Pacific Northwest | January 25, 2004Pacific Northwest MagazineJanuary 25, home
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Out of the Thicket
An uphill battle is won with bricks, boulders and bulbs
The tower presides over the knot garden, affording a lofty view while sheltering the bench beneath. Its ornamental railings, paned windows and decorated peak complement the old-fashioned intricacy of the knot garden at its feet.
KATHY AND ED Fries moved from a condominium to their Juanita waterfront home for the view, and for the first decade there paid little attention to the wild thicket that choked the property. Gardening wasn't even a consideration when Kathy worked long hours as a project manager in the aerospace industry. Besides, their piece of property would daunt the most experienced of gardeners: a 900-foot-long triangle that's narrow at the street and widens as it slants steeply down to Lake Washington.

"It was impenetrable except for the driveway," says Kathy. "It was all blackberries, ivy and weeds."

Kathy started gardening with a modest five-year plan to beat a path through the undergrowth to the mailbox. "I was so naive I didn't know enough to be overwhelmed," she explains.

Kathy grew up in Minnesota, where her mother has a garden of hostas, and she remembers her Wisconsin grandmother growing huge tomatoes. But gardening on a steep slope beneath the dense shade of conifers was a whole new proposition. She started out by carving paths through the tangle, working out from the driveway and following the contours of the land. As she found logs and rocks she used them to form beds and little patios. Some areas were weeded by hand, but as she caught gardening fever she brought in heavy equipment to speed up the cleaning-out process.

Renowned bulb expert Jean Gardiner, then 90 years old, lived next door, and Kathy was lucky enough to be taken under her wing and introduced to fellow gardeners as well as the Washington Park Arboretum. Kathy began volunteering and attending lectures, and it wasn't too long before she concluded that her job was cutting into her gardening time. So she quit and kept gardening her way up the slope.

Kathy Fries' mother sent the garden angel, which spreads her wings in a bed of ivy.
The pattern of the brick circle and knot garden is formed of little hedges of germander, variegated and dwarf box.
The garden is enlivened with this little rabbit and other small sculptures of toads, lizards and squirrels.
Huge, mossy stones from Marenakos Rock Center in Issaquah form the boulder garden.
Porcelain hands from a latex-glove factory line one edge of the driveway, waving visitors on down the hill to the house.
Goldeen is a Buff Orpington, a breed of large, stately birds with quiet dispositions.

Kathy Fries worked her way through the overgrown garden, laying stone pathways and patios, and building beds out of logs and rocks she unearthed as she cleared out weeds and ivy. The rustic twig chair and table fit into the casual woodland setting and offer a place to pause partway up the steep garden.
Kathy left a thick, textural screen of cedars along one side for privacy. She also kept plenty of salal, Douglas fir and madrona to give the garden a casual, Northwest feel. Now a yellow garden blooms in early spring, filled with primroses, daffodils and honeysuckle. Every Easter, the Frieses host a big party with an egg and scavenger hunt through the garden, so peak bloom time is planned for early to midspring.

Midway up the hillside are the remnants of an old orchard, which is the only open, sunny space on the property. Kathy has rejuvenated some of the old trees, added the surprise of a lush banana grove and planted vegetables. Now the apple, plum and Asian pear trees are underplanted with bulbs, perennials, hostas and groundcovers. Squeezed in are beans, raspberries, tomatoes, nasturtiums, lettuce and peppers — "everything I need to make salsa," says Kathy. She also grows gourds and giant pumpkins, which she feeds with zoo doo; her record is a 400-pounder. Rows of chard nourish her flock of chickens that live nearby in a fancifully luxurious house with a little garden all their own.

In gardening, one thing leads inexorably to another, giving Kathy a perfectly plausible explanation for the tower. It is all due to the knot garden, which she formed with tidy interwoven hedges of variegated box, dwarf box and germander. But, of course, you need to look down on a knot garden to get the full effect. What else to do but build a tower? Local craftsman John Acres (who also designed and built the chicken house) constructed a clever little tower retreat, a focal point for the garden as well as a perch for viewing what's below.
Local craftsman John Acres built the arched bridge, as well as the tower and a chicken house, all useful structures and focal points, especially early in the year when the herbaceous layer of the garden hasn't yet emerged. (Acres can be contacted through A Garden of Distinction in Georgetown, 206-763-0517, where his work is on display.)
The entirety of the garden between chickens and the street is a woodland, and Kathy installed winding brick paths beneath the conifers, planting their edges with bleeding hearts, ferns and arisaemas. For impact beneath the trees, she brought in several huge boulders from Marenakos Rock Center in Issaquah, planting their rough surfaces with sedums and mosses. In summer, hardy fuchsias and 15-foot white Casablanca lilies surround the boulders.

To form the gardens beneath the trees, she worked with her friend and fellow rhody fancier Richie Steffen to select more than 50 species rhododendrons with interesting bark and unusual foliages. "I took to heart advice from Nancy Davidson Short (former Sunset magazine editor) when I shopped," says Kathy. "Nancy said buying a rhododendron in flower is like marrying a woman for her Easter bonnet." An amazing diversity of leaves offers year-round interest.

Bloom may not have been the main criteria for choosing the rhodies, but to further spring along Kathy went all out on daffodils. She and horticulturist Bob Lilly selected more than a dozen varieties. Now 7,000 of these spring beauties run in river-like swathes through the garden, arranged so the brighter oranges and yellows bloom at the back, the mid-yellows brighten the species rhododendron area, and the palest white and pinks like 'Mt. Hood' and 'Salome' are clustered in the boulder garden. She even makes a feature of the dying foliage, laying it down in big sweeps all facing the same direction so it looks as if a big wind just swept through and blew it down.

As the daffodils fade, deciduous ferns, toad lilies, Japanese anemones, hostas and hardy fuchsias grow up to fill in the summer layers of the garden.

While Kathy is clearly the gardener in the family, now assisted (and sometimes hindered) by her young son, Xander, she says her husband, Ed, likes the giant pumpkins and a recently planted grove of timber bamboo. The latest project is a flowering tree and shrub border, which will help carry this early spring garden on into summer. But spring and the egg hunt are what get Kathy's attention. "Spring is just so fun," she says, "it is starting over every year."

Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her e-mail address is Barry Wong is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.

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