Outside Seattle, Nancy Heckler can always find space for new plants
by VALERIE EASTON
photography by MARION BRENNER
NANCY HECKLER IS NEWLY SMITTEN with martagon lilies, the speckled kind with their nodding Turk’s caps. “They look like wild animals out there,” she says, “all dusty rose splashed with brick red.” And then there’s Tetrapanax papyrifer ‘Steroidal Giant’— marveling at this uber-foliage plant’s extravagant shape and the way the leaves are held up at an angle, she says, “It just knocks me out.”
Heckler’s plant lust has driven her to create a garden of bold strokes in a spectacular seaside setting on Washington State’s Oyster Point. Her high-impact plantings and dahlia-laden potager are showy enough to compete visually with the property’s quintessential Northwest view of sunsets, snowy peaks, and expanses of blue sea.
A CERTAIN PLACE
Oyster Point sits at the eastern edge of the Olympic Peninsula, just a ferry trip and a drive across the Hood Canal Bridge away from Seattle. Heckler and her husband, Terry, bought the old white clapboard house 12 years ago, along with what has since grown to a six-acre property. They left a tiny urban garden on Seattle’s Capitol Hill, in search of a vegetable garden for Nancy and space and light for a painting studio for Terry, a Seattle advertising executive. “I wanted a farm, and my husband wanted waterfront,” recalls Heckler. Now Terry’s studio sits amidst an open field, its French doors opening out to a vegetable garden as large as their entire Seattle lot was.
A slight woman with frank brown eyes, Heckler seems undaunted by the size and scale of the garden she tends. “I break all the rules,” she says in her soft voice. “I jam stuff in that doesn’t belong together.” She reads, researches plants, photographs her garden regularly, and tends an extensive database documenting her plants and their placement. “I don’t like the look of labels,” she says, “though I do label the peonies and roses.” To justify her plant-collecting addiction and a taste that runs to the eclectic, Heckler refers to Victorian times, when gardeners felt free to mix everything together. “I’m a plant lover first; I buy it and find a place for it,” she says.
OPPOSITE: Framed by an Arbutus menziesii, this naturalistic planting of daylilies allows the view of the sea to take center stage. LEFT: Lush color at eye level and soft textures underfoot encourage visitors to linger in this comer of the garden.
FITTING IN, FILLING UP
More than a decade down the garden path, the peaked white roof of the house is barely visible through the explosion of garden. The approach to the house is subtle and farmlike, with a path curving past barn-red outbuildings and the old orchard. A woven arbor leads to a vast field of vegetables. Just around the corner, the old farmstead gives way to the ornamental garden, with feathery tree ferns and pots stuffed with striped Canna ‘Tropicanna’. The woodland offers a glimpse of banana trees and towering cardiocrinums growing beneath the carefully thinned Douglas firs. Heckler began by limbing up the big old conifers, leaving only the evergreen huckleberries, then placing new plants carefully among the trees, so they wouldn’t ooze out and ruin the overall effect of Northwest natural. The feat of tucking these oversized exotics beneath the firs seems akin to containing the brilliance of a Rousseau canvas in a Native American longhouse. Beneath the trees and alongside the front walkway, she grows Rosa chinensis ‘Mutabilis’, an old rose from China, which in mid-summer appears to be covered by a host of multicolored butterflies. Heckler mixes her favorite old roses, such as the shining Rosa ‘Golden Wings’, with felty butterfly bushes and the rare Cardiocrinum giganteum, towering to 15 feet and topped by fragrant lily bells. Within view of the house, Heckler feels she can use plants that look cultivated. At the edges of the property, where beach grasses and the peeling bark of madrones meld cultivated into naturalistic, she is careful to use a light hand. A single tall pot, planted thickly with Sedum Autumn Joy’, marks the pathway leading to the logs, stones, and the pristine beach.
Around the house, sheltered from the water, is a Mediterranean-type garden. A sunken stone patio holds an undersized green metal table and chairs, giving an elfin feel to this quiet respite from wind, sun, and water. A stand of perfectly matching ‘Black Beauty’ lilies flanks a magenta door. The low walls are made from broken bits of paving; the floor is flagged with stone. Herbs and euphorbia grow here in happy abandon, in contrast to the controlled borders in the woodland and the neat rows of the vegetable garden. Self-seeding is encouraged, and by late summer it is hard to pass through the little space for all the tufts growing up between the pavers.
