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Step into the private preserve of a public figure

'I have this thing for filling holes. As soon as there's a bare space, I rush out and fill it.' Elizabeth Furse is talking about her gardening style, but it's also an apt metaphor for her career.

For six years, Furse filled a big hole in Congress, too. In 1992, she was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and served three terms in the capital before coming home to her garden.

Furse's garden is part of who she is, and this month you get a chance to see the private side of this formerly very public woman. Her cottage garden is one of several open to the public in the next three months.

The 'open days' garden tours in the Portland area benefit the Garden Conservancy, a national nonprofit group raising money to save beautiful old gardens from the bulldozer.

What's at stake? Well, if the Garden Conservancy had been around in 1968, Portland might still be showing off the Lambert Gardens. At that time, 80-year-old Andrew Lambert's private garden at Southeast 28th Avenue and Steele Street got 50,000 visitors a year and by all accounts rivaled the Butchart Gardens in Victoria, B.C.

Then, in 1969, it was gone. Just like that. Developers paved paradise and put up a parking lot and some apartments.

I'd like to think that today, some of us would fight to keep a spectacular 37-acre private garden like that alive, and the Garden Conservancy would be the place to turn for help. That's what persuaded Furse to let us into her world this month.

'I think it's a great nonprofit organization, and it's a great idea to save gardens that people aren't able to care for anymore,' she says.

Furse will open her garden in the Helvetia area, north of Hillsboro, on May 31. 'I think every gardener longs to share their garden,' she says. 'But I don't want to share it all the time.'

No reservations are necessary; just bring $5 to get in the garden gate. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

'You don't have to be a devoted gardener to enjoy open days,' says Laura Mumaw Palmer, director of the Garden Conservancy's fund-raiser. 'Open days are a beautiful and relaxing way to spend a few hours outdoors while É supporting garden preservation in America.'

There are other gardens to visit. If you planned it right, you could travel from Washington to California and be invited inside 100 private gardens you'd never see any other way.

A book, 'The Garden Conservancy's Open Days Directory: The Guide to Visiting America's Best Private Gardens,' gives detailed directions and descriptions of every garden on this year's tours. The directory costs $5, which includes a free admission coupon, and is available at Powell's City of Books, Portland Nursery and Max & Hildy's Garden Store in Hillsboro.

I've always wanted to see Furse in her garden, just 13 miles west of Portland. So many people say they don't have time for gardening, yet here is a woman who spent years on high-powered committees and then came home to putter like the rest of us.

To get to Furse's garden, take U.S. Highway 26 west to Helvetia Road (Exit 61). Turn right, and drive about three miles (you go the past Helvetia Tavern). Then turn right on Bishop Road, which is a dirt road. Go uphill about 1/4 mile to Yungen Road, a right turn only. Furse's place is at the end of the dead end.

And say hello to Maya, the terrier, on your way in.

This week's to-do list:

• After they bloom, cut back flower stems of iris, nepeta and columbine to clean up the garden.

• Pinching new growth from aster, bee balm and phlox will make bushier, more compact plants.

• Last call for getting dahlia tubers in the ground.

Garden gossip:

• 1000 Friends of Oregon holds its big annual plant sale on Saturday, May 17, and Sunday, May 18. Even if you don't need any plants, it's a great chance to see one of the loveliest private gardens in Portland, called Lonesomeville, at Southeast 52nd Avenue and Long Street.

• This month's national issue of Garden Design has a wonderful article on border roses that lists an Oregon company, Heirloom Garden Roses of St. Paul, as one of the top sources for French Meidiland (say May-de-land) roses, a series of roses that work for 'really tough sites.'

'Anne Jaeger's Gardening Tips' airs at 9:56 a.m. every Saturday and Sunday on KGW (8). Jaeger's Web site is www.gardengal.tv.