Garden Muse

I've known garden designer Jane Coombs for many years, and had been to her beautiful Eastmoreland garden several times before. But I never really knew its history until a recent visit in late August.

That's when I learned that Jane and her husband, Peter Dowse, took seven years to build the garden, starting 12 years ago.

'First we took everything out except for a laurel hedge, an apple tree, a sequoia and a rhododendron,' Jane said. 'Peter did a lot of the excavating - he dug irrigation trenches and jackhammered out concrete.'

Originally, the main entrance to the home and garden, situated on a corner lot, was on heavily trafficked Southeast Bybee Boulevard.

'We had a wall built on Rural Street and redirected the entry there,' she explained. Now, this beautiful stone wall frames the south-facing front garden.

'I changed the bed three of four times. It turned out to be shady - I thought it was hotter,' she said. The Mediterranean plants she first installed declined because of rich soil and too much shade. Now more shade tolerant plants grow happily there - Mexican orange (Choisya), golden Japanese forest grass and hemlock. She replaced an ornamental grass that was too big for the area with the more compact 'Yaku Jima' dwarf maiden grass (Miscanthus).

Her first priority was a hardscape that would flow through the garden in a useful and interesting way. Now, stone stairs and pathways lend a feeling of permanence and age to the garden. The path curls around the side yard, allowing the garden to unfold slowly and mysteriously. As you follow the curve, you can see just a small portion of the garden at one time. The view ahead is hidden, so that the journey is a gradual exploration.

As we strolled through on a sunny afternoon, the path took us alongside the front porch, painted gray-purple and muted orange. Two handsome containers filled with lime-leaved sweet potato vines and orange-flowering 'Firecracker' begonias, as well as two chairs covered with orange fabric, turned the porch into a welcoming entry.

Pretty to look at, the sheltered porch is also where Jane and Peter eat outdoors when it's rainy or cool. The setting is a snapshot of Jane's signature color combination of orange, lime and purple, which weaves through the entire garden.

Evergreen columnar plants also repeat throughout the site. A tall, stately Italian cypress, 'Sky Pencil' hollies, 'Graham Blandy' boxwoods, and several other upright conifers serve as exclamation points.

'In a blowsy garden, I like columns for contrast,' Jane said. The strong vertical lines are foils for voluptuously billowing perennials such as golden forest grass and twinspur (Diascia rigescens), with sparkling orange flowers.

A series of intimate rooms make the garden feel more spacious. One shady area is the perfect spot for outdoor dining in summer's heat. An orange umbrella and tablecloth, as well as two pots with bright orange flowers add pizzaz. Further along, two big containers continue the color scheme - upright dark-leaved 'Gartenmeister' fuchsias, loaded with orange tubular flowers, keep company with golden Japanese forest grass draping over the edges of the pots.

The sunniest area, dedicated to a raised bed vegetable garden, is Jane's favorite place. A stylish path of decorative rectangular stepping stones runs through the center, for easy access, while a series of whimsical boots and shoes planted with sedums march along the perimeter.

'The tomatoes have finally decided to come to the party,' she said, pointing to ripe orange 'Sungold' and red 'Early Girl' tomatoes. Long, slender French green beans were ready for picking. A gourmet cook, Jane appreciates fresh vegetables.

Street noise was an early challenge. To mask it, Jane added two water features. One is a handsome tall bronze-colored container, fitted with a pump that recirculates water from a cistern below. The second is a Little and Lewis cast concrete gunnera leaf, with water rivulets spilling over the indented leaf edges into a cooling pool.

Jane designed the hardscape on paper. But the planting plan came from another interior place.

'I did the softscape (plants) from my guts. It's an emotional reaction to the space and partly plant lust,' she said. Like many of us, she brings home plants and then considers, 'Where am I gonna put this?'

Jane's is one of several exquisite gardens in the Eastmoreland, Garthwick and Burlingame neighborhoods that will be open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 25, for the Green on Green Garden Tour. Proceeds benefit the Portland Reading Foundation, which helps at-risk students become proficient readers. Tickets ($20) for the tour are available at and at Portland Nursery, Garden Fever, Oxalis, Market of Choice and Cornell Farms.

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