by Terry Kramer
Home gardeners are a driven bunch. With wheelbarrows and shovels, aching backs and callused hands, they transform their own patch of earth into a piece of paradise. reflecting the personal art of its creator.
For an intimate look at 13 rich, well-cultivated gardens, pack a picnic lunch, hop in the car on Sunday, July 13, and enjoy the Humboldt Botanical Garden Foundation Garden Tour and Tea. You'll discover the passionate side of gardening, where soil and plants have been transformed into outdoor rooms of color, fragrance, order and peace, one shovelful at a time.
Up the coast in Westhaven you'll find the seaside garden of Stan and Jean Watkins, a couple who turned a weedy, compacted half-acre hillside into an immaculate windswept pallet of colorful foliage and rich textures.
Their garden began in 1990 with heavy toil. Stan hauled 1200 yards of top soil and many loads of river stones by wheelbarrow to the backyard. They also faced the challenges of daily fog, cold afternoon winds in the summer and frequent winter storms. And on top of all that, they had few gardening skills.
Jean remembers having to move and replant many times, as species grew larger than they'd planned. "When you're a novice gardener you don't have an idea of what a plant looks like when fully grown." Such trial-and-error gardening taught them to develop a landscape design before planting further.
All the labor and learning has resulted in a magnificent garden with a dry stream bed of river rocks, boulders carefully placed for accent and focus, and several rock garden areas brimming with miniature plants and sedum.
And lots of heath and heather.
"They bloom at different times of the year, and they don't require any tender loving care," said Jean. "They give different textures and colors and they don't need anything. You don't even fertilize them." She might have added that the heathers, along with native plants and grasses, become particularly vibrant and alive under a fog-shrouded sky.
The Watkins' garden is conspicuously without a lawn, but it is planted with a wide assortment of ornamental grass along with California native plants like Ceanothus, manzanita and Fremontededron. Instead of hearing the roar of a lawn mower on weekends, the Watkins listen to the rustling of stiff grasses in the cool afternoon sea breeze. An expansive deck overlooking the ocean to the south and west is thick with clematis and redolent jasmine.
Graveled paths wind around sumptuously mounded beds of perennials and groundcovers like sunrose, periwinkle, armeria and woolly thyme. Thick bark mulch and river cobbles smother the beds that have been blanketed with landscape fabric to deter weeds.
The Watkins like to putter in their garden, footsteps crunching on the cool, blue-gray gravel, but they try to avoid spending time weeding.
"I'm not a weeder at all. I hate it, " said Jean. "The weeds that do sprout pull up quite easily in the bark areas."
All plants are drought tolerant, requiring a minimum amount of water during the dry season.
After touring this garden you might think it is complete. But the Watkins have changes in store, including adding more heath and heathers and a collection of dwarf conifers. "A garden is never done," said Jean.
A look into Peg and Doug Douglas' Fieldbrook garden.
A short drive south and east will lead you to a landscape that is the antithesis of the Watkins garden: the sprawling five-acre Fieldbrook woodland garden of Peg and Doug Douglas where expansive swathes of lawn are studded with islands of perennials and native plants tucked beneath a redwood forest canopy. Thick with color and lawn, the garden appears firmly established today. But just six years ago it was a dark yard heavily forested with redwoods and sitka spruce. The trees were not only blocking the sun, they were taking a toll on the house.
"The roof was rotting out and we had to take out one side of it," said Peg.
A neighbor with logging expertise urged the Douglases to remove many large trees to open up the space for sunlight. They did this, and that winter ended up with "a mud bath of rocks and dirt," according to Peg. That was the year her youngest daughter came home for Christmas and said she wanted to get married in July at home in the garden.
Peg was flabbergasted. "I said to her, 'Did you take a look?'" Fortunately it was during one of the drought years and the Douglases quickly planted 91 trees and 500-odd plants. They also hydroseeded 80,000 square feet of lawn. Then came three days of heavy rain.
"I was sitting in the family room watching the grass seed run down the hill and into Grassy Creek. Now it honestly fits its name, because it has my grass seed in it," she laughed.
As you nibble on scones offered at the tea here, enjoy the thick vines of clematis and wisteria clambering up trellises attached to ancient redwood stumps. While listening to the strains of chamber music filtering through the woods, delight in the lush clusters of hosta, viburnum and rhododendron nestled beneath towering redwood trees. A medley of colorful perennials spill from spacious, informal flower beds.
"I would say the garden is more country than formal," said Peg in characterizing the style of her landscape.
The Douglases prefer using perennials and shrubs to fill the numerous island plantings that highlight their expansive setting. Campanula, hardy geranium, iris and yarrow are interspersed with native woodland plants like ferns, huckleberry, wood violet, columbine and Vancouvaria. And this garden can also be a feast of pleasant sounds: the chatter of a rainbird sprinkler, jabbering Steller's jays and chirping songbirds high up in the forest canopy.
