Build a garden one step at a time
- Barbara Ashmun
- Portland Tribune - Features
My garden is turning 25 this year! When I look out the window at the long vista, I'm filled with amazement and gratitude. This haven, a quiet retreat that I enjoy every day, with hummingbirds and bush tits for company, has grown up very slowly into a park-like setting.
I can easily remember what it was like back in 1986. Excitement and fear washed over me in equal doses as I looked around two-thirds of an acre of mostly field grass. I felt both thrilled and overwhelmed by the property's sheer size. Where would I begin?
I'd just left a city garden, overflowing with flowers. Moving furniture, clothing, books and records (yes, ancient times) was a breeze compared to transplanting the garden. A parade of pickup trucks, vans and station wagons, driven by kind friends, hauled flats of hellebores, peonies, daylilies, irises, bellflowers, delphiniums, sedums and Michaelmas daisies.
A young 'Desert King' fig tree, that continues to bear hundreds of figs every summer, a Japanese aralia (Fatsia japonica) and several hydrangeas made the trip. I wish I could have taken the wonderful soil with me, but I did carry buckets of compost from the long pile I'd built for many years behind the old laurel hedge. Dozens of daffodils and tulips came with me, along with pesky hitchhiker seeds of Labrador violets and forget-me-nots, hiding in the soil around the bulbs.
All these plants patiently waited in tubs, buckets and flats while I walked back and forth at the new site, trying to figure out where to start. Back then, I designed gardens as part of my living. For clients, I'd draft a plan to scale on paper. But I confess that designing on paper was never the way I've made my own garden.
For me, two streams of activities flowed side by side. I collected vast numbers of plants, calling to me from the nursery benches. Each had some unique feature I couldn't resist. It might be a luscious color such as the iridescent orange flowers of 'Westerland' rose. Or a rich texture like the velvety petals of 'Karma Chocolate' dahlia, or like the lacy leaves of 'Imperialis' cutleaf alder. A riveting shape, say the layered look of the pagoda dogwood, or a delicious scent like the piercing sweetness of Hall's honeysuckle, were enough to captivate me.
Then, with plenty of booty stocked up, I'd stare at the garden's blank canvas, and also daydream about the possibilities endlessly, until I could picture where particular plants should grow.
This is my intuitive way of gardening. Driven by plant lust, I fall in love with particular plants. Later on, I figure out where to put them and how to combine them with each other. I'm like a painter who stocks up on lots of colors before she picks up her brush. Plenty of plants from my first garden got me started on the next one, and a relentless passion to collect more varieties kept the garden evolving over time.
Although this process might sound a bit mysterious, some practical considerations helped me determine what to tackle first. For example, my one-story house faced a road carrying bright yellow buses to the nearby school, so an urgent early step was to screen the road with tall plants.
I decided to remove the large front lawn and replace it with a mixed border. Woody shrubs would run down the middle, like a backbone, and masses of perennials would flank them on both sides, one swath facing the house and another facing the road. That was the overall concept. The particular plants have changed over the years as I learned from experience.
Deaths by drowning - a magnolia, several daphnes and a gasplant succumbed - taught me to become more savvy about what thrives in damp sun. I sought out plants that could survive wet winters and dry summers.
Now redtwig and yellowtwig shrub dogwoods, mock orange, dwarf lilac, and a silver willow form the woody backbone creating privacy from the road. Step by step, over time, I changed out the plants to suit the current conditions. When it was wet and sunny, Siberian irises, daylilies and peonies were mainstays; as the shrubs grew taller, the bed became shadier, and I replaced the irises and peonies with hostas, epimediums and ferns.
Next week I'll share how a bald spot where the former owners parked their RV, and a visit to Allan Bloom's Bressingham Gardens in England, inspired me to replace more lawn with island beds.
• Garden Fever's seventh annual spring Book Soiree, 1 to 2 p.m. Feb. 6, 3433 N.E. 24th Ave., Portland. Speakers include Tom Fischer, author of Perennial Companions and A Gardener's Color Palette, and David George Gordon, author of The Secret World of Slugs and Snails. Event free and open to the public.