Occasionally, outside pressures force us to re-evaluate the water use in our gardens. Barbara Flynn was surprised to learn how easily her established Seattle-area garden would thrive with little water.
It’s said that Seattleites don’t tan, they rust. Some years are certainly wet, but recently we have had so little rainfall that we have had water restrictions applied. In 2001, we were asked to cut our water consumption by twenty-five percent. The price of water was raised dramatically resulting in bills in excess of $1,500 for a two-month period. Ouch! Previously, I had always watered my garden either by hand or with oscillating sprinklers when the plants seemed to need it; with the new restrictions, I decided to give supplemental water only to container plantings. The rest of our quarter-acre garden would have to get by on what nature provided.
The first fatalities were two rhododendrons and a Ceanothus ‘Puget Blue’. The astounding fact is that the rest of the plants in my garden have not only survived but flourished! The soil here is glacial till with patches of pure sand. Yards of aged steer manure were added before any planting was done, and every November another layer is added as mulch. We live in a community east of Seattle’s Lake Washington, in an area considered zone five by Sunset and zone eight by USDA standards.
The front garden has three great trees that help to buffer the winds. Pinus strobus ‘White Mountain’ is a full-sized selection of eastern white pine, with five-needle clusters in a soft bluish green. Nearby is a Himalayan white pine (Pinus wallichiana), whose good deep green foliage is a foil for bright colors. The third is Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Frisia’ with striking golden yellow foliage from spring to fall. Tiarellas and hostas thrive under the pines. Pacific Coast native irises mix with white fawn lily (Erythronium oregonum) and camas (Camassia leichtlinii) at the less shady edges. Daylilies (Hemerocallis) in the brightest oranges, corals, and reds fill the sunny spots and crocosmias increase rapidly here. Wheatgrass (Elymus hispidus) and blue oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens), both with beautiful blue foliage, provide a fine contrast for the perennials. Phlomis russeliana has pagodas of soft yellow flowers to blend with purple Spanish lavender (Lavandula stoechas) and add a Mediterranean feeling to this mélange. Cream colored California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) and Euphorbia characias seed and grow lushly in this west-facing area. Maintenance is pretty easy: I just pull out the ones that appear in the wrong places!
The White Garden
A simple but elegant wrought iron gate opens from the small front lawn (which, without irrigation, fades to brown by mid-summer) to the gravel path of the White Garden. The garden at Sissinghurst Castle has long been my favorite, and this little area was perfect for contrasting darkness with light. Eucryphia x intermedia ‘Rostrevor’ has great camellia-like white blossoms in the fall and good dark green foliage the rest of the year. Carpenteria californica ‘Elizabeth’ not only has great cupped white flowers but a distinctive peeling bark on its slender stems. A weeping silver pear (Pyrus salicifolia ‘Pendula’) shimmers with the breezes that constantly glide through this garden. Magnolia salicifolia ‘Elsie Frye’ has narrow white slips of petals and is splendid with the lovely white daffodil ‘Thalia’, which I cannot live without.
Midsummer is when this garden really comes into its own. The soaring, icy pillars of Campanula lactiflora ‘Alba’, the climbing and bush forms of Rosa ‘Iceberg’, and an old unnamed phlox give sparkle and scent to this small area.
After the brilliance of the White Garden, the dark coolness of the adjacent woodland is as welcome as iced tea on a hot day. This garden is at its most floriferous in spring, when the elegant double white pompoms of Anemone nemorosa ‘Vestal’ , various trilliums, a small collection of Paris species, silver-leaved lungworts (Pulmonaria), and sultry hellebores weave themselves into a fascinating carpet. Their adventurous offspring often pop up in the barked paths. The loveliest scene in spring is the unfurling of the hairy tan crosiers of ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) over the dappled leaves of hepaticas and mosses in a small log-edged circle. Later, other ferns and the leafy canopy of deciduous trees—fragrant snowbell (Styrax obassia), Pterostryrax hispida, and several mountain ash (Sorbus) make this a cool oasis.
Planting for the Birds
The woodland leads into what we have come to call the Bird Walk. When twenty-five acres nearby were cleared in less than a week, we found birds by the score lining up on our fence. They were quiet, probably in a state of shock. We put out masses of bird seed and planted along this path berried plants that would provide feasts for them. Mahonias glow with great panicles of yellow blossoms in winter, followed by tempting blue or purple berries. Sorbus ‘Joseph Rock’ and S. forrestii have berries that are usually the last to be eaten. Rosa moyesii covers itself with pink-petalled flowers, each with a huge boss of golden stamens, followed by pear-shaped orange hips that the blue jays seem to enjoy. Visitors always remark on the great numbers of birds that live here, and we never tire of their antics.
A double line of fastigiate golden yews (Taxus baccata ‘Aurea’) marches out from the patio and deck. Between them are planted peonies. Surely no sultan ever had a harem of more voluptuous, languid beauties than these. Paeonia ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ is still drawing the crowds and P. ‘Chocolate Soldier ‘ is as tasty a morsel as could be. Another peony is a nameless beauty given me thirty years ago by a woman who was ninety then and had received it years earlier from her mother. Peonies are also stunning in early spring when great platoons of their purple shoots set off the many other optimistic early risers. Corydalis solida cultivars jump up displaying delicate sprays of deep pink or purple. Indigo blue grape hyacinth (Muscari) and glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa) do well here as do a collection of narcissus from Grant Mitsch’s Oregon nursery. Later, the great leaves of the peonies hide the dying foliage of the bulbs and form a background for the airy stems of angels’ fishing rods (Dierama pulcherrimum). Dieramas are not completely hardy here and are a favorite of voles, but they seed around between the paving stones and make a good show. Annuals, such as Omphalodes linifolia with quaint little white flowers followed by tiny navel-shaped seedpods, appreciate our dry summers. All these ephemerals are cleared away in late fall, and lime chips are put down to discourage botrytis. The bare earth is a wonderful change from the boskiness of sunnier times.
A Warm Border
The warmest part of the garden is reserved for the perennial border. This border is not very large, about thirty-four by fourteen feet. The hottest colors are in the foreground and a spine of cool colors runs down the middle. It is here that the teasel relative, Cephalaria gigantea, stages a Tchaikovskian ballet with each swirling flower head clad in a cream silk tutu. Aconitum ‘Stainless Steel’ flourishes nearby. This wonderful plant, like some rare people, manages to make all its neighbors look better than they really are while modestly displaying its own beauty. Behind these tall perennials are free-seeding geraniums such as Geranium pratense ‘Mrs Kendall Clark’ and many floriferous but short-lived penstemons. These are the underpinnings for roses, such as Rosa ‘La Reine Victoria’ with cupped pink blossoms, the striped antique Rosa mundi, and subtle grey-leaved Rosa glauca. Stocky Nepeta sibirica ‘Souvenir de André Chaudron’ provides a good blue background and blends beautifully with pink Lavandula angustifolia ‘Jean Davis’.
The border terminates in an Italian-style garden. When we lived in Turkey, an altar was discovered at Ephesus with a circular gold disk on which was carved the profile of the Emperor Augustus. I found a similar head at the Pike Place Market in Seattle and sprayed it gold. This was attached to the rectangular wall of a small pool. Boxwood hedges lead to the pool and set in the path are three stepping stones. They were carved by a tombstone engraver. The first says ‘Veni,’ the second ‘Vidi,’ but the third only has a ‘V’ instead of ‘Vici.’ This is because you may come to a garden; you may see a garden, but you will never conquer a garden—which is the way it should be.