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Open garden brings worries, rewards

Garden Muse

A famous actor once confessed that no matter how often he performed, he became anxious before going on stage.

I find this comforting, because no matter how many times I open my garden to visitors, the morning of the event I'm a wreck.

What am I forgetting? Is the side path full of horsetail? Has a rose bush collapsed onto the lawn? Did 'Petite Faucon' clematis, proving to be more like an Amazon, climb from its modest trellis onto the viburnum behind it?

The weather was the biggest question mark. Would it ever stop raining or would the drizzle continue until the landscape became a lake? I pictured the wet grass paths turning into muddy trails as hundreds of feet slogged through.

Two days before the open garden, I weeded again, deadheaded spent columbines, and planted the last dahlias that were sprouting in the greenhouse. I picked up plastic pots standing here and there as weed receptacles, not a pretty sight. I wiped down ceramic containers, mud-splattered after weeks of rain. I scrubbed slime off the wooden table and opened the big garden umbrella to keep it dry.

The day before the open garden, helpers mowed and edged the lawn. We all wore hooded rain gear as we worked in the steady downpour. Smiling at each other in passing, we put the finishing touches on the garden - it looked so much better with crisp edges defining the beds.

The night before I slept fitfully. Every hour or so, I woke up and stared into the darkness, watching the digital clock mark the minutes. At 7 a.m. I bypassed my morning tea and asked Tom to fix me a cup of his fully leaded coffee. Today I'd need a big jolt to prepare for a steady flow of visitors. I would welcome friends and neighbors I've known for years, and newcomers who might become friends - people of all ages and all levels of gardening skill.

Waterproof boots

They came from Portland, Gresham, McMinnville, Salem, Hillsboro, Albany and Eugene. Some brought gifts of plants, seeds, even Italian candy. Moments after I sent a woman home with a little pot of Phlomis from my garden, a friend arrived with a new variety of ornamental grass. Gardeners love to share.

What I enjoy most about open gardens is how guests with fresh eyes see the garden.

'What's that tree with the lacy leaves?' was the question asked most often. It was the imperial cutleaf alder (Alnus glutinosa 'Imperialis') which had come into its own. Delicately incised leaves cover the branches of this narrow deciduous tree, growing against the backdrop of the neighbor's white house. I usually take it for granted, but the rapt attention of visitors made me appreciate it more fully.

The dark-leaved ninebarks also got lots of attention. 'Coppertina,' 'Diablo,' 'Center Glow' and 'Penny Lane,' with leaves the color of bittersweet and milk chocolate, stood out amid the greenery. Freshly opened pink flowers studding their sultry branches made them especially riveting.

Near the house, visitors flocked to Marta Farris's metal garden art. She transforms old filing cabinets and bicycle rims into vibrant flower wreaths. An old aluminum window screen, scrunched and painted red, had become a dancer's skirt. She's best know for brightly painted color curls made of recycled barrel rings. They look like something from a fanciful carnival, and turned the garden festive.

Many gardeners who were veterans at visiting in the rain wore waterproof boots. One pair of tall white vinyl boots was decorated with fish. Two women wore sandals, explaining that they'd rather wash their muddy feet later, instead of ruining better shoes. A woman dressed entirely in white, strode bravely into the garden with white tennis shoes. I didn't see how they held up, but imagined them brown on the other end. People walked like robots through the soggiest places, careful to avoid slipping.

Eventually, parts of the lawn had turned to mud. My heart sank a little, but from past experience I knew it would green up in two weeks. Everyone was thoughtful, expressing sympathy for the wet weather, for the ruined grass. By the end of the day I was filled up with conversation, with questions, with compliments. I was ready for some quiet time to absorb it all, to reflect on the experience. When the last visitor left, I changed back into my old jeans, headed for a bed with weeds, and began to garden.


Coming events

• Rare Plant Research Tropical Plant Sale and Open Garden, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., June 19, 11900 S. Criteser Road, Oregon City 97045. Villa Catalana, stone house modeled after 12th Century Spanish church, is backdrop for the exotic garden. Event free. For complete information, visit www.RarePlantResearch.com .