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The Seattle Times | Pacific Northwest

Northwest Living Valerie Easton

Layered In Leaves

Where foliage trumps flower, 'lush' lasts all year long

Although Barbara Asmervig has lived in her Laurelhurst home for 23 years, she didn't pay much attention to the garden for the first decade or so. It was only after she retired from her medical sales job nine years ago that she began gardening. And she's been making up time ever since.

This human whirlwind plants 300 'Princess Irene' tulips every fall and several flats of coleus each spring. She's studied gardening at Great Dixter in England and traveled around Great Britain to visit great gardens. When she isn't adding another heuchera or hosta to her own stylish garden, she's organizing seminars and parties for the Northwest Horticultural Society.

Lately, Asmervig's high beams have been focused on putting the finishing touches on her foliage-rich garden. She's helped by her husband, Michael Thanem, who specializes in paving and structures. Although he can't quite refrain from commenting on the plants, too, which Asmervig claims he examines daily.

Asmervig started out planting an all-white garden, the only remnant of which is a lone Japanese anemone. "When I discovered colored leaves, they really didn't go with white," she explains of her conversion to foliage over flower, texture over bloom. Flowers have to earn their garden space with strongly saturated color; no pastels allowed. Oranges prevail, in tulips and dahlias like 'David Howard' and 'Ellen Huston.' Asmervig admires dark-leafed plants, but avoids a too-shadowy look by mixing the deeper tones with gold and chartreuse.

Most of the flowers in Asmervig's garden meet an early death by beheading. The morning I visit, she's out snipping the flowers off hostas and persicaria so they don't distract from the beauty of the leaves. While this brings to mind the "off with their heads" Queen of Hearts in "Alice in Wonderland," Asmervig comes up with a more contemporary reference. "My sister says I'm like Morticia in the Adams family who cuts off the roses and leaves the thorns."

From experience come favorites

Canna lilies. Hardy tropical-looking perennials with paddle-shaped leaves.

Fatsia japonica. Huge, glossy, splayed leaves.

Hellebores. Evergreen perennials with winter flowers and highly textural leaves.

Hostas. The supreme foliage plants in shades from blue to gold and variegated.

Red banana tree. Ensete ventricosum 'Maurelii' has deep red on its stems and undersides of its huge leaves.

Coleus. For summer, especially 'Inky Fingers' (purple and chartreuse) and 'Sedona' (orange).

Maidenhair ferns. Contribute a lighter texture among the bolder-leafed plants.

Asmervig designs not just by the leaf but also by the dog. She points out the areas where her beagle, Annie, likes to burrow, saying, "You can see why there's nothing delicate in this garden." For impact, she relies on masses of sturdy plants rather than delicate special plants too easily destroyed by a dog. "Annie may be little," she adds, "but she's like a tractor in the garden."

Plenty of containers and design elements punctuate all the soft foliages and define various areas. "I love to change the garden," says Asmervig of her penchant for decorating outside. A Tunisian grilled gate leads to the shady side garden, and a chandelier dangles from a tree. A spreading burgundy umbrella shelters the outdoor dining area. The burgundy leaves of a smoke bush show off a Little and Lewis pomegranate statue. The most special plants are raised up in pots and urns to protect them from Annie's burrowing ways. In a back corner, a louvered door hides the utility area, and there's even a little greenhouse for over-wintering salvias and other borderline tender plants.

How does such an energetic, plant-a-holic gardener get by with a mere city lot? "I like to stuff things together to let them weave and mix," says Asmervig. "Plus, the older I get, the happier I am with a small garden."

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "A Pattern Garden." Her e-mail address is Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.