A Season at the Chase Garden

Springtime in the alpine garden at the Chase Garden in Orting, Washington. Photographs by William Noble

Springtime in the alpine garden at the Chase Garden in Orting, Washington. Photographs by William Noble

Gardens remain alive only so long as there is a passionate and knowledgeable gardener tending them. The Garden Conservancy believes that gardens are best preserved if there are talented horticulturists, committed to carrying on an owner’s vision for the garden, who are also capable of inspiring and teaching people how to appreciate and preserve gardens. Recognizing the need to recruit and train gardeners committed to this mission, the Garden Conservancy instituted a Fellowship program in 1999. The third recipient of the fellowship, and the first to be honored as the Marco Polo Stufano Garden Conservancy Fellow, Caroline Eells reports on her expectations and experience of the fellowship from the Chase Garden in Orting, Washington.

William Noble

It is a gorgeous day with Mt Rainier revealing itself, the meadow coming to life, and the spring sun illuminating a bit of what is to come. Whatever the season or time of day, the Chase Garden never fails to move me. It is one of the loveliest gardens I have known, and it holds a special place in my heart.

My first visit to the Chase Garden in Orting, Washington, came in 1999 during the second year of my internship at Stonecrop Gardens, in Cold Spring, New York. I immediately fell in love with the garden’s meandering pathways, artistic patchwork, and organic curves. Little did I know I would be given the opportunity to work in this spectacular environment as the Marco Polo Stufano Garden Conservancy Fellow, helping the Conservancy in its mission to preserve the Chase Garden. In the past four months, I have gained insight into the meaning and importance of garden preservation. Preserving this unique Northwest garden will ensure the continuance of its distinctive plant collection and artful landscape and will carry on the vision realized by the hard-working and creative hands of Emmott and Ione Chase (see Pacific Horticulture, Spring ’98).

My work at Stonecrop sparked an interest in pursuing a career in the field of public horticulture. I felt that the Conservancy fellowship would help hone my skills as a horticulturist while teaching me the organizational and managerial skills needed to operate a public garden. I wanted to assist in the transition of the Chase garden from a private garden to a public garden by focusing on people, plants, and conservation.

In terms of day-to-day responsibilities, my tasks fall into three practical realms: garden maintenance, organizational development, and garden documentation. Since arriving in Orting on the day before the March earthquake, I have spent most of my time working in the garden and becoming acquainted with its owners. The Chases have nurtured their garden as parents would a child. They have watched it evolve into a garden masterpiece over a period of forty years. It is not surprising that most of the stories they tell relate to the history of the garden, its design, or the gathering of its plants, as well as the occasional humorous tale of someone’s mishap in the garden. I have a deep fondness and admiration for the Chases and have spent many enjoyable lunch hours listening to their tales.

My gardening time has been spent mostly on large projects that Ione has been eager to complete. One of these included transplanting rhododendrons and azaleas of great and small sizes. Head gardener Jeannette Matthews and I work as a team, designing and planting beds that Ione has recently laid out. The three of us discuss what needs to be done in the garden each morning. In addition to our daily tasks, we have an ongoing prioritized garden chore list. This list is continuously expanding and shrinking, and this keeps our days full of excitement and mystery, but as the major projects conclude, and the warmer summer months set in, we focused more on general garden tidying, weeding, and cleanup.

When autumn rolls in with its cooler temperatures, we will pick up the pace and concentrate on renovating another large portion of the garden. In preparation for opening the property year-round as a public garden, we are also incorporating more plants into the garden that will have mid- to late summer interest.

The terrace at the Chase Garden in Orting, Washington

The terrace at the Chase Garden in Orting, Washington

Although I have extensive experience managing the physical demands of a garden, I am discovering that some of the most challenging aspects of this fellowship deal with the organization behind the garden, particularly in terms of education and public relations. I dedicate approximately forty percent of my time to the following tasks:

  • organizing an emerging public garden information exchange
  • designing and illustrating a native plant brochure
  • contributing articles to the Chase Garden newsletter
  • giving tours to various groups and individuals visiting the garden
  • creating mailings for and organizing volunteer work parties
  • designing events and volunteer advertisements in local newspapers and garden publications.

Finally, plant and maintenance documentation is fundamental to the preservation of any garden, public or private. To ensure that current and future garden staff have this foundation, I devote about ten per cent of my time to the plant inventory. I gather data from the field and enter it into a plant database. Then, using a digital camera I record a visual image of each plant. The long-term goal is for all plants in the garden to be included in the database, complete with photographic images. In addition to documenting the garden flora, I am also making a record of routine and cyclical garden maintenance projects. One of the goals of my fellowship includes the creation of a garden maintenance record that can be used by future gardeners and staff of the Chase Garden.

Through my relationship with the Chases and their garden, and by achieving the goals specific to this fellowship, I am gaining a deeper understanding of the importance of garden preservation. Although at times, the scope of the work necessary to preserve this garden seems daunting, a simple walk along its paths confirms that it’s well worth the effort. I am grateful to be playing a small part in the process.