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Visiting a down-to-earth gardener

Garden Muse
by: Barbara Blossom Ashmun, Wispy Rays daylily sparkles after a rain shower in JoAnn Ferguson's  
garden.

The first thing I saw when I visited JoAnn Ferguson's garden was an entire hillside of daylilies (Hemerocallis hybrids). It was a rainy morning in early July and the flowers were just beginning to open. Thousands more buds waited to pop as soon as the weather would warm up.

When JoAnn moved into her Damascus home in 1984, the bank between the road and the front lawn was covered with overgrown evergreen junipers that were full of dead wood.

'Little by little they came out,' she said. She began by pruning them, but they still looked so bad that eventually she removed them.

Why replace evergreen shrubs with perennials? Daylilies had grown wild beside the road where JoAnn grew up, and that pleasant memory lingered. She'd also read that daylilies were good for erosion control, so they'd be helpful to maintain the steep slope.

At first she bought some bargain daylilies from a mail order nursery. Even now, JoAnn looks for good deals - early habits of frugality have stayed with her. As an active member of the Columbia River Daylily Club, the Willamette Valley Daylily Club and the American Hemerocallis Society, JoAnn finds reasonably priced plants at their events.

'I scarf up $5 and $10 daylilies off the sale table at national conventions,' she said. 'I'm still not running out to buy new introductions.'

(Daylilies new to the market can cost anywhere from $50 to $300!)

Although JoAnn loves all daylilies, the ones she appreciates most bloom up past the leaves, so that the flowers are well displayed. Also, daylilies that bloom when the weather is cold are especially welcome here in the Pacific Northwest when early summer can be cool and rainy.

'Buttercup,' with big yellow blossoms, had opened well in the chilly weather. Red 'Wispy Rays' was also opening, but the tips of the petals were curled up and green from the cold.

'They'll flatten out as the weather warms up,' JoAnn said. 'At shows, they'll put the hair dryer on them.'

Some varieties that do well in JoAnn's garden when it's warmer include "Fooled Me,' 'Red Volunteer,' 'Enchanting Esmeralda,' 'Swallow Tail Kite' and "Cobalt Dawn."

In front of each daylily was its name, printed on a plastic tag that hung from a metal loop-end nursery stake. This made it easy for visitors to make notes about their favorite daylilies as they stroll through the garden. Nearly 450 named varieties bloom each summer. JoAnn edits her collection from time to time, removing any plant that doesn't perform well. She pulled more than 200 daylilies that weren't satisfying enough.

'I don't have infinite room,' she said.

I immediately felt better about all the plants I've eliminated. This was a good reminder - it's not only acceptable to dig up plants that don't please us, it's necessary! For generations who grew up with rules like 'clean your plate' and 'waste not want not,' learning to yank mediocre plants can be liberating.

Beyond daylilies, JoAnn has begun collecting Japanese maples.

'I've got some overwhelming thing going on with them. It came over me last year when I saw some at the Hardy Plant Society sale,' she said. 'I kept running into them and they keep following me home.'

She grows them in lightweight fiberglass pots.

'They're easier to move around - I will still be able to move them in my feeble old age,' she joked.

What struck me most about JoAnn's garden was her relaxed style of gardening. She didn't fret over every detail or worry about losses. For example, after this challenging winter many of her hardy fuchsias didn't survive.

'Now I call them annuals and I don't get disappointed.'

When a tree was taken down, she used the logs to frame raised beds.

'It's part of my rustic look,' she said.

When overgrown rhododendrons became giant mounds, she limbed them up and began growing shade plants underneath them. When she discovered that hostas couldn't compete with tree roots, she learned to grow them in pots.

Throughout her garden, ceramic mushrooms sprout. They're quirky ornaments that JoAnn hand paints to turn them festive. She buys colorful plastic wastebaskets at Ikea, then drills holes in them, to convert them into containers.

'I love my garden, but I'm not fanatical about it. I do what I want for my own enjoyment,' JoAnn said.

I went home feeling much more relaxed, and resolved to adopt JoAnn's words as my new garden slogan.