A Garden of Note
Nancy Heckler keeps copious records of what she plants each year. Here, she shares her tips for keeping track.
Gardening is all about enjoying this year and planning the next. You always need to think ahead and try to retain as much as you can about what you learned from your experience. I’ve resolved myself to the fact that when springtime rolls around, and I’m all whooped up, I wouldn’t be able to recall all the helpful details from the past without my notes.
With the ease of digital photography, there is no excuse not to document the garden. They don’t have to be prize-winning photographs—they’re still the best notes you can take. I take pictures of areas and combinations I’m pleased with, and problem areas.
I keep a database that enables me to sort plants by location, genus, species, cultivar, and type of plant (shrub, conifer, etc). When I buy a plant, I put the receipt in a folder or make a note so I can add it to my database later. When a plant dies, I put the tag in the folder, or make a note, so I can either take it out of the database or buy another.
I do keep a lot of the tags for verifying the ID of the plants in the garden, but I bury them (since they are so ugly]. It is helpful to be able to root around and find the tag when you really need to know.
I make a map of the vegetable garden every year, so I know where to plant, but also so I can rotate the crop.
I make a list of all the seeds with planting notes (spacing, timing, etc.], so I can keep track if something was too early, too late or just right-I’ll know what to do next year.
BEYOND THE EDGES
The garden ends magnificently in 250 feet of waterfront—a prize landscape that Heckler has left pretty much alone. Its edges are obscured by a loose hedging of ceanothus, daylilies, kniphofia, madrona, and lilac, which doesn’t interfere with the view of Puget Sound and the jagged white peaks of the Olympic mountain range. Ornamental grasses and hot pink ‘Fascination’ dahlias are confined to pots lining the patio steps. Two red adirondack chairs face the passing whales and wheeling gulls.
It’s hard to believe that Heckler ever pauses to relax in the chairs— this year alone, she’s planted up 225 pots filled with tulips, cannas, and various annuals, especially her favorite dark-leafed dahlias. She’s especially excited about a combination of green, gold, and purple smoke-bush grouped in a single pot. The couple recently bought the field behind them as a buffer from development, and Heckler is busy figuring out how to integrate it into the garden without actually planting it. And her latest favorite, besides the martagon lilies, is a pumpkin tower of galvanized steel layered up like a cake and filled with 10 yards of soil. In summer, the tower drips with pumpkins, gourds, and squashes. In springtime, 1,000 deeply purple ‘Negrita’ tulips fill its rings. “I got the idea from those old strawberry towers,” explains Heckler, “and I thought, why couldn’t I just make it big?” H
Containers for All Places
Nancy Heckler takes her container plantings as seriously as the rest of her garden, as their rich textures and colorful combinations make clear. She uses them as bold stand-alone compositions to stop the eye, as accents where the mixed border desires added color, and as charming vignettes throughout the garden. Using a wide range of types of containers. Heckler employs perennials, annuals, shrubs, and vegetables with equal aplomb.
TOP LEFT: Dropped into the border, this combination of Ritinus communis ‘Carmencita’, Cuphea ignea, and a colorful pelargonium supply a burst of color among the permanent planting of Euphorbia characias John Tomlinson’, Artemisia spp., and Anemanthele lessoniana.
TOP RIGHT: In this case, less is more with a simple vignette made up of a few plants creating a great visual impact. Here, by the front entrance of the garden, Phormium ‘Rainbow Sunrise’ is a striking sentinel accented by the gold foliage of Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Frisia’.
BOTTOM RIGHT: A mixture of veggies and herbs planted in a wide-mouthed metal bowl are a playful addition to the garden. Heckler blends kale, Swiss chard, and red and green lettuces for rich leaf texture and shape, while dill and calendula lend their colorful flowers to the mix.
BOTTOM LEFT: Standing almost seven feet tall, this magnificent planting provides a focal point at a junction in the garden path, using plants with gorgeous foliage. The rich ebony-red shades of Colocasia escu/enta ‘Black Magic’ and Cotinus ‘Grace’ pick up the container’s earth tones, as Melianthus major ‘Antonow’s Blue’ and Azara microphylla ‘Variegata’ echo the cooler tones of the trees behind.