When a busload of 80 garden bloggers—overheated and travel-weary—descended upon Westwind Farm Studio one July afternoon, the exhaustion they’d felt just moments before began to fade away as they fell under the charm of this extraordinary place. Owner Maryellen McCulloch couldn’t have been happier. Connection to a larger community—be it bloggers from around the world, or wildlife that regularly visits—and connecting that community to the earth, is at the very heart of what Maryellen and her husband Michael want for their land.
Nestled in the hills northwest of downtown Portland, Westwind Farm has been home to Maryellen and her two children since 2003; her architect husband, Michael McCulloch, joined them in 2005. Maryellen recalls it was around 2006 when they began to look out at the land around the home—a midcentury modern classic designed by Pietro Belluschi—and see a project, a 20-year plan with far-reaching benefits they may not be around to enjoy. Gardening for the future, in other words.
Their project resides on two adjoining 40-acre parcels. Approximately 60 of those acres were previously logged, allowing invasive plants like blackberries to move in. The undisturbed 20 acres includes a beautiful forest and native understory that is now protected by a conservation easement. No one can legally cut down those trees.
As you enter the property, zones of complexity, plant-wise, increase as you move toward the home and the land becomes more cultivated. Work on the garden proper began in 2007 when four acres around the home were contoured and terraced under the direction of Michael McCulloch and Eamonn Hughes, and one thousand tons of rocks were brought in. Under McCulloch’s watchful (and particular) eye, the stone was placed as though it had always been there, naturally exposed as the surrounding ground was worn away. It was at this time that the four newer buildings on the site were constructed—a poolhouse/yoga studio, garage/office, guest house, and greenhouse.
Garden designers Beth Holland, Ann Lovejoy, and Laura Crockett, developed the plant palette and oversaw installation. The dream team was complete with Eamonn Hughes, who designed the naturalistic waterfall, pond, and the saltwater pool.
The next phase of garden development got underway in 2013 when grass guru John Greenlee began work on a meadow above the home. Greenlee’s vision has since grown to touch all aspects of the garden, and a master plan, of sorts, has emerged. What began as a designer/client relationship between Greenlee and the McCullochs, has developed into a true friendship. He encourages them to regard the entire property as their garden, not just the four acres around the house. Each visit from Greenlee results in a new project that Mike and Maryellen see through to completion.
The meadow is part restoration and part introduced plantings. Native prairie grasses have been mixed with forbs and flowers. Willamette daisy (Erigeron decumbens) has been easy to establish, and Festuca idahoensis has met with some success. Lupine seeds and Gaillardia were planted; the Gaillardia was slow to get going, but two years later it now seems well established.
For meadow maintenance, Greenlee campaigns for an annual rejuvenating burn. However, concerned about the wildlife a fire might harm, Maryellen can’t bring herself to light the match. As a compromise, the meadow is mowed every other year.
Maryellen describes the overall approach to the meadow and the garden as one of “wait and see.” The McCullochs watch the movement of plants over time and try to embrace choices the plants make about their placement. Nevertheless, if a species appears to be taking over, steps are taken to control or eradicate it. Or, even better, they’ll find a new location for the plant where it can grow in balance with the garden as a whole.
Near the meadow, rows of lavender have been planted. After appreciating the beauty of lavender farms she visited, Maryellen sought advice on how to get started growing lavender. She learned that while her climate is great for growing lavender, the soil, which is high in iron and calcium, is not. Never being one to let a little detail get in the way, Maryellen had 1000 cubic yards of soil mix hauled in to give the lavender what it needed. Current plantings include two types of Lavandula ×intermedia: ‘Grosso’ and ‘Alba’, and fifteen types of Lavandula angustifolia.
Maryellen makes a habit of observing the land closely as it changes throughout the year. She takes weekly walks through the garden with a video camera to record things of interest. She also pens a garden journal where she records the dates of blooms and other garden minutiae, great for comparing reality against perception from year to year. When asked to name her favorite season, Maryellen mentions the splendor of autumn, but quickly decides early June is the most stunning time in the garden. The peony blooms are opening, the poppies start their colorful display, and the floral progression of the growing season begins.