Although the Douglases removed many redwood and sitka spruce trees, they strategically planted several specimen deciduous trees: liquidamber, ginkgo, red maple, Japanese maple, liriodendron and copper beech. All put on a show at different times of the year.
"The trees, with the exception of the hollies, have to do something. They either have to turn color in the autumn, or flower, or both," she said. One of her prized specimen trees is embothruim coccineum, or Chilean fire tree, which spurts clusters of brilliant orange/red flowers in the spring.
"I had seen it in somebody's yard and found out what it was. It's not much the rest of the year for looks, but, boy, it is worth it for the one time of year when it is just a blaze of red blooms," she said. "The hummingbirds love it."
The Douglases irrigate the entire five-acre garden by hand. There is no automatic watering system. Peg said it takes most of the week to get the entire garden watered during the summer and fall.
"When I win the Lotto, the automatic sprinklers will be installed," she said.
In contrast to the Douglases' five-acre spread, the town garden of Christy and Aldaron Laird, located on H Street across from Wildberries Market in Arcata, is a fine example of how one can make a small yard seem spacious.
Inspired by the book English Cottage Gardening for American Gardeners by Margaret Hensel, Christy Laird began landscaping the home in 1989.
"It was your typical Humboldt County azalea-camellia-rhododendron theme with green lawn." She ripped up weedy lawn, heavily pruned the shrubs and trees and dug out flowerbeds.
The Laird garden features four intimate garden rooms filled with herbs, wisteria, honeysuckle, heirloom roses, clematis, bulbs and a plethora of English perennials.
"I wanted to carry the English garden theme throughout the garden because the house is a Tudor and I haven't seen much of that type of design around town," she said.
She began in the front yard by installing a perennial border and planting a grove of five weeping birches. Highlighting the front and side yards is a perennial border of climbing heirloom roses, grey foliaged shrubs, red valerian, linaria, cranesbill geraniums, cineraria and herbaceous perennials.
Like an artist painting a landscape on canvas, Laird creates her own garden designs by combining various textures and colors of perennials to achieve pleasing effects. Grey and variegated foliage perennials are used repetitively. "It is just a design element that appeals to me. I'm very attracted to the grey and white garden idea and so I have quite a bit in the way of grey foliage, the lambs ears, santolina and the yarrows," she said.
To transform the narrow driveway into a cheerful garden, Laird and her husband converted the garage on the west side of the yard into an office and installed a small brick courtyard. Terracotta pots painted with copper patina lend a European look to the courtyard, and they landscaped the area with roses and clematis.
"I deliberately planted things in here that smell good," said Laird. Scented geraniums, fragrant roses and a white flowered clematis that has a lemony vanilla scent clothe a pergola that tops the brick courtyard.
In the afternoon breeze you will hear the husky clang of a heavy wind chime pealing like old church bells. Pause for a moment and you will see a tangled carpet of nigella blanketed beneath the roses along the warm west wall. Perhaps you'll also see a lady bug clambering about its fine leaves or a fat bumble bee cleave to a rose redolent with scent.
More evidence of Laird's artistic flair lies behind the private, fenced backyard which has been transformed into a formal garden room with a linear design. What was once a dandelion-choked lawn is now formal herb garden boasting a lavender hedge and an assortment of shade-loving perennials.
"I actually plotted where everything was going to be planted. I drew it, colored it and laid out where the pathways were to be and everything else," she said.
Paths of river stones beckon one to the center of the garden where a diamond-shaped patch of turf is edged with a formal boxwood hedge. In the center of the diamond sits a large terracotta urn, painted with copper patina, brimming with a Meyer lemon. A culinary herb garden wraps around the central theme. Cloaking the perimeter of the backyard are perennials and old roses.
Limited sunlight in the back yard posed a challenge to Laird when she made her design. "I have different micro-climates here, and I had to tailor what I planted to the way the light was hitting the spaces. The roof (of the house) has such a high pitch and with the north facing wall here I had certain light limitations," she said. The perennial beds host foxglove, hardy geraniums, bearded iris and lilies. Plants with variegated foliage brighten the dark areas of the garden. "I love variegated foliage, and because my house is painted gold now, I like how it keys into the color of the house," she said.
Above the garage is a rooftop "secret" garden. A colorful assortment of frothy lobelia tumble from redwood boxes. The plexiglass privacy screen surrounding the deck offers wind protection and a stunning view of the bay. An added bonus is the clematis and climbing rose scrambling up from the courtyard pergola below.
