Stonework adds strength to a garden
- BARBARA BLOSSOM ASHMUN
- Portland Tribune - Features
Rod Kiel's garden once was a steep slope plunging away from the modest brick home he shares with his wife, Carol. But since 1966, Kiel's ingenuity and sweat have transformed the site into a series of terraces supported by tons of rock.
Tall and fit, with white hair and blue eyes, Kiel at 76 radiates the energy of a much younger man. Trained as a watchmaker and goldsmith in his native Germany, he worked as a jewelry designer and now is retired. Kiel often spends eight hours at a time in his 100-by-100-foot garden.
As we stroll through the garden on a chilly March morning, an evergreen clematis is opening white, star-shaped flowers. It's climbing a dead filbert tree that Kiel left in place as a trellis.
Similarly, when he had to cut down a deodar cedar, Kiel left part of the trunk in the ground to support a trumpet vine.
He sees with the eyes of a recycler and artist. 'The River Goddess,' a sculpture gracing the lower garden, once was several rocks that Kiel admired while on a camping trip in Eastern Oregon.
He set them up at the campsite, balancing them carefully to form a tall, statuesque figure. Friends helped him carry it home - they rigged up a net and suspended it at the back of their raft. Later, Kiel drilled through the stones and joined them with rebar to stabilize the sculpture.
Rebar also supports the trunk of a weeping Norway spruce planted against the house. The spruce's draping branches form a green living sculpture. Kiel uses rebar stakes to strengthen a lightweight low wire fence framing his front yard.
But his stonework stands out as the garden's unifying element. Huge rock walls made of massive boulders give the garden a feeling of age and power.
Rocks were delivered from a quarry near Sauvie Island and dumped in a big pile. Kiel then excavated the steep slope. He moved soil with a small bulldozer, and also by hand, turning the bank into a series of terraces supported by rock. Kiel placed the stones so artfully that you'd think they had always been part of the landscape.
Many years of hiking and kayaking have given him a strong sense of what looks natural. And perhaps he comes by it through his heritage - his father was a gardener.
But it's Kiel's grandfather who has a place of honor in the garden.
'It's my grandfather's face in the rock up there,' Kiel says.
He's pointing to a death mask cast in bronze, commissioned by his grandmother, who wanted a memory of her late husband.
'My grandfather was a sailor and a captain who became an astronomer and a mathematician. But not a gardener,' Kiel says, laughing.
After 40 years, many pines, fruit trees and large shrubs have matured so much that Kiel spends hours thinning them.
'The pruning here is humongous,' he says.
He saves the heavier limbs for firewood, and some winters he and Carol host wreath-making parties, putting conifer branches to good use. He stuffs his Toyota pickup to the brim with any remaining branches and hauls them to the recycling center.
'We're master packers,' he says. 'I delivered 1,650 pounds of trimmings to McFarlane's,' a yard debris recycling center.
Memories from childhood also contribute to the garden. Recently, while hiking in the European beech forests of his youth, Kiel spotted fall anemones blooming, the very same kind he'd planted at home.
'You see things in your childhood and it sticks with you,' he says.
His love of plants extends from the evergreen Hinoki cypress and Hollywood juniper that give his front yard privacy, to the smallest fern-leaved Corydalis that hugs the ground. Kiel especially loves Chinese foxglove (Rehmannia elata), which has pink blossoms for four to five months.
'I like a sequence of bloom,' he says.
Hellebores bloom in winter, camellias in spring, rose of Sharon in summer, anemones in fall.
Carol's favorite place is the round terrace with old cobbles paved in the shape of a five-pointed star. She calls it her Italian Garden. Here she savors a cup of coffee when she gets home from work.
Carol enjoys puttering in the vegetable garden, a series of tidy raised beds where chard and parsley thrive right now, along with a rhubarb plant original to the garden. Later, she'll plant beans and tomatoes.
But mainly, it's Rod Kiel who tends the garden, and Carol who enjoys the view from the kitchen window, where Rod has pruned a big rose of Sharon to preserve the view of Mount Hood.
'It's so nice to have a full-time gardener!' Carol says.
• Leach Botanical Garden Benefit Spring Plant Sale, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Floyd Light Middle School, 10800 S.E. Washington St., free admission. For information, call Nancy Williams, 503-823-1671.