Inspired by a trip to Thailand, Nani -Waddoups and Ron Wagner have made an exuberant tropical jungle around their Oregon home


photography by MARION BRENNER

Like Alice’s trip through the lookingglass, to pass through the portal into Nani Waddoups and Ron Wagner’s Portland, Oregon, garden is to be transported into another dimension. M Well before one enters, however, there are clear signs that this is a garden unlike any other. Most noticeable is a gigantic topiary bust sculpted from Escallonia that beckons visitors from a streetside border, a tangled V tuft of dreadlocks beribboned with pink blooms erupting from its green scalp. Wearing a bemused and knowing expression, the evergreen creature portends the surprises to come.

At every turn the half-acre garden reveals a new facet of its richly textured personality. While the established framework of trees and shrubs, including many broadleafed and needled evergreens planted by previous owners, firmly ground this garden in the Northwest tradition, it is a H synthesis of different cultural and landscape styles. Giant bananas, cannas, swathes of vibrantly hued coleus, Tetrapanax papyrifera ‘Steroidal Giant’, and a supporting cast of other tropicals imbue the garden with a lushness associated with the jungles of Southeast Asia. Topiary birds and animals are reminiscent of formal European gardens but were inspired by the couples travels in Thailand.


The garden had its beginnings during the first of the couple’s many trips to Thailand, which they visited after selling their first garden, Moot Point—their “beginners garden,” as Waddoups calls it. They returned to Portland with a passion for Thai gardens and a container full of wood trim, statuary, pots, lacquerware furniture, art, fabric, lanterns, spirit houses, and banners, all of which were used to furnish and ornament their new home and garden, which they christened Wat Pho.

The couple were particularly struck by northern Thailand’s mountainous terrain, diverse flora, and architectural vernacular. From a distance, the topography and picturesque views are reminiscent of the Pacific Northwest. Wooden trim similar to the fretwork and gingerbread found on Victorian structures embellishes the outlines of homes resembling European chalets. As specialty finish contractors and artists, Waddoups and Wagner were fascinated by the intricate stenciling they saw in the Thai temples. They have fused all of these elements into the framework and fabric of their garden.

Wagner also drew on his childhood memories for inspiration. Growing up on the Oregon coast he spent hours fashioning fantasy worlds in the woods. As he says, “I am still engaged in doing what I did as a kid—altering my environment to fulfill a fantasy, creating a world where I rule over a kingdom of plants.” Waddoups notes that he is a benevolent king— the one who prunes and shapes plants, devises new plant combinations, designs hardscape, and mows the lawn—while she is the maintenance supervisor, plumber, and animal caretaker.


They moved into the house on Christmas Eve, 1998, and celebrated the New Year by commencing construction on the first phase of the garden. The house sits at the base of a slope buttressed and divided by a series of preexisting walled terraces. The flat ground between the house and the slope was frequently inundated by runoff, so they installed a new drain field and surfaced the entire area with river rock. Wagner then spent that first winter building the 20-foot-long raised pool that spans this space. An array of aquatic plants fills the pool, and out of its center rises an old birdbath, also dripping with water plants, which focuses the eye on the hillside plantings behind.

Ron Wagner and Nani Waddoups (inset) draw on travel and imagination to create a unique garden of structures, spaces, and bold plants. Low box hedges and raised beds of sheared santolina border the bowling court (top left). Games there are watched by the Italian folklore-inspired carved face of a cobb oven (top right), the centerpiece of the greenhouse.

The series of beds and retaining walls that cover the slope appear as a single planting when viewed from below. Wagner complains that the plants in this area have run amok. Although the palette is restrained—primarily perennials, grasses, and annuals—the more aggressive plants have indeed taken over, crowding out their more delicate cousins. He muses that “this hillside might be past editing and ready to enter the renovation and remodeling stage.”

Just beyond the crest of the hill, a series of outdoor rooms, the look and feel of each emanating from a different cultural heritage, creates a surprising synergy. The unexpected formal bowling court imparts a touch of old England. Wagner and Waddoups enjoy intraducing friends to the low-tech sport of lawn bowling, which, they say, is made more exciting if played during the cocktail hour. At one end of the bowling court, a large cobb oven moldd into a monstrous face depicting the Gates of Hell (an idea borrowed from Italian folk-forms the centerpiece of the greenhouse. Above the greenhouse doorway Javanese heads ward off evil spirits. Thai-themed stencils, painted in gold, decorate the greenhouse as well as the screens and raised beds in the mini-farm area surrounding the gravel terrace.

A portion of the old driveway has been reincarnated as an entry pathway, which leads to a circular mosaic courtyard in front of the house. This elegantly appointed and deceptively simple space is the pivot point of the front garden. To the right of the clustered pots, artwork, and bench, an alluring doorway leads into the gravel garden, a shady, contemplative passage to the back garden. To the left, a tunnel of foliage opens onto a sunny lawn leading to the teahouse waterfall, a shiny, modernistic galvanized watercourse flanked by planting beds overflowing with cannas, giant taros, and sweet potato vines. The open framework of the teahouse creates an ambience that is both familiar and foreign.

Water is an essential element in the garden, which includes a raised pool and a waterfall that flows at the front of a tea house (top left and facing page). A diversity of hardscapes is present, too, in brick paths (top right) and the mosaic court (inset).


Wagner’s planting style is restrained but exuberant. Throughout the garden large leaves are set against backgrounds of tightly clipped foliage. Shades of green—from light-absorbing inky black green to shimmering gray green to pale lime green—form the backbone of the garden’s color palette. He is also drawn to the light-inducing qualities of chartreuse, placing it throughout the garden as a sunny accent. Clipped evergreen balls, animal topiaries and columns of sheared hornbeams speak to his skills as a sculptor. The shapes also establish a sense of rhythm and repetition that grounds the plantings and helps link the diverse cultural elements in the garden.

Containers also play a role in setting the tone and establishing a cadence for the journey through Wat Pho. They tease and tantalize as they direct traffic. And instead of using many small containers, Waddoups and Wagner have staged large (often even oversized) pots around the garden, some filled with large-leaved plants, others containing pieces of sculpture, still others standing alone. These large containers both stop the eye and nicely upset the sense of scale, keeping the garden’s Alice in Wonderland feeling alive. No matter what their size, all the containers at Wat Pho play various, sometimes multiple, roles. An empty vessel on the lawn is the visual terminus of the tea house waterfall when viewed from above. Seen from the mosaic court, that same pot is the impetus for an excursion across the lawn, which will lead to the discovery of the waterfall around the corner. Containers flanking the back deck speak to the pond across the path. In a pot next to the gate leading into the gravel garden, bamboo poles guide vines planted in the ground ever higher.

Wat Pho is a garden of many delights, a place where elements from around the world—plants, structures, and artwork—combine to create a rare result: a garden that is as complex and exotic as it is coherent and comfortable. H

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