With their billowing mounds of Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’, the curved stairs on the north side of the garden have become an icon of modern design.

In Portland, Oregon, a visionary garden epitomizes the Northwest’s emerging style

WALKING THROUGH the Portland, Oregon, garden of Virginia and Arnie Israelit, it’s hard to imagine that this timeless creation was an afterthought. Encircling the house like a gentle cocoon are a series of chlorophyll-laden garden rooms, each with a different motif and the palette of a sophisticated and knowledgeable plantswoman. Elegant staircases artfully celebrate the changes in elevation that are the garden’s hallmark, linking the intimate and inwardly focused spaces with commanding views of Mount Hood to the east. Multiple layers of plants reach up into the cathedral-like canopy of Douglas firs and bigleaf maples. Small terraces and sitting nooks abound, issuing invitations to rest and absorb the varying views and vistas. The whisper of cascading water permeates the garden, emanating from a dramatic waterfall near the front entry and a stone water wall behind the house.

The house, built in 1979 and situated in the middle of a steep, one-acre lot, was laid out to capture unimpaired views of Mount Hood. After it was completed, Arnie and Virginia, both nongardeners at the time, opted for the conventional Northwest plant matrix of rhododendrons, azaleas, maples, and dogwoods as the mainstays of their landscape. It was 10 years before fate intervened, igniting Virginia’s all-consuming passion for plants and the people who love them.

Below: A hand-crafted chair adds a touch of whimsy (left). Duckweed transforms the pond into an abstract shape in brilliant chartreuse (center). Drumstick alliums, Knautia macedonica, and Linaria purpurea provide pleasing contrasts in shape (right).


1. Viewing terrace

2. Upper waterfall

3. Lower waterfall & pond

4. Palm area & pseudo-tropical

5. Gravel alcove

6. Lower terrace

7. Circle lawn

8. Terrace

9. Curved stairs & lawn terracer

10. Terrace

11. Lower woodland

12. Upper woodland

13. Rockery


It all began in the summer of 1989, when Virginia was intrigued by the picture of a pergola that appeared in the Sunday home and garden supplement of the local newspaper. After cutting it out, she remarked to a friend that she was interested in meeting the designer. Mutual friends who introduced Virginia to garden designer Michael Schultz on Labor Day weekend had no inkling that the ensuing collaboration would result in the creation of a visionary garden that exemplifies developing Northwest regional style.

In the spring of 1990, Virginia called Michael to talk about how to go about developing a garden space for old roses and flowers that she could cut and arrange for the house. “At our initial meeting,” Virginia confesses, “I had to ask Michael to define ‘perennial’; that’s how little I knew about gardening.” Using a hose, they laid out the shape of the beds-to-come on the lawn near the driveway, not knowing that Arnie might object to their plan to lessen the size of his greensward. Like many American men, Arnie was in the throes of a love affair with his lawn. He came home from work and moved the hose back, which prompted Virginia to go back outside and move it forward again. This farcical tug of war continued for several days until Virginia and Michael decided to start digging, thus presenting Arnie with a fait accompli.

The plant list that Michael prepared for that initial perennial garden laid the groundwork for Virginia’s education as a gardener. He encouraged her to start buying books so that she could research the plants that he was suggesting, join the Hardy Plant Society of Oregon, attend lectures, go on garden tours, and visit local nurseries. The mentor and tutor rapidly became a friend, stopping by for dinner and the opportunity to talk plants with an apt and enthusiastic pupil.


Although the site of that original perennial border was recently renovated, the floral sensibility of the old garden remains intact. During April and May, masses of pink and white tulips cavort with the shimmering, inky-black, newly emerging foliage of Anthriscus sylvestris ‘Ravenswing’, followed by a progression of alliums that begin blooming in May and continue into early summer. The star-laden amethyst spheres of Allium cristophii and the 12-inch violet-purple heads of A. schubertii, reminiscent of miniature satellites, float among the dense lime-green bracts of Euphorbia ‘Portuguese Velvet’. In early July, the burgundy-colored, egg-shaped flowers of hundreds of Allium sphaerocephalon sparkle like rubies dancing on the wind. Later in the month the dazzling white, outfacing blooms of ‘Casa Blanca’ lilies begin to open, releasing their rich, heady fragrance on the evening air.


When viewed from the kitchen and family room windows above, the round lawn and surrounding beds are the cynosure of every eye. Michael designed this strong circular element as the epicenter of the garden. The lawn provides a welcome respite from the brilliance of the surrounding bright yellow and chartreuse foliage chosen by Virginia to

Talking about Design

PLANTS with gleaming chartreuse foliage placed at different levels along either side of the staircase create a sense of repetition and rhythm that leads the eye up the hillside. Nestled under the overhanging branches of Rhododendron ‘Virginia Richards’, the luminous, finely textured blades of Carex elata ‘Aurea’ contrast with the puckered blue-and-yellow variegated leaves of Hosta ‘Great Expectations’, while the soft weeping leaves of Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’ anchor the other side of the stairs. Spilling onto the stone, Hedera helix ‘Virginia’s Form’ delineates the horizontal plane as the upright form of Origanum vulgare ‘Aureum’ announces the next set of stairs.

mitigate the effects of dark, rainy winter days. Five Cupressus sempervirens ‘Swane’s Golden’, placed at the outer edge of the bed echo and reinforce the lawn’s spherical shape. A gold-toned cultivar of Spanish fir, Abies pinsapo ‘Aurea’, shines like a beacon amid the burnished copper blades of Carex testacea and the golden-green variegated leaves of Salvia officinalis ‘Icterina’. Throughout the summer, the upright bronze swords and apricot flowers of Crocosmia xcrocosmiiflora ‘Solfatare’ complement Hemerocallis ‘Flasher’, a large-flowered, glowing orange daylily, and the butterscotch-colored spikes of Verbascum ‘Helen Johnson’.

Michael transformed the steep slope on the north side of the house by creating three small terraced amphitheaters of lawn connected by a series of wide, curved stairs. The gradual ascent up the hillside is punctuated by masses of rhododendrons, a froth of pink and white astilbes, banks of shimmering silver-gray hostas, and the wine-tinted stems and frosted pewter fronds of Japanese painted fern, Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’. The bright yellow foliage of Choisya ternata ‘Sundance’ glows among the somber, nonreflective leaves of Rhododendron ‘Virginia Richards’ and Drimys lanceolata. A chartreuse skirt of variegated Hakone grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’) softens the stiff, upright foliage of Iris pseudacorus and leads the eye up the hillside. A small terrace at the top of the slope offers a view back down the path, as well as a vantage point for contemplating the panoramic vista of mountains and the Willamette River. As you descend the path, the view gradually disappears and the garden once again becomes the primary focus.

In the garden’s early days, Arnie would ask Michael and Virginia if the project would ever be finished. He now accepts the fact that as long as Virginia is collecting new plants, the garden will continue to evolve. It also has a history, for a walk through the garden evokes memories of the people and plants that have made it unique. As Virginia puts it, “for me, the garden is all about friends … and the love of plants that we share.”

Top: A grassy seating area between the grand staircase and the circle lawn. The rusty sphere is typical of the garden’s restrained yet imaginative use of ornament. Above: Arnie and Virginia Israelit.

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