The Garden and the Trees

Facing the challenges of a wooded lot, two gardeners create a space that celebrates its setting

by LUCY HARDIMAN photography by MARION BRENNER

IT IS NEARLY IMPOSSIBLE TO PICTURE a tangled, overgrown mess in place of Jerry Grossnickle and Bruce Wakefield’s garden. But that’s what was here when the men first saw their property. It is hard to understand how they could envision a garden in place of that chaos. But they did. With hard work and creativity, they have transformed a challenging piece of uncultivated land into their breathtaking Old Germantown Gardens.

When the men first arrived at the Portland, Oregon, property in the winter of 1988, they encountered an old logging road that followed the path of an intermittent stream and ended in a swamp. Water burbled out of the many springs dotting the hillside. An impenetrable tangle smothered the ground. The survey map at the county courthouse indicated only one spot on the five-acre parcel where it was feasible to build a house. Despite the daunting challenges ahead, Jerry and Bruce felt that this plot, with its variations in terrain, light, and soil, had the potential to be a gardeners’ paradise.

Old Germantown Gardens

So, as Bruce laughingly recounts, they “rolled the dice and made an offer on the property.” Then they bought a pair of chain saws and embarked on a two-year endeavor of clearing the land, observing prevailing conditions, and planning the garden.

A PLACE TO GARDEN

Jerry and Bruce are equal garden partners. In fact, they are a formidable team: Jerry brings an expertise in tools and machinery, and Bruce brings the passion for plants. It was Bruce’s burgeoning plant collection that hastened the men’s transition from apartment life to home ownership. After reading the seminal two-volume Plants That Merit Attention (Janet Meakin Poor, ed.; Timber Press, 1985), Bruce began buying rare and unusual trees and large shrubs, anticipating the day when they would have a space to garden. Soon the collection threatened to take over the apartment’s small deck. Those plants were the first to be incorporated into Old Germantown Gardens, and they now form the bones and understory layer that connects the garden to the surrounding woodland.

Bruce has been able to put his plant enthusiasm to good use, creating dynamic tapestries of flower, foliage, bark, and berry. Meanwhile, Jerry constructed parallel pathways that traverse the sloping hillside and reveal the garden’s levels and layers. Four-foot-wide walkways (some of which chart the location of old deer trails) provide sure footing and a gradual, circuitous transition from the organized sunny upper garden to the more informal shady understory plantings at the base of the hillside. Hidden beneath the gravel walkways, a network of drain lines collects and directs water away from lawn, beds, and borders. Jerry also built a narrow track that travels the perimeter of the property, at the edge of the untrammeled woods. This helps visitors appreciate the dichotomy between the built garden and its surroundings.

MICROCLIMATIC DESIGN

Distinctly different microclimates on either side of the house dictated the gardens’ design. The steeper east-facing slope is wet and cold. Frost sinks and flows like a river hugging the terrain on its way down the incline. Years of amending the water-retentive, nutrient-rich clay soil with organic matter has resulted in steroidal perennials and shrubs in the English-style mixed borders that frame the lawn. Delphiniums mix with daylilies and peonies to herald the onset of summer. David Austin English roses chime in with luscious bloom and heady fragrance. By early autumn, towering grasses flaunt their shimmering inflorescences against the freely flowering spires of salvias, attended by the high velocity antics of Anna hummingbirds.

The west side of the garden is warmer, shielded from prevailing winds by the house. Bruce grows tropical and tender plants in this sheltered nook. The concrete terrace, constructed in 2002, acts as a heat sink, absorbing warmth from the sun’s rays. A circular pool is the water source for a rill that traverses the terrace and cascades into a rock-lined pond on the lower level.

Below the retaining wall that supports the terrace, a scree garden tumbles down the hill. Stone stairs and a gravel walkway thread the way through the boulder-strewn slope. The ubiquitous yellow daisies of Anthemis tinctoria ‘Sauce Hollandaise’ hover over mats of blue and purple species penstemons in full flower. A stream of agaves pierces the curvaceous outlines of sedums and dwarf conifers, including the upright Juniperus communis ‘Compressa’, a trio of which directs the eye back up the hill to the tree line.

DEFINED BY COLLECTIONS

Gardening on this parcel of land has afforded Bruce the chance to indulge his obsession with plants. Collections define the garden. Rhododendrons are represented by 40 species and cultivars, while an equal number of roses scramble up oversized arbors and arches. Viburnums flower in succession from winter through summer, and hundreds of hellebore seedlings carpet the terrace beds in the lower woodland.

Deciduous trees are the gardens chameleons, assuming new personalities with each season. Two dozen Japanese maple varieties change from shades of green and dusky purple to ignite the garden in burnished hues of gold, orange, and red in the fall. Cornelian cherry dogwood (Cornus mas), kousa dogwood (C. kousa), and pagoda dogwood (C. alternifolia) grace the understory. The primitive, chalice-shaped flowers of 20 different Magnolia cultivars, both evergreen and deciduous, scent the garden in the spring and extend its season with their large red and orange seed cones in autumn.

Bruce surmises that “if the garden has a signature plant it is conifers.” Planted throughout the property, over 100 different specimens create a cadence and continuity that link all of the disparate areas together. As they age they help connect the garden to the wilderness that surrounds it. The presence of dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides), a deciduous conifer that populated North America 15 million years ago, speaks to managing endangered species. The Chinese fir (Cunninghamia lanceolata ‘Glauca’), with its blue-tinted needles arranged in spirals around its branches, adds a global perspective.

Old Germantown Gardens reflects the tastes and personalities of the two men who carved it out of the forest. The tension between the cultivated garden and the wildness that surrounds it is palpable but comfortable. Plant collections are integrated into beds and borders, rather than segregated. Bruce and Jerry’s vision is fully realized in this garden that exemplifies both regionalism and sense of personal place. H

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