Easy does it: A low-maintenance garden can be satisfying

Garden Muse

Val Easton is a brave gardener. Five years ago she surrendered her quarter-acre garden in Seattle, complete with views and rockeries, and moved to a small house with a tiny L-shaped garden on Whidbey Island.

Years of intensive gardening on a hillside had worn her out, and she wanted more time for leisure. Her husband was also dying to stop laboring in the garden on the weekends in favor of bike riding and kayaking.

Their new site was flat, and without any personality, so it was easy for Easton to remove the lawn and a few tired trees and start over with a blank slate. She wanted a place that was easier to care for, yet still aesthetically satisfying, a garden to live in and enjoy.

As a garden columnist for the Seattle Times, and author of garden books, she'd interviewed many gardeners, and had seen and almost unconsciously absorbed many styles. Johanna Nitzke Marquis' garden, profiled in Easton's early book, Artists in Their Gardens, especially impressed her for the way the collage-construction artist mixed ornamentals and edibles. She also admired David Pfeiffer's kitchen garden, which she featured in her recent book, The New Low-Maintenance Garden.

'It's more formal and higher-end, but the feeling is similar,' Easton says.

With all these garden images in her memory bank, many belonging to big and expensive places, she formulated her own desires and articulated what would satisfy her at this stage of her life.

'I didn't want to spend a huge amount of money. I wanted something different-sturdy, and inexpensive, yet with materials that would wear well. It was more about the plants starring,' Easton says.

She hired her friend, designer Richard Hartlage, to help map out the new small garden. A plant lover at heart, and fearful of cluttering up the site, Easton knew she needed to balance her passion for flowers and edibles with an eye for the overall design.

'I wanted someone to make sure I didn't make the same mistakes. He (Hartlage) is so good with geometry. I needed to build topography and have a lot of open space,' she explains.

Hartlage sketched out a strong framework, with a diamond-shaped terrace and rectangular raised beds that run at an angle. Even thought the site is small, he allowed room for a central terrace where a welcoming table with umbrella has become a favorite destination.

'We eat meals out there and sit out there all day. People stop in, and I take my laptop there and work. I walk down steps to get there and feel submerged in the garden,' Easton says.

Her daughter contributed her skills as an architect, offsetting the rectangular raised beds with round galvanized steel feed troughs. Once drilled with drainage holes, the troughs serve as inexpensive raised beds for growing pumpkins, flowers and fruit. Hartlage's strong rectangles and the circular troughs make a striking juxtaposition of shapes.

Writing The New Low-Maintenance Garden seems like a natural extension of Easton's experience of making such a garden for herself in midlife. So many twenty-first century gardeners, young and older, want to enjoy their gardens without being enslaved. The book gives principles for design, planting guidelines, and maintenance strategies. Smart selections of ornamentals and edibles are noted. For readers who like to skim, essential tips are highlighted with red bullets.

Plenty of photographs show shining examples of contemporary gardens with simplified plant palettes and clean designs. Many are strong on hardscape. As Easton reminds us, 'More hardscape and geometry make it all look better, and you can get away with more.'

Even though she's made herself a thoroughly modern garden, Easton loves to read the classics. Her favorite writers include Graham Stuart Thomas, especially The Garden Through the Year, as well as Christopher Lloyd, Beth Chatto and Henry Mitchell. She credits her mother, a great gardener, for getting her started.

'When I was a kid, my sister and I had our own little gardens. I remember that more than friends,' she says.

Her new book is a gift for those of us who want to keep on gardening without wearing ourselves out. We might not be able to grow every plant in the world as we once longed to do, but Easton shows us how to garden reasonably without feeling overwhelmed. The New Low-Maintenance Garden is a long overdue cry for gardening sanity, with guidelines for restoring balance to our lives.

You can reach Barbara at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Coming Events

•The Simplified Garden, lecture and slide show by Val Easton, Seattle plant doyenne and author of the weekly "Plant Life" column for the Pacific Northwest Magazine of the Seattle Times. Learn to create a simplified but multi-layered and functional garden which is easy to live with and live in. Program begins at 10 a.m. (Doors open at 9 a.m. for plant, book and seed sales), Saturday Jan. 23, Kaul Auditorium, Reed College, 3203 S.E. Woodstock Blvd., Portland 97202. $15 for HPSO members, $20 nonmembers.

To register and for complete information contact www.hardyplantsociety.org , or call 503-224-5718.