by a deep stonemason. When I asked if she’d worked with stones before, she replied, “I must have some Mayan in my genetic make-up. I’m short, I tan easily, don’t do well with dairy products, and I love the stones. All obvious Mayan traits.”

A NONSTOP PLANTSWOMAN

Since my initial outing to the garden, I’ve visited every year. I’ve also spent considerable time traveling and lecturing with Teena. If there is a better plantsperson in Alaska, I’d like to meet her or him. Teena never stops thinking about what plants would look best together. Our gardening styles are quite different, but we get along great. Whereas I primarily go for the “throw enough stuff out there and something s bound to stick” approach, Teena plans all of her associations. If she spots a plant that might look better elsewhere, she’ll move it at almost anytime during the season, as long as the weather is cloudy and cool. Which is usually the case. “Moving things is where the obsessive-compulsive part comes in,” she says. “I’ll think, T can always cook dinner later’.” I’ve never seen a plant out of place in her garden.

Teena’s passion for gardening is fueled by the knowledge that there will be enough new plants to try and different combinations of colors, forms, and textures to keep her curiosity satisfied until she’s in her 90s. The yearning for hardy new plants led her to travel to China in 2000 with eight other Alaskans on a seed-collecting expedition sponsored by the Alaska Rock Garden Society and generously assisted by Dan Hinkley. Anyone willing to endure 24 days of freezing temperatures at elevations from 12,000 to 15,000 feet, strange foods, the very real possibility of being thrown in jail if papers were found to be “questionable,” and nonstop commentary about such things as praying sheep—all for seed for tough new posies—has my undying respect. When the rock garden society gets brave enough to launch another expedition, I’m sure that Teena will be there, trekking across the misty slopes of the Andes in Chilean Patagonia, searching for promising plants for Alaska’s gardens.

While she has led the charge in experimenting with many new plants, including substantial numbers from the Ligularia, Astrantia, and Filipendula clans, the most unusual plants in her garden are the many vines that have been planted to cover trellises and an arbor. Alaska has no native vines, as long-time garden writer Lenore Hed-la has pointed out, so gardeners in most of the state can’t even think vine thoughts. Trying to take full advantage of Homer’s mild climate, Teena planted a number of varieties of Clematis alpina and C. macropetala, and much to her surprise they all lived and performed as she had hoped. A couple of different climbing monkshoods (Aconitum spp.) have also done well, along with the golden hops vine (Humulus lupulus Aureus’).

A LITTLE SUPPORT

Pete was finally invited to play in the garden when Teena needed supports for her vines. Prior to that, his primary contribution had been cutting down trees, usually without Teena’s input. Despite having some difficulty “coming in as the backdrop guy,” his first project, a long section of trellis made from unpeeled spruce poles, was a success. Pleased to discover (after 19 years) that they could work together, Teena next invited Pete to help with the pond. They placed the pond as far as possible from the house and stocked it with goldfish to feed, hoping to lure the children into the garden, too. Given more artistic leeway after the success of his first structural undertaking, Pete came up with some fancy woodwork for the path in front of the pondside seat. With many songbirds flitting about, sunlight dancing off the water, and the heady clovelike scent of Primula florindae on the air, it seems as if a vision of paradise has been sparked.

Backing up the pond is the garden’s most intriguing structure, the three-sided arbor. That’s what Teena wanted, because four sides would be “too heavy.” Although Pete at first thought that such an arbor would be impossible to build, by getting what he describes as “a mechanical advantage on it” he was able to pull it off. The supporting columns are wire-wrapped wooden water pipe that came from Dutch Harbor. The trick was to place two of them so close together that they appear to be one.

On his voyages to the villages of the Aleutians and western Alaska, Pete has had the opportunity to claim quite a number of artifacts for the garden, which then provide a link back to the greater landscape. All sorts of unusual objects can be found among the plants, including a couple of walrus oosiks, a mammoth tusk, a whale skull, and petrified wood from Unga Island.

While the garden is very much Teena’s construction, it reflects the balance between the passions of a man of the sea and a woman of the earth. How appropriate that it-would be located at land’s end. H

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