Garden Muse

On a mild May morning, I visited a garden right in my own neighborhood that made me want to go home, blow up my garden and start all over again.

Vern Nelson and Mary Sherman are creating a kitchen garden extraordinaire that feeds their passion for growing and eating fresh food, cooking and entertaining outdoors. Vern gave me the royal tour, while Mary steadily dug up dandelions and pulled out weed seedlings.

Both garden without gloves.

'I don't feel right if my hands aren't dirty,' Vern said, holding out his well-used hands, caked with soil. He took me to their newly built greenhouse, where seedlings of arugula, basil, lettuces and wild salad greens were soaking up the sun. Designed to mimic an older storage shed nearby, the greenhouse blends into one corner of the garden as if it's been there forever.

At the other side of the garden, a newly installed concrete pad with overhead shelter from rain and sun stands ready for future cooking and gardening classes. Vern and Mary also cater and deliver meals for special occasions, and grilling in the garden is one of their specialities. For example, last Thanksgiving they prepared butterflied turkeys on a unique home grill - a hollowed-out cherry tree stump, with a grill set on top of it.

'This little cook fire lends a cherry flavor,' Vern said.

This is a garden to live in, with room to garden as well as to sit and enjoy life. Several places are set aside for dining outdoors, and outdoor grill stations are sprinkled through the garden.

'Mary and I love to cook, and when people come here they usually want to eat. We're both experimenters,' Vern said.

When two high energy people such as Vern and Mary combine forces to make a garden, watch out! They're both focused on growing fresh food, and are developing a garden that they can continue to maintain and enjoy into their older age. To that end, they built four gigantic, rectangular, raised beds framed with recycled cedar decking. The frames are capped with wide boards that are comfortable for sitting, so that you can weed without bending or kneeling, or just sit and visit.

These raised beds are deep, perfect for raising root crops such as parsnips, turnips and carrots. Everbearing Seascape strawberries spill over the edges of one raised bed for easy picking. Trellises are built into the boxes for beans, squash and grapes to climb. Three favorite table grapes were chosen for their fine flavor - Swenson's Red, Canadice and New York Muscat.

Plenty more fruit abounds. Seaberries, rich in Vitamin C, form a hedge, and countless blueberry bushes, rich in antioxidants, flourish here and there, even in the front yard. Tidy espaliered dwarf fruit trees grow along one perimeter of the garden like living sculpture. More young fruit trees line another side of the garden. Vern plans to train them into an allée that will screen the neighbor's house.

Before she met Vern, an ancient walnut tree was nothing but a source of frustration for Mary. Squirrels ate the nuts before they were even ripe. Vern solved the problem by making walnut wine, a traditional French drink.

'Now, we pick them in July, while they're green and juicy, before the squirrels are interested. We clean them, washing them up, then slice them in quarters and cover them with the best red wine we can find,' Vern said.

'I add a vanilla bean, cinnamon and a simple syrup,' Mary added.

'By Christmas the French drink it, but it's better and better as it ages,' Vern said. He and Mary both love quince, and grow it especially to make quince liqueur.

Beyond edibles, the dining area is framed by flower beds.

'It's awash in lilies, sea kale, and daylilies,' Vern said. The fragrance of lilies adds to the ambiance of evening dinner parties in the garden.

There's always a new project in the works - paving paths of brick and gravel, constructing an enclosure for their three Indian Runner ducks, building an earth oven for outdoor baking.

Vern showed me the birdhouses he made to benefit the Raleigh Park Garden Tour ( coming up on Saturday, June 4, when he and Mary will open their garden to the public.

If you want to see just about every aspect of edible gardening, make sure to go on this self-guided tour. For contrast, please visit my garden of mainly ornamentals, where roses and clematis will be part of June's flower parade. Five additional private gardens, each with its own personality, will be open.

Coming events

Raleigh Park Garden Tour, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., June 4. Visit seven private gardens, meet garden experts, on this self-guided tour to benefit the Raleigh Park Elementary School and the West Slope Community Library gardens. Tickets, $17, for sale at the Raleigh Park Elementary School, 3670 S.W. 78th Ave., Portland 97225. For more information, call 503-297-7171, or visit

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