Featured Stories

A garden of memories

by: Vern Uyetake, James Skinner, 87, of Lake Oswego holds a potted plant within his backyard. Skinner often gardens to maintain the property — a special place he and his wife Elsie started together many years ago before she passed away.

At first glance, James Skinner's 1968 Lake Oswego home does not appear anything out of the ordinary. Tucked away on the intersection of Marjorie Avenue and Koawood Drive, several large trees in the front yard keep the house hidden and relatively dark, while rows of potted plants and landscape design materials flood his driveway where a car used to sit.

But to those who know the 87-year-old Nebraska native, there is more to his property than meets the eye. Walk into the backyard and your breath is taken away by shades of green meticulously placed throughout a garden 30 years in the making.

The yard is home to over 250 different kinds of hostas, a hand made 2,500-gallon pond filled with nine colorful Japanese Koi that sits below a small waterfall, and a beautiful rock wall that surrounds the middle of the yard.

Skinner likes how his house is secluded from the rest of the block, but acknowledges that few know of his backyard beauty.

'Three fourths of the people in the area don't know what the backyard is like,' he said.

For years it has been a model for garden clubs and people interested in landscape design. But since last summer, Skinner's property has become less of a garden and more of a memorial, where he is surrounded by images of his wife's work in the yard.

'I know she is around everyday,' said Skinner.

On July 24, 2006, Skinner's wife Elsie, a landscape and design contractor for Lake Oswego and Portland, passed away from breathing complications. According to Skinner, she single handedly transformed the property that had previously been a filbert orchard into the garden masterpiece today.

Elsie spent her time on the weekends designing the backyard. From the mid to late '70s, the pond and overhead cover, hand-picked rock wall and $6,000 fence were constructed. Skinner brags about the spectacular craftsmanship and durability of a yard where the Skinners have 'used about every space' possible.

The couple met in 1972. Skinner was a letter carrier for the Lake Oswego post office, a career he held for 27 years upon his retirement in 1980. He also had his real estate license at the time. On one of his six routes he met his future wife landscaping a yard. She told him she was looking for a house.

'She said a postman knows where all the vacant houses are,' laughed Skinner. 'I showed her around and soon enough we were going together.'

The two married in 1974.

Elsie had a glittering career in the landscaping and design business. According to Skinner, in the early 1970s, she became the first woman in Oregon to earn a license in that field. She formerly owned L.C. Duz Landscape and Design.

One of her most well known projects was the new pond in front of Lake Oswego City Hall; a job that she volunteered weeks of her time despite being retired. Her only stipulation was the city had to supply the materials.

The job was representative of the dedication and passion Elsie always had for her work. Skinner recalled that her retirement in the early '90s did not change anything.

'Whenever people would call and ask for advice she would go out and help them just for the fun of it,' said Skinner.

When Elsie wasn't working her normal job, she was polishing up on her flower arranging skills. She belonged to several different flower arranging schools and garden clubs. According to Skinner, during her career she won local and state awards and was federal Arranger of the Year. She was often invited to garden clubs to come speak or put on shows. She also made videos demonstrating how to make arrangements.

Many of the flowers used in her designs were grown in her garden. A popular element in her flower arrangement was the hosta, a relative of the lily family. According to Skinner, evergreen ferns and hostas were her favorite plants. Her infatuation with the latter has resulted in 250 different kinds, ranging from two inches to three feet tall.

Elsie's love of hostas rubbed off on Skinner, who also considers it his favorite plant because of the overwhelming amount. Although Skinner 'wasn't really a good gardener,' the couple soon developed a lasting partnership through their yard work.

'She would get plants from nurseries to use in landscaping and she would put an extra one or two (for the garden). She would keep buying them and I would keep planting them,' Skinner said, laughing.

The Skinners also shared their plethora of plants. To control the growth of hostas they replanted pruned stems, which they offered for sale. Even after Elsie's passing, Skinner continues to maintain his yard. He strives to keep it in tip-top shape, and never fails to point out a blemish that requires attention in an otherwise spotless garden.

While Skinner takes pride naming and describing the different hostas and showing his 70-foot weeping redwood or Japanese fur tree, he knows with his age he doesn't have much more time at his current house. He wants others to enjoy and learn from the yard, just as people did when Elsie was alive.

'A lot of people don't realize the yard we have. I just wanted to let them know that garden clubs can come check it out,' Skinner said.

While Skinner may work by himself selling old design materials or potted flowers, he knows he will always have fond outdoor memories from his time with Elsie.

'She's always in the yard. We've done so much together (in the garden). The only thing is, now she can't give me heck if I don't do something right,' Skinner said.