Pacific Northwest | February 1, 2004Pacific Northwest MagazineFebruary 1, home
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Special Garden Issue

 Illustration Pacific Northwest garden contest
First place
A Woodland World
Charlene and Jim Geiszler are art and music lovers who find daily delight in their garden and in the company of friends. They say persistence is crucial when it comes to making an appealing garden.
WHEN JIM AND Charlene Geiszler step onto the upper-level porch of their Shoreline home, they can sink into rattan chairs and relax in complete privacy amid a woodland setting of Japanese maples, vine maples, bamboo, decorative grasses and ferns. A gurgling waterfall in one of two modest pools disguises the rumble from the outside world, including nearby Interstate 5.

Their lot is just 60 by 100 feet, but appears boundless. A borrowed backdrop of tall birch, locust and fir trees in a canyon greenbelt at the north property line adds major scope to the main garden, which is level with the first floor of the house. Closer in are a fingernail of lawn and an adjoining courtyard, where benches and Adirondack chairs line the edge of a small pond. Raised border areas mirror the arc of the lawn, while nearby plots are so intensively planted that boundaries blur. The color palette is calming, the overall effect restrained.
Roughly half of the Geiszlers' back garden is visible in this view from the back deck. The terrace was Jim's birthday gift to Charlene last year and features a small pond, at left. The tall trees are part of a greenbelt.
Other nooks encourage outdoor gatherings, including chairs under an arbor and rustic seats around a campfire ring near the big trees.

This carefully planned garden, which suggests an idealized forest glade, placed first in the 11th-annual Pacific Northwest Competition for Home Gardeners out of a field of 94 entrants. The Geiszlers have won round-trip airfare, lodging expenses and admission for two to London's 2004 Chelsea Flower Show. Jim and Charlene, who celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary this past summer, plan to make it a much-delayed honeymoon.

Final-round judges were struck by this garden's overall harmony, while preliminary judges noted the garden was "a stunning example of thoughtful preparation, diligent execution and attention to detail." One praised the "awesome use of shades of green."

Jim says gardening is largely a matter of paying attention to proportion, dimension and scale. Yet their private paradise also has an aesthetic sweetness, which is harder to measure. Call it a sense of ease or plain good vibes. This sought-after quality is gardening's will-o'-the-wisp.
Grass-like papyrus normally flourishes in small ponds, although these plants may not outlast marauding raccoons attracted to goldfish.
The effect is such that their house seems grafted to the landscape. That's fortunate, because both front and back gardens are approached by walking through it. The couple is happy with that, because the outdoors is a natural extension of their living space.

The Geiszlers placed third in the garden competition in 2000. They knew rigorous garden maintenance would be necessary to compete this time, but decided to have fun — no matter the outcome.

"The whole garden is new since February" (2003) anyway, Jim says, including a centerpiece pond outlined in river rock, an all-shade garden and a patio.

"For my 50th birthday, Jim surprised me by starting in on the courtyard" in the back garden, Charlene says. Before removing most of the lawn, he calculated the ideal proportions and created an outline in gravel. The slight curve of grass he spared offers breathing room between the courtyard and raised-bed plantings.
Why travel to a forest glade when a good substitute is out the back door? This prize-winning garden reflects the owners' desire for a peaceful retreat to share with friends.
After tapping concrete pavers into place, he achieved a weathered-stone appearance, first by applying a redwood stain, then gray and finally green.

The couple must have a hundred pots at work throughout the garden. "We're real spontaneous," Jim says. "We can pop things in and move them around. Most of the color is in pots." Also in containers are tender specimens, such as princess flower (Tibouchina), and semi-hardy plants, including banana. Heavy pots are slid onto a dolly and wheeled under cover for winter.

The Geiszlers used a $100 gift certificate — awarded by Swanson's Nursery to each of the top 15 contestants — to buy a number of grasses, which they placed before the final judging and which now are among their favorite plants. They've long been fond of summersweet (Clethra alnifolia) and common heliotrope, and have placed them here and there for fragrance.

Structure comes mainly from maples. Vine maples, a Northwest native, are key; they have more than a dozen of them. They also have strategically planted 10 of the smaller Japanese-maple cultivars.
Pulmonaria, also known as lungwort, blooms in early spring, has a dappled leaf that is attractive in the shade garden and is practically foolproof if kept watered.
They aim for balance from every viewing angle. Jim sized the lower pond, for example, so proportions would be in keeping with the rest of the garden.

He designed an overhanging-shelf configuration for the rock lip around the pool to discourage raccoons, but unfortunately they studied the same textbook, and aquatic plants take a beating.

Every year the couple amend the soil by adding about a hundred bags of compost mix. As a result, they lost nothing to the heat of last summer, says Charlene, who goes out every day, checking for needs. "Nobody should be droopy. Everybody should be happy."

Though they decide matters jointly, Jim, who is red/green colorblind, usually leaves color choices to Charlene. Their garden has evolved into the showcase for foliage it is today because the couple came to prefer the subtlety of lime green, variegated hues and shifting shapes of leaves and branches over the punch of perennials.

Jim drastically remodeled the house in 1985, brought in 200 yards of topsoil and planted an earlier version of the existing garden at that time. The couple study books and magazines for ideas and tour other gardens. Charlene suggests gardeners stick with one all-purpose groundcover — something they did not do. One never stops improving a garden, she says.

Charlene works at a University of Washington medical clinic. Jim teaches an alternative-high-school program in Bothell, where he has allowed students to contribute community service by helping turn a couple hundred square feet of unused ground at the school into a garden. "It's always three or four months down the line" for the payoff, Jim notes, and that is a useful lesson in setting goals and persistence.

When things are going well in the garden, Jim sometimes has a sense of fulfilled expression that can't really be explained. "But anyone who's in it will know what I mean. It brings a joy greater than I would have thought."

Charlene agrees, adding, "It's where I release my energy at night. I think there's no coincidence there's a renaissance in gardening. People need to nurture."

First place | Second place | Third place

Dean Stahl is a Seattle-based freelance writer and editor. Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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