Me and my garden

by: Jonathan House, Mercedes Deloria’s Lake Oswego garden is located in front of her house. Motorists driving by the bend on Summit Drive often slow down to admire her colorful work and wave at Deloria. Each day she — and her cat Mikey — spend several hours making sure the garden is looking it’s best; she’s done this since the early 1960s.

A blur of color. A burst of sunshine. A refreshing moment to an otherwise mundane day.

Motorists travelling down Summit Drive in Lake Oswego twist and turn beneath the trees, passing large lots and intriguing homes. On one particular turn in the road, however, a front yard lined with tall flowers and shrubs calls for a slowing in speed.

It's stunning - very colorful and neatly arranged. The beauty sort of catches you by surprise.

Homeowner Mercedes Deloria, 78, dressed in a matching outfit - and cigarette in hand - waters the flowers. Her orange cat Mikey hops amongst the flowers, following her around. Her hands are black with soil. She waves at the slowed drivers and continues to prune shrubs.

Since her home was built in 1964, Deloria said she's spent nearly everyday in her front yard tending to her favorite pastime - her garden.

'People stop and talk to me all the time. If I'm out here working for three hours, I'll have at least three people stop and talk to me,' Deloria said. 'It's the best way in the world to get to know your neighbors.'

And while the garden is sort of a gift she and her neighbors can enjoy together, she said others in the community have taken note.

'People have told me,' she said, 'that my garden is famous on this side of the lake.'

Let there be color

Deloria said she purchased her lot from John D. Gray - developer of the coastal resort Salishan and Sunriver project - for $2,500 in 1963.

'I originally was going to have all native plants like pines and Oregon grape and things that looked native,' she said. 'Then I decided that was pretty boring because it looked the same all year round. I decided I wanted some color.'

And so it began - the hydrangeas, clematis, rhododendrons, perennials, cherry trees, boxwood shrubs and the list grows - the pockets of color began forming in the yard.

Purple, her favorite color, is reflected in the vine clematis growing within a rhododendron, giving it spot color.

'I love purple in the garden because it sets off all the other colors. I don't think any single color is that great on it's own,' she said. 'It's the combination of all the colors that makes it striking.'

Also remarkable is the fact that there is no sprinkler or drip system; everything is watered by hand.

And everything is an experiment.

'Everything is just trial and error. I move things around all the time,' Deloria said. 'This is a good time of year to do this because they are in full color. If you wait (until winter) to move them you can't remember what the colors looked like (planted next to everything else.)'

Creating plant crevices

Her late husband, Jack, constructed the stone retaining walls and Deloria continued to plant and replant items throughout the well-thought out spaces.

'I love everything in my garden,' she said. 'I only plant things I love.'

Her favorites? Perennials, she said, are easy to grow, strong and long blooming. Her least favorites? The cherry trees that bloomed in October; she spent 20 years struggling with those.

Garden books and pages ripped out of magazines guided Deloria as she expanded her garden. Day trips were also influential.

'When you drive from Portland up to Hood River in certain time of the summer, you'll see blue chicory (flowers) for miles and miles and miles,' she said. 'Or, if you drive to Mt. Hood in the spring, you'll see pine trees and rhododendrons.'

This repetition of items is something she incorporated into the garden. Boxwood hedges trimmed neatly create a parterre design on the lower part of the tiered garden. The neat hedges act as a natural counterpart to the whimsical flowers.

After raising three kids and two step-childen at the home, Deloria said that gardening is a year-round hobby that consumes much of her time.

'I don't do anything but garden. I don't have time to do anything else,' Deloria said. 'I read a garden book 40 years ago, and the author said she didn't belong to garden clubs because she didn't have time. It was the first time I'd ever heard anybody else say what I felt.'

Deloria's former neighbor of four years, David Rogoway, said that she was 'a terrific neighbor' and very devoted to her garden.

'The first time I met her there were bees all over the place as she was out in the middle of the flowers. I said, 'Mercedes, there's bees everywhere. You've got to be careful.' And she looked at me and said, 'Honey if you don't bother them, they're not going to bother you. They're here for a purpose,'' Rogoway said. 'They were swarming all over around here. It would never bother her. It was almost like they knew her.'

Growing up with the garden

A few years ago Deloria got some added company for when she's outside - her trusty orange garden cat Mikey.

'If I talk to somebody (out in the yard) Mikey likes to get in on the conversation,' she said. 'I had the kitchen door open one day three years ago and he walked in and never left.'

The two spend hours outside each day of the year.

'I don't know why I like gardening so much. I think you're just born with it,' Deloria said. 'Some people like tennis; some people like golf; some people like traveling. I like gardening.'

Deloria said that if she had the whole garden to do over again she'd probably plant different things and arrange things differently. But, she's has got the front yard to a place she's happy and comfortable with - bright, colorful, multi-layered, both structured and whimsical.

And after spending more than half of her life on the property and fiddling with the front yard, what now?

'Oh believe me this garden keeps me busy. I'm not going to run out of things to do with my garden,' Deloria said. 'I know that when I eventually sell the property no one else is crazy enough to keep this up - to devote an entire life to a garden.'