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A city garden worth savoring

Garden Muse

Once in a while I visit a garden that's so satisfying I wish I could linger there for hours. I felt that way about Ron Wright's garden in Seattle.

One of dozens of gardens open for a recent study weekend, his was the very last one I saw on my way home. After three days of slide shows and visits to gardens and nurseries, I was dead tired. But one glimpse of his garden and I felt renewed.

What was it about this small city garden that made it stand out? It flowed seamlessly - the hardscape, the plants, the ornaments all fit together perfectly. There was nothing extraneous. It was like a perfectly edited book, where every word had its purpose; like a well-hewn sculpture, where just enough rock was removed to expose the form hiding within.

I talked to Ron briefly that day, but he was swamped with guests. I learned that he'd gardened steadily at this site for 28 years. Also that he didn't have e-mail. So I called him up later that week to learn more about his process.

'It was trial and error,' he said. 'I had no particular vision.'

'Stuff accumulates'

This sounded familiar. Some of the best gardens I've ever seen start without any plan. Instead, they grow organically from the gardener's particular passions, like Ron's love for antiquing.

'I collect stuff,' he said. 'I never had a plan for the pieces. Stuff accumulates, then I put it here and there.'

What he doesn't mention is his keen eye for placing objects in just the right spot, as riveting focal points. A bird bath standing where paths intersect and open into a circle, not only makes you pause to admire its beauty, but lures you further into the back yard.

The way Ron created the bird bath was clever. He found the turquoise top on its own - the original base was broken - and bought a separate base. Leaning against the birdbath was a gracefully shaped turquoise vessel with two handles, that looked ancient.

'I collect early California pottery by Bauer - turquoise, yellow and blue,' Ron said. This well-loved vessel was used indoors, but when it broke, out it went into the garden to join the turquoise-topped birdbath. They looked like they were made for each other, but it was Ron's imagination that brought them together.

It was the same with an architectural feature beautifying the steep hillside at the back of the garden. It resembled a lighthouse, but it was actually another of Ron's hybrids.

'The base is a chimney from England that I bought from an antique importer, before they became really popular and expensive,' he said. 'The top is an actual Spanish-style chimney top from California.'

Many other pots, sculptures and artifacts were tucked here and there into niches just right for them. Art from the Northwest mingled with Vietnamese pots and a stone pagoda from Korea. A small stone Buddha head, accompanying a bonsai pine tree, was perched on a stone table. Details like these made the garden feel timeless.

A mindful process

Only much later did I realize that there were hardly any flowers in Ron's garden.

'I buy what I like,' he said. 'I go for leaf shapes, colors and textures.' The predominance of green made the garden soothing. Occasional accents of burgundy foliage from dwarf heavenly bamboo (Nandina) and Japanese maples enriched the tapestry. Golden Japanese forest grass, golden sedge, golden- and white-variegated hostas brightened up the shade, along with a few silver-leaved plants. Feathery white plumes, resembling astilbe, topping the bold, embossed leaves of Rodgersia, were among the few flowers in a sea of serene green.

It was hard to imagine how Ron had turned a steep hillside into a lush garden.

'It took years for things to get established,' he said. 'I filled the crevices with plants and kept them moist.'

Everything Ron said pointed to a slow, mindful process. He began making paths by setting Arizona flagstone stepping stones on a bed of sand. In some places he laid the stone right into the dirt. He used Pennsylvania bluestone for the front walk. Now, everything looks as if it's been there forever, a testament to Ron's talent for composition.

Like any garden, change is constant.

'Things die here and there; I replace them with something else,' he said. 'It's been a work in progress.'

Ron's garden, imbued with his unique character, was a great reminder for us not to hurry, and to stay in touch with what we love.


Coming events

Cracked Pots' 2010 Garden Art Show, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., July 20 and 21, McMenamins Edgefield, 2126 S.W. Halsey St., Troutdale. More than 90 artists sell art made from reused and recycled materials. Admission free. For more information, contact www.CrackedPots.org .