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Outdoor Living 2003

Advice from the masters: Have fun and
   Do It Your Way
Instead of installing the expected island bed between two wings of the driveway, Betty Dorotik used the narrow space to create an old-fashioned garden room, enclosing a pergola with paned windows and draping it in a 'New Dawn' rose. In early summer, the little room is carpeted in palest pink rose petals.
WHEN WORLD-FAMED British plantsman Christopher Lloyd and his head gardener, Fergus Garrett, were lecturing in Seattle this past spring, they were asked about future trends in gardening. Both took the chance to extol personal gardens that reflect the enthusiasms and nature of the gardener, using Little and Lewis' wild fantasia of a garden as an example of what they most admire. The overflow crowd probably expected a discussion of cool new plants or perhaps sustainability, but they got a heartfelt tribute to having fun in the garden, and doing it in your own unique way.

Nature writer Henry Beston said, "Gardens are a mirror of the mind," which is a poetic, if a little scary, way of thinking about it. That old raconteur-Canadian novelist Robertson Davies said of writing, "To ask an author who hopes to be a serious writer if his work is autobiographical is like asking a spider where he buys his thread. The spider gets his thread right out of its own guts." This must certainly apply to gardens, since the finest ones come from the history, aesthetics, dreams, imaginations and tired muscles of the gardeners who make them. Perhaps that's why so few gardens, no matter how carefully preserved, truly survive the death of their creators.

It seems a little presumptuous to try to sum up the gardens shown in this issue. After all, isn't the singular and unexpected the whole point of personal gardens? Nevertheless, glimmers of commonality shine among these iconoclastic gardeners, mostly in their approach, their looseness and joy in the work.
Illustration Now In Bloom
Rugosas are the most trouble-free of all roses, and they continue to open intensely fragrant flowers through the summer, followed by showy hips in autumn. Rugosas are sturdy, ideal for windbreaks or cover on hot hillsides. Their crinkled leaves seem to repel blackspot and mildew, and they actually resent spraying. Rosa 'Fru Dagmar Hastrup' is one of the best, growing to about 4 feet high, with pale-pink single blooms followed by red hips and orange foliage in autumn.
More than anything, personal gardens exude atmosphere that sweeps you up, submerges you like a renegade wave, makes you feel small, surprised, amused, nostalgic, enchanted or everything at the same time. Each of these gardens delights its owner — why else would anyone plant sedums in saucepans, fashion a rain tree of concrete and baby tears, wire bromeliads to the trunk of a palm tree, or garden in garbage cans? It must be for the magic of it, the fun, the silliness or the challenge. There is nothing rational about gardening to such extremes, after all.

Gardeners express their own history out there in the dirt. Betty Dorotik got the idea to deck out a dead tree from a Texas custom remembered from her childhood of using purple ribbons to symbolize a death. As Daniel Sparler energetically roams around his densely planted garden, he points out each plant he has exchanged or been given so you can't help but feel other skilled gardeners populate his garden like ghosts, hovering over the plants they've brought into his life. Little and Lewis' use of saturated color comes from the winters they've spent in Mexico and David Lewis' years in Greece.

Money isn't important, although plant obsession can become an expensive habit. Sparler starts out with mostly four-inch plants because they're inexpensive (and you can squeeze more in). Dorotik uses concrete tiles as pavers because they're economical and she can move them herself. Found and recycled objects, traded art, pieces from childhood or ones made by the gardeners themselves are favored over anything new and store-bought. Patinas are greatly valued, and if a thing doesn't have a history, they'll scar it up and invent one. And the colors! There's nothing retiring or expected about these gardeners' fearless color choices, from purple-striped columns to painting the interior of the house to match the dark and hot hues of the garden.

Along with atmospherics, maybe the most obvious common thread is the celebration of changeability. Even in Betty Dorotik's well-groomed garden, the plants set the tone. "You have to let things mingle and weave," she says.

"I do like to use odd things," muses Ben Hammontree, a little statement that may best sum up the individual expression that makes these gardens so compelling, satisfying and unlike any we've ever seen.

Valerie Easton's e-mail address is Jacqueline Koch is a writer and photographer living on Whidbey Island.

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