Some days I wonder if I shouldn't take up painting. So much of gardening is out of my control - rain, wind, slugs, black spot, wilt - that sometimes I long for a different passion. Then Hall's honeysuckle opens its little perfume flasks, the calla lilies unfurl perfect white chalices, and I'm in love all over again.
But in early June, unrelenting rain left puddles all over my garden. When I sank into a newly planted bed, leaving ugly footprints, it was time to escape!
The next day I hit the road, together with my neighbor Megs, to Dancing Oaks Nursery, near Monmouth. A miracle occurred that morning - the sun made its first appearance in weeks.
The route to Dancing Oaks began with a drive down Interstate 5 to the outskirts of Salem, then threaded through scenic country roads where irises bloomed, green fields sprouted new crops, and hawks circled lazily overhead.
The last stretch, a narrow gravel road, slowed us down. Sweeps of giant feather grass (Stipa gigantea) shimmered in the sunlight, with companion red hot pokers for excitement. These drought-tolerant meadow plants made an enticing introduction to the nursery.
It was hard to decide which way to go first. We'd signed up for a tour with Dancing Oaks owner Fred Weisensee, but arrived early enough to roam on our own. Greenhouses filled with plants beckoned, along with mixed borders, rock gardens, water features, a stately pavilion.
Learning never stops
Gravel paths make it easy to stroll through Dancing Oaks, even in the wettest weather. I headed toward the borders where a red-flowering buckeye (Aesculus x pavia ) bloomed like a beacon.
'I love it, but I have no more room for trees!' I said to Megs. But inside a little voice was begging for it. Do I have to confess that I bought one? I'll grow it in a large container, at least for a while.
Soon it was time for the tour. Fred gave a brief history of the nursery, then asked a question every gardener needs to consider.
'Can you tolerate some death?' he asked. This winter, some of his cherished eucalyptus died.
'But I can replace them,' he said. Some plants you just can't live without, even if it means planting them, again and again.
Another piece of wisdom should be printed as a bumper sticker, or calligraphed, then framed for the garden gate.
'Gardening is a learning process, forever,' Fred said. He shared some tips with us as we rambled. The original site of Dancing Oaks was solid clay, the familiar glop that most of us start with - clay that soaks up water in the winter and bakes like pottery in the summer.
In one area, he took advantage of the conditions to plant native grasses and Oregon sunshine (Eriophyllum lanatum), a gray-leaved sprawler with bright yellow daisies. Where he wanted to grow plants that needed better drainage, he added coarse grit to the soil, or bermed up the beds. Masses of foxtail lilies (Eremurus), with elegant spikes of yellow flowers, grew happily along berms of well-drained soil. A river of purple flowering onions (Allium giganteum) bloomed along a border where little summer water would fall.
Fred discovered that 'Briggs Moonlight' daphne really likes hot sun, even though its pale yellow foliage might mislead you into placing it in shade. He learned that agaves need both elevation and soil incorporating coarse grit in order to thrive. Also, false indigo (Baptisia australis) performs best in lean soil. In overly rich garden soil it grows so quickly it collapses.
A long pergola adorned with vines was flanked by an assortment of mock oranges (Philadelphus) wafting delicious scent. On a hot summer day, that would be a shady place to linger. In tall containers, and in the beds, 'Sparkling Burgundy' pineapple lilies (Eucomis) sent up gorgeous maroon spears - later in summer and autumn, flowering spikes will be favorite bee haunts.
My last part of the visit was plant shopping. Dancing Oaks always has varieties I've never seen before that I must take home. Besides the red buckeye, I couldn't resist 'Jade Butterflies' ginkgo, which will will go in a large pot. Then there was Persicaria amplexicaulis 'Taurus,' and also Sanguisorba hakusanensis - perennials that will love my wet soil. Once I put these in a box, there was too much empty space left, so I found a few more plants to balance everything out.
Be sure to take time to visit Dancing Oaks (www.DancingOaks.com). There's so much to see and learn at any season.
• Seeding Our Future Garden Tour, includes eight private gardens (benefiting the Foundation for Tigard Tualatin Schools), 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday, June 26. For tickets $20, visit www.Foundation4SmartKids.org, or Al's Garden Center, Dennis' Seven Dees, or call 503-421-4024.
• Garden Art Show, noon to 8 p.m., June 25; 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., June 26, at Fowler Middle School, 10865 S.W. Walnut St., Tigard. More than 40 Northwest artists, music, and garden seminars. Admission free. For more information, visit www.Foundation4SmartKids.org or call 503-421-4024.