About My Garden, Part I

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Greetings, OverPlanters! You’re here, presumably, because you’re curious about my garden, so let’s begin at the beginning.

My garden is in Portland, Oregon (USDA Zone 8), at the top of the Willamette Valley. (That’s pronounced will-AM-it, by the way, and you should learn to say OR-ih-g’n, not OR-uh-gon.) No climate is perfect, but, from a gardener’s perspective, Portland’s is pretty darned good. Yes, it rains a lot in the winter, but not uninterruptedly; there can be mild, sunny days in January. All winter long lawns are emerald green, as is the moss that clings to stone and brickwork. Often there are rainbows. It doesn’t snow much, except when it does. (In the winter of 2008/9, we got 18 inches.) The temperature will usually fall into the high teens a few times but generally stays above freezing.

In spring (which starts about mid-February and continues through June), the rains gradually taper off, and by early July they stop. For about three months we get sun, blue sky, and low humidity. Usually this is delightful, but you have to water plants with moderate to high water needs. A lot. The temperature will often climb above 90°F, and sometimes above 100°F. (In the summer of 2009, we had three days in a row when the temperature hit 106°F.) Fortunately, it tends to drop about 30°F at night. Plants native to the Mediterranean basin and California (and of course the local natives) do quite well in these conditions and don’t need much supplemental water.

In fall, it starts to get rainy again, and there’s nothing much to do about it except wait or take a trip to Hawaii or Mexico.

The soil in the Willamette Valley is usually heavy and fertile, and can sometimes contain discouraging amounts of clay. Good drainage is all. Compared with the soil in my Boston garden, though—which was essentially stones and glacial till held together by a thin, acidic matrix—Portland soil is pure gold.

I see we have strayed somewhat from the topic at hand, but you do need a bit of context.

Drawing of the house

As all gardeners know, buying a garden (it usually comes with a house attached to it) is a matter of high seriousness, requiring careful deliberation and much questioning of the soul. I looked at about fifty before coming across a real estate ad in the Sunday Oregonian newspaper that looked promising. It was accompanied by the drawing at right:

The only potential problem seemed to be the lack of any means of entering the house, apart from the garage. I trusted that that was an oversight on the part of the artist. When I saw the house, there was, to my relief, a front path that led to a fully functional door. Here’s the house as I first glimpsed it (below left):

Photo of the house

I wasn’t wild about the lavender trim on the house, but the garden had distinct possibilities: it faced south, it was terraced, and there were three very cool Italian cypresses to the right of the front door. Here are some more views (below right):

Another view of the house
View showing Russian sage
View showing blue oat grass
View showing blue oat grass

As you will readily perceive, there was a great deal of Russian sage and blue oat grass, not to mention a great deal of dense shade cast by a large saucer magnolia.

These aren’t bad plants, but there were too many of them. Still, I was sufficiently entranced with the layout of the garden that I made an offer on the property. It was accepted, and so, two months after seeing the house and yard for the first time, I moved in and started to think about what I wanted to do.

The Front Garden

Now, this might upset some of you OverPlanters, but I decided I wanted to start with a clean slate. That meant getting rid of the blue oat grass and Russian sage (along with some less desirable plants, such as hypericums and row of scraggly, ailing raphiolepis). It also meant (gulp) getting rid of magnolia. I know, I know—I can hear your howls of protest. But it really was creating lots of very dank shade, and the pink flowers clashed horribly with the reddish orange brick of the house. Plus I wanted to start experimenting with a new plant palette. What’s the point of living in Zone 8 if you don’t grow some of the lovely things that need a mild climate? And so Operation Tabula Rasa was launched.

Here’s what it looked like afterward:

Image of the house, after terracing
Image of the house, after terracing
Image of the house, after terracing

That pile of wood chips (left) is where the saucer magnolia used to be.

The neighbors were kind of upset. You will notice, by the way, that the trim on the house is now a soothing, tasteful sage green. First things first.

