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Lucky neighbors enjoy Elli Barrett's lush garden

South Africa native's love of gardening transforms barren earth


by: BARBARA SHERMAN - A VERITABLE PARADISE - Elli Barrett occasionally takes a moment to enjoy the fruits of her labor, but usually she is planting, weeding or watering her garden.Strolling through a sprawling, lush garden off a cul de sac at the end of Imperial Avenue in King City, visitors would think that a full-time gardener tends the oasis.

But in reality, the head gardener is Elli Barrett, a King City Apartments resident, who created and maintains the landscaping with the help of a few friends while also working as a licensed practical nurse.

Elli, who is originally from Capetown, South Africa, gives credit to her friend and neighbor, Daryl Jean Porter, for helping establish the garden.

"I love gardening," Elli said. "I have always had a garden. I asked before I moved in here if I could have a garden, and they said yes, but they didn't know how big it would be!"

Elli and DJ have formed a mutual admiration society, with Elli appreciative of all the work DJ has contributed to the garden plus her gift of a set of wind chimes for Mother's Day.

"She is my greatest helper," Elli said, and DJ answered, "Elli is so nice. She does so much - I wanted to do something for her. It was the least I could do."

Elli faced quite a formidable challenge before she started creating the garden: She envisioned meandering paths through summer annuals, perennials and evergreen shrubs, plus some berry bushes and vegetables, but what she started with was sloping, rock-hard ground in addition to many trees that create a lot of shade plus a few rhododendrons and azaleas.

"I could see the garden in my mind's eye," Elli said. "I first tried planting some things in the ground, but I discovered all these bad roots from the trees coming up and choking out my plants."

She quickly realized she would have to add some terraces or all the new top soil she planned to bring in would slide down the hill, so the first order of business was laying down heavy-duty plastic and then purchasing and installing scalloped, terra-cotta border strips to hold back the soil.

by: BARBARA SHERMAN - A GARDEN IS NEVER DONE - Elli Barrett (right) and her neighbor DJ Porter discuss making changes to the garden that has evolved at the King City Apartments.Elli moved into the apartments in March 2012, and DJ and her husband David moved in two months later.

"When we moved in, Elli came to us and said, 'I'm your next-door neighbor, and do you mind if I plant around your place?'" DJ said. "She brought in bags and bags of topsoil, and her little car could only hold four at a time."

Then Elli discovered Grocery Outlet in King City, where helpful employees not only delivered huge bags of soil that she couldn't even lift, but they placed them where she wanted them. They also delivered extra-large ceramic pots and placed them around the garden.

"I could see Elli needed more soil for her garden, so we used our trailer to get a yard of soil for her," DJ said.

Finally, all the prep work was done, and it was time for the fun part - selecting and planting plants.

Ellie tried planting geraniums and other sun-loving plants but observed there wasn't enough sun for them to thrive under the tall trees, so she switched to plants that tolerate part shade.

"If you want a garden to be artistic, no two plants are alike," she said. "You want something flowering all the time and at different times."

In addition, she wanted plants that attract birds and butterflies, and she wanted her garden to have a natural look to it with different patches bursting into color.

Elli planted Asian lilies close to the paths, and farther back, a patch of pink double hollyhocks. There are also honeysuckle, wisteria, Canterbury bells and trumpet vine, among many others.

"It's so much fun to keep coming and see what's blooming and growing," DJ said.

Elli's efforts have inspired her neighbors beyond the garden to plant a few more flowers and shrubs and spruce up their areas. "Others have been inspired to do their own planting," DJ said.

And the neighbors apparently like to gift Elli with plants and pots.

"Sometimes I find a plant or fertilizer or a pot on my front porch," she said.

The two friends also enjoy the reaction of people to the garden, and one appreciative neighbor is Gar Donnelson, who has lived in the King City Apartments for more than 10 years.

Elli planted three berry plants next to his patio, which he enjoys, and each Friday when he goes to the Tigard Public Library to volunteer in the circulation department, he takes one or two roses from the garden for the librarians.

"She's very talented," said Gar. "It's just amazing what Elli has done. Of course, I take all the credit!"

Elli's delightful South African accent begs the question: How did she end up in King City?

"I was on a boat on the Nile River in Egypt with my friend Sally," Elli said. "I met an American, Bob Barrett, who came to visit me in South Africa. When he got there, he said he wasn't going to leave until I married him."

She arranged some rugged tours that included a weeklong guided trip down the Orange River and visits to animal preserve expeditions and hot springs - "things he hadn't done" - and he experienced some mishaps, such as falling into the river.

But he wasn't discouraged and stayed in South Africa for a year until she married him in Cape Town. They moved to Oregon in 1998, where Bob was from, and lived here until his death in 2011.

In South Africa, Elli had a degree in accounting and local government law and worked in those fields.

"Also, I took my first nursing training at 18 and took care of my father until he died," Elli said. "Then I trained in hospice and worked as a hospice volunteer."

Eight years ago, Elli had a stroke that left her deaf in her right ear and suffering from memory problems, "I realized I needed to make a change in my profession," she said. "I became a licensed practical nurse and discovered I could still study and achieve."

Now Elli does hospice work and takes care of seriously ill people, "with all the money going to the garden."

DJ can't sing Elli's praises enough, saying, 'I told my mother, 'I've adopted another mother.' She is the best neighbor."

Now that the garden has expanded about as far as it's going to get, Elli's efforts go toward keeping it beautiful with watering and fertilizing. She spends two to 2 ½ hours watering the garden several times a week but considers it a labor of love.

"Sharing a garden makes us all feel we are together like a family," she said. "We have formed a kinship over this. The garden brings joy into our lives, and you can't buy joy. It's a gift."