Pacific Northwest | July 27, 2003Pacific Northwest MagazineJuly 27, home
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A Time for Every Season
One decade down the garden path, joy and resolution
To keep open space and eliminate lawn, Valerie Easton enlisted her husband, Greg, to dig out space for a pond in her back yard. Water plants, fish and glass floats now add interest among the many plants.
Ten years is a marker for class reunions, an expanse of time neatly bundled into a decade, and, for gardeners, a time of comeuppance. A garden usually looks its absolute best about seven years after planting, so richly flowery you're convinced you know what you're doing out there in the dirt. But give it another three years to mature into a humbling experience.

In a decade, a garden more than fills in, grows up, becomes what you originally intended when you planted all those little trees and shrubs. But I've been wondering lately, is this what I truly intended? Did I have any idea how much space a mature hydrangea (or viburnum, rugosa rose, mock orange, take your pick) really needs? Or how often perennials need dividing, and how some plants are capable of colonizing a corner of the garden in a single weekend when you weren't watching?

My garden is on a steep hillside overlooking Lake Washington in Lake Forest Park. We bought the house 12 years ago, waited a year to remodel, and have been working on the garden ever since. Ten years down the overgrown garden path, I realize how small a quarter acre truly is, and also how large in terms of maintenance. I also realize — slightly too late — the need to make choices and exercise a little discipline. The innocent, wild joys of those early plant-shopping sprees are forever gone.

Some of the original goals and initial work remain the backbone of the garden. Since I wanted to gather flowers, foliage, twigs, pods and berries from the garden for arrangements year round, I was determined to be able to walk out any door and to each part of the garden on a clean, hard surface. A first step was to create a network of paved terraces that connect to stepping stones and then to gravel pathways. Except in late summer, when you need a machete to make it all the way around the house, this navigation system has survived and served well. The garden offers plenty of places to sit and eat and rest, and it is filled with bees, butterflies and birds, a haven in a neighborhood of groomed lawns and spray services. But why do all those plants grow into such disparate sizes, not at all, or way, way too fast?
Illustration Now In Bloom
Hostas are one of the glories of the midsummer garden, and H. 'Frances Williams' combines the best of both warm and cool colors on huge, spreading leaves. The centers of its heart-shaped leaves are a striking shade of bluish gray, generously outlined in golden yellow. This is an especially imposing hosta with thickly ribbed foliage (so it is fairly slug-resistant, for a hosta). It prefers afternoon shade and moist soil, growing to 3 feet high and 4 feet across, with tall stalks of lavender buds opening to pure white flowers.
Here's the rationale for overplanting: You lose a few plants, and sometimes even pathways or patios, but such losses are a small price to pay for the daily theatrics played out in a dynamic garden. Best of all, something is budding, blooming, fruiting or declining every day of the year. I still love all that about my garden, but at what cost to my back, my time, my reading list?

Fearless planting results in a fearsome amount of work, I'm afraid. I'm trying very hard to stop throwing more plants at problem areas, but instead to subtract and simplify. I have to admit I haven't missed a single one of the banished plants.

I've learned that sun turns to shade, that I can't squeeze in all the plants I want no matter how small they start out, and that my energy, if not my enthusiasm, is limited. I'm learning to appreciate pots, paving and architecture in the garden far more than I did 10 years ago. I'm trying to restrain my plant lust. After all, I've grown sufficiently mature that I don't long to bring home every cute puppy and kitten I see. Now I just have to get to that point with plants.

Maybe it'll happen. At least I've identified the challenge — how to keep the garden complex enough to intrigue and fascinate, but simple enough to care for. I suspect this may be an elusive goal, and if I hadn't recently bought some tantalizing new plants (you should see the cool tetrapanax) I might feel a little more confident in my ability to change my habits. For now, I can hardly wait to get out there and start planting. I'm sure there's space somewhere.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her book, "Plant Life: Growing a Garden in the Pacific Northwest" (Sasquatch Books, 2002) is an updated selection of her magazine columns. Her e-mail address is

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