Something for now – and for later

Garden Muse

My next door neighbor Frank Curtis was a fountain of practical wisdom. He was in his 70s when I moved into my first house in Northeast Portland in 1973. His ruddy complexion and muscular build came from hours of working out in his garden.

Frank turned the soil by hand, built a compost pile in one corner of his city lot and grew the most delicious veggies in the neighborhood. Big Boy, Early Girl, and Beefsteak tomatoes bulged out of their rectangular wooden cages. 'Kentucky Wonder' beans climbed his sturdy wood-and-twine trellis, while zucchinis and pumpkins roamed through the richly amended soil.

Beyond teaching me how to garden, Frank gave me tips for living well. I asked him how he'd managed to have enough income to be comfortable at an older age - he and his wife Sadie had run a dental-supply business and had been retired for more than 10 years.

'Always spend enough to have fun now, but put some aside for later,' he said. It sounded like a happy medium to me, a value I could keep in mind at 30, as I furnished my first house and built my first garden.

I especially like to apply Frank's sensible advice to creating any garden. I'd put it this way - always buy enough plants to make this season right now a fulfilling one, but remember to add selections to give you pleasure later on. It's so tempting to gather up whatever is in bloom right now. In autumn, you can overdo on asters, sedums and crocosmia. In winter, it's easy to go nuts over hellebores. But it's just as important to consider a balance of all four seasons, leaving space for plants that will take center stage in months to come.

For instance, right now, as you cut back the old foliage of hardy cranesbills, also fill the space around their crowns with drifts of daffodils and fragrant hyacinths, anticipating next spring when you'll relish the extra color. When you cut back summer's tickseeds (Coreopsis), tuck handfuls of crocuses into the soil in between, looking ahead to sheets of purple flowers next February and March.

In autumn I evaluate the many dahlias that I've grown this summer in big ceramic containers, deciding which to keep and winter over in the cool greenhouse, and which to send to the compost pile. The Karma series - neon pink 'Fuchsiana,' pastel pink 'Prospero,' yellow and pink 'Sangria' and burgundy 'Chocolate' - are keepers. Newly empty pots, freed of the frailer dahlias that didn't do as well, will make homes for conifers waiting in line.

Needle evergreens are one of my latest obsessions, especially with winter ahead. I grow them in big pots filled with porous soil so that they have good drainage. By placing them on the long walkway beneath my office window, I can enjoy them up close and personal every day of the year.

I was first bitten last fall when I spotted 'Golden Ghost' pine at Garden World and brought it home. It continues to delight me with its yellow-striped needles, a blast of warmth and brightness even on the grayest days. The gold fades a bit over the early summer months, but returns by late summer in renewed glory.

Not as flamboyant, but still intriguing, a variegated form of Alaskan yellow cedar makes a tall accent in another big container, just the right size and shape to camouflage a drainpipe. I like the sprays of dark green needles highlighted by splashes of ivory.

Blue-green conifers are probably my favorites, especially the dwarf Spanish fir (Abies pinsapo 'Horstmann'), with a delightful woven-looking texture. 'Blue Feathers' hinoki cypress is so soft, I can't help fluffing its branches as I pass by. My latest find is 'Snowkist' hinoki cypress. The dark green branches swirl in a wavy pattern, with white at the ends as if someone had taken a fine paintbrush to the tips.

It's daunting to think about winter when we still garden in T-shirts on autumn's warm afternoons. Who wants to picture the dahlias turning black and leaves dropping until trees and shrubs turn skeletal?

As I treasure the sweet fragrance of late-blooming Abelia chinensis - a shrub I first met in a French garden, lured to the end of a long border by its scent - winter seems very far away. Still, it will arrive, along with spring and summer.

Let's remember to make our gardens places of beauty for all four seasons, with something for now and plenty for later.