Sharing with their
As part of their desire to share Westwind Farm Studio with the community, the McCullochs open the farm every July for a weekend-long lavender festival. It’s grown into a family affair, as Maryellen’s daughter has largely taken over running the festival and pursues an active role in baking treats and producing the creams and lotions that are for sale during the event.
There is also an annual spring plant sale at Westwind, selling plants propagated on site along with a curated selection from local nurseries. Maryellen sees these events as a chance to network, support local businesses, and get to know her neighbors better. She also acknowledges the added benefit of having an excuse to order more plants than she can possibly use herself.
The family vegetable garden is another source of community connection, as they’ve made a practice of donating surplus produce to neighbors and local food banks. Maryellen is looking into establishing a relationship with local gleaners.
Sharing with the animals
Before the humans there were animals; Westwind was originally a sheep farm. Maryellen and her late husband, Bill Hockensmith, initially tried to keep sheep—but eventually realized that farming wasn’t their calling. Now, the McCullochs are committed to making the land accessible for wilder residents—whether they’re just passing through or call it home. In the wooded areas, they’ve enhanced existing animal trails, while expanding the overall network.
Regular wildlife sightings include weasels, nutria, deer, elk, and coyotes. Nighthawks and owls make their presence known through their calls, and in the case of one owl, duck-snatching—Maryellen notes it was a particularly quiet disappearance. They’ve also spotted evidence of bears passing through and the occasional cougar and bobcat pawprint.
Deer, those fabled destroyers of gardens, don’t seem to be attracted by the ornamental plant selection at Westwind Farm. Maryellen occasionally sees them nibble on the roses, but since most are climbing types (the roses, not the deer) they can’t eat enough to harm to the plants. Leaving the vegetable garden gate open, however, means certain destruction to anything that appeals to their tastes.
As the steward of Westwind Farm Studio, Maryellen is committed not to making the land into what she wants it to be, but rather helping the land become what it wants to be. She will continue to have conversations with nature to uncover that authenticity.
Sculpture in the Garden
The large rusted metal sculpture adjacent to the pool, a commissioned piece by artist Lee Kelly, is an essential part of the garden experience. Asked about its history Maryellen explains, “We had taken the children to Lee Kelly’s studio in Oregon City and they loved climbing on his sculptures. I think his idea for the piece evolved playfully from that while using the golden ratio to communicate with Mike [McCulloch, who designed the pool house using the same principle] and Pietro [Belluschi] as architects. Originally, we planned for the finished work to be placed out in the pasture. But Lee didn’t like the spot we picked so he made a life-size paper cutout for us to try out in different spots; he immediately began campaigning for this location. When asked about the name of the piece, Lee replied ‘unnamed,’ which drew groans from those of us standing in front of the piece with him. He then said ‘Ok, its Window to the Gone World,’ which drew applause and a toast.”
Maryellen also shares a memory of a nighttime hike with Lee Kelly and his partner Susan Hammer: “The moon was full and we wanted to show them the meadow, to think together about what the place could become. When we came out of the woods and into the meadow, two big beautiful bucks stood up from their rest. We silently stood and watched them as they slowly took their exit from under an apple tree. At that moment, we felt that there was nothing this place could become that would be better than it already was.”
Meet the Bloggers
Creating community and connecting with like-minded gardeners is what garden blogging is all about. The photographs for this story were provided by bloggers who attended the 2014 Garden Bloggers Fling in Portland, Oregon. Each captured the atmosphere of Westwind Farm Studios, filtered through their own way of understanding beauty.
• Scott Weber, lead organizer for the Portland Fling, shares his outstanding photography on his blog at www.rhonestreegardens.com.
• Tamara Paulat recently relocated from a small urban garden to the country. She writes about creating a new, much larger garden at www.chickadeegardens.com.
• Alan Lorence gardens in suburban St. Louis, Missouri and chronicles his bamboo growing and other garden adventures at www.itsnotworkitsgardening.com.
• Kelly Kilpatrick, a garden designer from Oakland, California, shares garden visits and occasional plant-color profiles at www.floradoragardens.blogspot.com.
• Pam Penick, of Austin, Texas, originator of “the Fling” as an annual gathering of garden bloggers held in different host cities, writes on a myriad of garden topics at www.penick.net/digging.