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Camano Island
Seward Park
Bainbridge Island

Outdoor Living 2003

A bonanza of the curious and colorful erupts from the obsessions of The Consummate Collector
Daniel Sparler started out a decade ago by digging a pond to get rid of a ratty lawn, and the new garden radiated out from there. Now water lilies, water hyacinth, canna lilies and goldfish fill the pink-rimmed pond.
ON A BROAD street of traditional houses above Seward Park is a gate and fence that give no clue as to what lies within. Take a step beyond that fence and you've left the expected world of lawns and borders to enter an explosive plant collector's obsession of a garden.

Daniel Sparler grows thousands of plants from around the globe in a vivid burst of near-overwhelming color and texture that will make you wonder whether you crossed the equator when you passed beneath the entry pergola. Paths, pots, ponds, two ornately tiled and painted patios, and even a scrap of lawn are in there, too, but these features are nearly lost in the sensual scent and sight of all those blooming, burgeoning, beautiful plants from the Southern Hemisphere.
Daniel Sparler, left, and Jeff Schouten are caught in a rare moment of repose on the patio they designed together and Schouten built of concrete and tile. Sparler is the gardener, keeping detailed records on all 27,000 varieties of plants he has grown.
I was so entranced by the curiosity and diversity of the plants that only when I got home did I realize I'd failed to ask Sparler the most basic questions about his garden, like how large it is and how long he'd lived there (a third of an acre, and since 1992).

Working magic with microclimates, Sparler has, as far as he knows, the only Clivia miniata that flowers outdoors in Seattle. The border along the south side of the house could be a mini-desert botanical garden. Aloe, jade plants and an assortment of weird cacti thrive sheltered by the house's eaves and warmed by reflected heat from the brick wall at their backs. This past spring Sparler was particularly pleased with a towering stand of 18-foot-high echiums, odd Dr. Seuss-like columns of hairy plants with rosettes of little blue flowers you'd expect to see on a ground-hugging pulmonaria rather than growing up in the sky.

A birdbath is turned into an outdoor vase for a collection of summer blossoms as vividly colored and shaped as a flock of parrots.
Sparler takes full advantage of microclimates to nudge succulents and cacti into flower in his sheltered hillside garden above Seward Park.
A wildly colored and spotted stick-and-bowl sculpture was made by Karla Lieberman, a ceramics teacher at the Northwest School, where Sparler teaches Humanities and Spanish.

Despite their exotic beauty, Sparler says, Tigridia species are easy to grow, thriving in pots or in the ground. They multiply faster in well-draining soil, but will grow and bloom even when stuck in heavy clay.
Sparler teaches at the Northwest School on Capitol Hill, and I feel sure science must be his subject as he explains how each spring he wires bromeliads to the trunks of palm trees, where their roots dangle in the air seeking nourishment from whatever happens to fall into their cups. But no, Sparler teaches humanities and Spanish, which doesn't explain how this lively and enthusiastic man became a walking encyclopedia of botanical Latin.

Sparler grew up in Arkansas, where he was assigned the chore of working the vegetable garden. His father was a Baptist preacher, and his mother loved flowers, so for him it was gardening or the church. "Gardening gets in your blood," is how he explains his choice.

Dripping columns center the round pond, topped with bursts of ornamental grasses.
Nothing could be further from an Arkansas vegetable plot than the colorful kaleidoscope of 27,000 varieties of plants he has grown in the past decade. Over the years, many have been crowded out or given away; some have simply died. Such is the price of rabid plant collecting and playing the game of outwitting the weather. The thousands of healthy plants in the garden today are a testament to Sparler's regime of watering with computer-programmed overhead sprinklers and fertilizing with homemade compost. Then there's his skill at pushing the weather envelope.

Sparler and his partner, Jeff Schouten, together designed the many structures in the garden, and Schouten built all of them. Tiled pavilions provide spots for pots, purple wooden pyramids punctuate the plantings, striped pillars are topped with gargoyles, and an arbor drips with sweet-smelling jasmine. Sparler claims the searingly hot color combinations are accidents. "At first, I just wanted to grow and learn about plants, but now I'm thinking more about how to use color," he says. Beneath all the exotica, Sparler has planted for year-round interest. Bamboo, witch hazels, daphne, corylopsis and hellebores keep the garden going through the winter.
At the bottom of the back garden is a little shed, its door and trim painted clematis-purple to match the vine growing along its eaves.
I've rarely seen a gardener so appreciate his plants. As Sparler strolls, he pets each of them, pulls on leaves to release their fragrance, sniffs each flower and even tastes a few of them. He plucks the leaves off the stems of the fennel, leaving only the flat flowers to look like a lanky, surprisingly handsome horsetail. Even ordinary fennel is custom-tailored for its own distinctive look in this consummate collector's garden.

A wind sculpture by Seattle artist Andrew Carson presides over the garden. "We wanted to emphasize the exuberance of the colors," says Sparler of the vivid blues, greens and oranges in the sculpture. "And it kind of matches my personality," he adds, perhaps referring to the sculpture's near-constant motion and playful nature.
A winged gargoyle presides over one of the patios. The tall, skinny tower of a Dr. Seuss-like echium behind it blooms blue in springtime to attract hundreds of orchard mason bees.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her e-mail address is Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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