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The back garden didn’t really get started until the fall of 2008. That’s partly because it was such a godforsaken jungle, and partly because I didn’t know what the hell to do with the space. When we first moved in, there was a narrow lawn running the length of the house, with a bunch of overgrown hydrangeas and rhododendrons at the west end. Against the house itself was an impenetrable tangle of fatshedera, growing on a pair of wooden trellises, mingled with nandina. You couldn’t even see out the windows! The best thing about the space was a series of south-facing terraces that rose from the north side of the lawn and went all the way to the property line: more sun and good drainage.
As you can see, there were plank-edged raised beds on the largest of the terraces, where the previous owners had grown vegetables and blueberries, and the perimeter of the yard was planted with sumacs (weedy), birches (not suited to a summer-dry climate), and Callery pears (awful beyond the power of words to describe).
That’s a pink flowering dogwood looming over everything (second photo from right, above); the other plants are sword ferns, Japanese anemones, and a rather sorry crop of weeds. And did I mention the ivy? (Or as we like to call it, the “kudzu of the Northwest.”) The structure in the back is a small shed whose purpose I was never able to determine. Access to the terraces is by a narrow set of stone stairs, which divides the terraces into two uneven sections.
Even though at this stage I didn’t know what I wanted the garden to be like, I knew what I didn’t want in it: the lawn, those messy vines up against the house, the overgrown shrubs, the raised beds, the boring perennials, and that dumb shed. And so Operation Tabula Rasa II was launched (photo right), to the further horror of the neighbors.
I will admit that when we took down the trees that had been screening us from the adjacent properties, it looked a little, um, nude. So I planted some broadleaved evergreen trees that would eventually provide a year-round privacy screen. Among these pleasant creatures, representing a good chunk of eastern Asia as well as the Southern Hemisphere, were Osmanthus ×fortunei ‘San Jose’; Maytenus boaria; Eucalyptus subcrenulata; Trochodendron aralioides; Eriobotrya japonica; Eucryphia lucida; Nothopanax delavayi; and Quercus acuta. They provide an array of beautiful leaf textures, and, with luck, won’t overgrow the sites they occupy.
But before I could start to think seriously about design and plants for the rest of the backyard, there was a major issue to confront: the deck. It runs along the east side of the house and then opens up to a large platform that overlooks the entire back garden. As an element of the overall landscape, it’s admirably functional, providing a link between the house and the back garden, as well as space for an outdoor dining table and chairs. The problem was, it was rotting. Built of untreated cedar, it was near the end of its natural lifespan when we bought the house. Two years after we moved in, there were spots where you could put your foot through the planks. And in winter, it became covered with a coat of slimy green algae that made walking on it a near-death experience.
What to do? Who to call? For a couple of years, I’d been noticing a design firm, based in Eugene, Oregon, called Mosaic Gardens, that had been cropping up in various garden magazines. It turned out that Mosaic Gardens was two people—Buell Steelman and Rebecca Sams. What mattered, however, was not the size of the company; what mattered was their work, which looked clean, modern, and exciting. I e-mailed them to ask if they would consider building us a new deck. To my delight, they said yes, even though they had largely moved away from deck-building. And so in the summer of 2008, Buell, with his assistant, Marcus, built us a deck of sustainably-harvested ipe wood, which is a beautiful, rich brown, hard as nails, and doesn’t get coated with algae in our wet winters.
The deck, I’m happy to say, turned out to be absolutely gorgeous. But Buell was responsible for yet another major part of the landscape: he removed the scraggly lawn and turned it into an elegant gravel terrace. The transformation was breathtaking. Buell also found an enormous Vietnamese blackware pot to serve as a focal point at the far end of the terrace. It’s big enough to cook a naughty ten-year-old in (it took five large men to carry it from the street to the backyard) and is a thing of sublime beauty.
And now, finally, I could start to think about what I actually wanted to do.
I wanted something completely different from the silvery, Mediterranean-style garden in the front yard: grassy textures, clear, warm floral colors, exotic-looking foliage. I wanted the overall effect to be one of barbaric splendor—something Attila or Alaric the Goth would feel at home in. But I needed help. Given my, ahem, tendencies, I knew I’d plant one of this and one of that, and the whole thing would wind up being a mishmash. So I got in touch with my friend Lauren Hall-Behrens, the owner of Lilyvilla Gardens, a design business based in Portland. I’d seen Lauren’s own garden and greatly admired her clean, modern aesthetic and her flair for combining plants. At first, I simply wanted to consult with her about the plant palette, but she eventually came up with a brilliant hardscape plan as well, which incorporated strips of rusty steel and square pavers of charcoal-gray limestone. This added an intriguing geometric element to the gravel terrace while providing additional planting areas. The planting plan called for bold clumps of Phormium ‘Yellow Wave’, windmill palms (Trachycarpus wagnerianus), grasses, restios, and sedges, all arranged in a symmetrical pattern (which you don’t even notice unless you’re smack dab in the center of the gravel terrace) and punctuated by exclamation points of Ilex crenata ‘Sky Pencil’ planted on a grid. Lauren also had the inspired idea to plant what will eventually be a formal hedge of Euonymus ‘Green Spire’ behind the Vietnamese pot.
The floral component consists mainly of agapanthus, crocosmias, salvias, kniphofias, and clematis allowed to trail along the ground. The color palette is limited to scarlet, orange, bright yellow, indigo, and deep violet. No wussy pastels allowed. Peak bloom occurs between late June and September, because that’s when we use the deck the most. At the west end of the garden, which is in the shade from about noon onward, there are lots of evergreen ferns. Also at the west end, a large jelly palm (Butia capitata) occupies a sunny niche in the bottom-most terrace. It blends curiously well with the ferns around it.
The key plants went in the ground in the spring of 2009, and as of this writing (November 2009), everything is still settling in, but I’m (so far) delighted with the result. It will no doubt continue to evolve, as gardens do, and some plants will be switched out or replaced. You’ll just have to stay tuned.
Is the garden finished? Hah! Next, the hellstrip (right):