And then the planting began. For once, I didn’t plant too many smaller plants before the major, structural plants went in. The first was a cork oak (Quercus suber), and if you think it was easy to find, guess again. But I was determined to have one—it’s one of the iconic plants of the Mediterranean. And who knows? Maybe in fifty years or so we’ll be able to harvest the bark. Cash crop!

I also wanted olive trees. I know—you’re thinking “Olives trees? In Oregon?” But you can grow them here, if you plant the right variety. My friend Sean Hogan, owner of the fabulous Cistus Nursery, advised me to try ‘Arbequina’, a Spanish cultivar that is reportedly hardy to 0°F, has an attractive, semi-weeping habit, and doesn’t get too huge.

Finding these wasn’t easy, either. And they looked a little sparse and spindly when they arrived. Fortunately, they filled out eventually. The only sadness is that we haven’t yet had an olive crop, so our fond epicurean dreams of pressing our own olive oil are still unrealized.

The cork oak, before planting

Here’s how the cork oak looked when it first arrived.

The cork oak, after planting

Here it is after it had been in the ground for a few months.

The newly arrived Arbequina olives

The newly arrived ‘Arbequina’ olives.

One of the olive trees, looking a little happier

One of the olive trees, looking a little happier.

The remaining plants are an amalgam of true Mediterranean denizens, like lavenders and cistus, and the gorgeous natives of the North American West: ceanothus, penstemons, salvias, carpenteria, and the like.

Brachyglottis with Ceanothus

Brachyglottis Dunedin Group ‘Otari Cloud’ with Ceanothus impressus var. impressus ‘Vandenberg’.

Coronilla valentina subsp. glauca var. citrina

Coronilla valentina subsp. glauca var. citrina. That’s a lotta Latin, but it’s a very nice plant, with blue-green fernlike leaves and pale yellow flowers for many weeks in spring.

Halimium, Euphorbia rigida, and Coronilla valentina

Yellow-flowered Halimium lasianthum subsp. formosum, Euphorbia rigida (a seed-raised form with flower heads that turn crimson), and Coronilla valentina.

Cytisus multiflorus with Allium and Hesperaloe parviflora

Cytisus multiflorus, a lovely non-evil broom, with Allium woronowii ‘White Beauty’ and a yellow-flowered form of Hesperaloe parviflora.

Cistus 'Snow Fire'

Cistus ‘Snow Fire’, perhaps the most beautiful hybrid rock rose available.

Penstemon, Helichrysum and California poppy

Penstemon pinifolius ‘Mersea Yellow’, silvery Helichrysum tianschanicum (which is hardy to Zone 5!), peacock-blue Penstemon heterophyllus, and a cream-colored strain of California poppy, Eschscholzia californica.

Penstemon mensarum and Convolvulus cneorum

In the foreground, cobalt Penstemon mensarum (a superb species from Colorado) and Convolvulus cneorum, the bush morning glory. The towering blue plant in the background is Anchusa azurea, which thrives in Mediterranean conditions as well as colder, damper climates.

Helichrysum tianschanicum with Lupinus lepidus var. lobii

Helichrysum tianschanicum, one of the best silver subshrubs in cultivation (it’s hardy to Zone 5!), with Lupinus lepidus var. lobii.

Euphorbia rigida with Penstemon

Euphorbia rigida again with Penstemon heterophyllus and Penstemon brandegei.

Of course, it isn’t all cakes and jam. Plants can just up and die for no apparent reason. (Probably some insidious root ailment is to blame.) And of course you need to weed eleven months out of twelve.

Image of a dead plant

Dead, dead, very dead.

Image of weeds

If it’s crabgrass, it must be August.

The planted terraces

The front garden on a sunny summer afternoon.

Image of moss on the walls

Emerald moss: a gift of the rainy months.

The house in winter

A little bit of New England in the Pacific Northwest.

It’s not exactly a hillside in Provence, but when the light’s just right and you squint a little, it’s not too bad. Even winter has its charms: the moss on the walls turns emerald green. And I have to admit that it is kind of pretty when it snows, even though I don’t miss New England winters at all.

Next: Part II »