While the city of Portland, Oregon is known for its wet, rainy weather, it was a dry, 100-degree day in July when I visited the “The Fishingham Garden” for the first time. Surrounding the home of Jeff Fisher and husband Ed Cunningham, the property was nicknamed by friends jokingly combining their last names when referring to the yard. A favorite of many Portland garden enthusiasts, it is chronicled via Instagram and Facebook for fans and known for the energetic combinations of colors, plants, and garden art.
Jeff has an artist’s touch and a true talent for gardening and captures vibrant photos of his plant collection. He and Ed have been gardening together there for twenty years, finding it to be a creative and expressive experience for them. The neighborhood is family-friendly, but it wasn’t always. “A huge motivation for the initial design and planting of the front garden space was that no one on our street spent any time in the front yards of the homes, or socialized with neighbors or walked through the neighborhood. When we moved in, In the late 90s, we moved into what was definitely a transitional neighborhood.”
They both adored the house, a 1920’s bungalow, especially after living in downtown Portland. They were ready to be in a neighborhood and have the space to garden. Moving into the Arbor Lodge neighborhood brought back a renewed interest in gardening for Jeff, one that began in childhood with his grandparents during summers in Medford, Oregon. He recalls, “My grandfather had a half-acre vegetable garden and my grandmother would plant flowers for cutting in between the rows of vegetables. She was a very orderly gardener and the rest of the yard was always very neat and tidy. My great-grandmother gardened in a much more English garden manner. Her garden was very wild and fun to me. One of the highlights of gardening with her was the fact she had a yard debris cart that was pulled by one of her goats.” As Jeff became a teenager, gardening became a chore, although he still enjoyed the more creative aspects of planting hanging baskets and designing annual container plantings with his mother.
Design Process and Partners
The Fishingham Garden is set on an urban 50’ x 100’ plot and the artful design clearly takes inspiration from Jeff’s great-grandmother’s aesthetic. It includes productive raised vegetable beds, a curated collection of garden art, multiple seating and entertaining areas, a tool shed, a potting bench, two grills, and an estimated 300 plus plant varieties.
The original hardscape plans for the garden were developed in 1999. The “Fishinghams” began discussing what could become outdoor living spaces with landscape designer John Caine, who was working with Joy Creek Nursery at the time. John created the original hardscape design for the front garden, including the retaining wall with stairs on each end, garden paths, and the irrigation system. Making use of the borrowed view of the two-block city park across the street was important in the design. The plants were selected by Joy Creek Nursery’s Mike Smith, and their display garden located in Scappoose, Oregon served as ongoing inspiration and a source for acquiring new plants each season. In 2006 they collaborated again with Joy Creek to craft functional outdoor living spaces with a dining and seating area, raised vegetable beds, and an area for a large grill that might eventually become an outdoor kitchen. The following year the last remaining lawn was removed to make room for a front paver patio.
A Colorful Abundance of Plants, Pots, and Art
What draws fans in via Instagram and what makes the Fishingham Garden unique are the vibrant colors and eclectic plant palette. This garden is filled with unique combinations, many containers, and vibrantly-colored Adirondack chairs. Jeff acknowledges his style is “not for everyone,” to which I would counter, it should be. It’s clear that Jeff, who works professionally as a graphic designer, has an eye for color and texture and a very green thumb.
The garden is a visual fiesta, with bright combinations of perennials and annuals, interplanted with shrubs and trees. With so much to see it’s hard to know where to look first. There are blooms everywhere. The garden doesn’t feel chaotic, just captivating. The high-density planting style is an excellent weed prevention, and although everything is planted closely it’s not visually overcrowded. Each garden bed is abundant but the plants whimsically shade and grow into each other. Avid gardeners know that there is “always room for one more plant,” and the container plantings are evidence of that in practice.
Jeff admits that he can never get away with hiding new art or plants for very long because Ed is the “Irrigation manager” of the property. They have 54 pots on drip irrigation and everything looks so healthy, it is clear he takes this responsibility seriously. In this classic North Portland neighborhood, their garden serves as an oasis for birds and pollinators. Hummingbirds flew throughout the garden during our visit and enjoyed a water bubbler. There’s a steel fire bowl and art is placed with a curator’s intention to create a carefully designed work of art.
Local Portland Nurseries
Our visit took place during COVID-19’s second wave, so we took precautions to stay six feet apart and wear masks when looking closely at plants together. Around Portland, most nurseries have been able to stay open or re-open by the time of our meeting. Jeff favors Portland’s smaller, inner-city nurseries and garden centers like Garden Fever, Pistils Nursery, Portland Nursery, Pomarius Nursery, Birds & Bees Nursery, Livingscape, and Thicket, all of which have been sources of plants in his garden. Marbott’s Nursery and Tony’s Garden Center are sources of many annuals throughout the gardening season.
A Garden for Health and Community
Pre-COVID-19, Jeff was already accustomed to working from home and taking time daily to work in the garden. Six years into a diagnosis of the chronic pain disorder CRPS (Complex Regional Pain Syndrome), Jeff has found his doctors “prescribing” work in the garden as a therapy to get needed exercise and take his mind off his condition. He and Ed have found the positive side of the uncertain current COVID-19 circumstances. “Oddly, there’s been almost greater satisfaction working in the garden in a year when fewer people are likely to see the results. Gardening has been instrumental in keeping me sane during the pandemic. A real sense of greater community has developed with neighbors on both sides of our home being out in their gardens on a regular basis. Young children of the neighbors on one side love to garden and our front garden space has been deemed a safe place for them to visit, as has the backyard of our other neighbor where the kids can pick raspberries. When neighbors are out gardening we have an opportunity to check-in, to make sure everyone is doing OK, and see if anything is needed”.