Laird takes a great deal of pride in the town garden she has designed herself. Hauling river stones and digging perennials beds is something she prefers to do on weekends. "Gardening is very contemplative for me ... I don't have to talk to anybody, and I can just concentrate. There is a sense of immediate gratification on some levels. Like if everything is kind of gone awry and the grass is tall and things are falling over, I can come over and trim and clip and mow and weed and it looks better instantly, within a couple of hours." she said.
While the Lairds worked with the challenges of a small city lot, McKinleyville gardener Frank Sanford faced a very different problem. His land had been an auto wrecking yard.
"They had taken all the top soil off and put in river run (rocks) and I said, 'Oh, my God, this is for the birds,' " said Sanford, a merchant marine veteran of World War II.
"There was oil and battery acid and everything and it was just a mess. I took out I don't know how many car parts, but I found a lot of good tools," he laughed.
Sanford hired a fellow to loosen up and rototill the soil. "Then I took out two big truckloads of river rock and brought in sawdust by the tons. I got the thing in pretty decent shape so you could grow something," he said.
Trim and fit at age 84 (he lifts weights), Sanford has no problem single-handedly tending his half-acre yard loaded with 250 varieties of fuchsias (400 plants total) as well as collections of ferns, hostas, rhododendrons and roses.
Sanford's garden is like a park, featuring wide swathes of lawn, and pea gravel paths that wend around his mobile home, lath houses and shop. The two lath houses are central to the garden as the shelter for most of the potted fuschias. Black pots trailing fuchsia blossoms hang from rafters. Upright fuchsias spill from the garden benches below.
Frank Sanford of McKinleyville.
Sanford's passion for fuchsias began 35 years ago when he was a millworker in Fort Bragg. "I didn't know a dandelion from a sweet pea, and I didn't even care about plants. But I'd go by this nursery every payday and buy my wife a fuchsia. She just loved fuchsias," Sanford said fondly. "Then one day my wife said, 'Why don't you try and start some of them.' And I said, 'Oh no, they would die if I tried to start them.' And she said 'Try it!' So I did, and my God I made the most beautiful basket out if it," he smiled. A couple years later Sandford and his wife started a fuchsia nursery.
Sanford's wife died of Alzheimer's disease recently, and he shows off her collection of fuchsia memorabilia with pride and wistfulness. He bestows special loving attention on one fuchsia that is her namesake, Claudine.
Outside of the lath houses Sanford edges flower beds with old brick. Fuchsias are everywhere, of course. You will also find a bed of blue scabiosa and white alyssum. Voluptuous rhododendrons, truss-laden in the spring, are scattered about, and a fat, green, crisply trimmed escallonia hedge borders much of the yard making the garden private and discreet.
Like a gold pocket watch Sanford's garden is precise and in order. "We planted everything, and it is a lot of work. But I do like it or I wouldn't do it. It gives me something to do. I couldn't live in a apartment. I'd go insane. I'm not the type of guy who sits in the house and reads," he laughed.
The Botanical Foundation Garden Tour offers far more gardens than one can visit in a single day. Many will be available again during future tours, so don't worry about getting to all of them. The additional gardens featured this year include the intimate Eureka town garden of Edie Nelson, which has specimen Japanese maple, neatly trimmed boxwood hedges and topiary. The Eureka landscape of Steve Antongiovanni is a town garden that offers a water lily pond as a focal point.
If you like a romantic garden gushing with fragrant antique roses and perennials, visit Cindy Graebner's Fickle Hill Old Rose Nursery in Arcata. Or travel up the hill a bit farther and view the garden of Bill Funkhouser and Johanna Mauro which features a hydroponic greenhouse.
In McKinleyville the garden of Denise and Ron Wagner offers a backyard playland with cascading waterfalls, creative rock arrangements and swings and slides. While in Mckinleyville visit the one-acre English cottage garden of Christine and Daniel Pierce. Vine-covered arbors, hedges and colorful perennials highlight this garden.
Across from the Douglases in Fieldbrook you can discover the "Humboldt Garden Style" landscape of Jack and Gloria Stewart filled with redwoods, old growth snags, stumps and ferns. A large bass pond is a highlight of this garden. Also in Fieldbrook you'll find Kelli and Allen Samson's garden, which has sloping meadows, cascading ponds, beds of perennials and a fragrant moon garden.
In Trinidad you can tour the seaside garden of Pat and Howard Wells featuring unusual perennials, rock gardens, fruit trees, berry arbors, herbs and a meadow flower garden.
Tickets and a detailed tour map are available at most local garden shops and nurseries or by calling 442-5139.
The Humboldt Botanical Garden Foundations garden tour and tea is a fund-raising event for the nonprofit organization whose primary mission is to establish a premier botanical garden in Humboldt County. This year's tour Sunday, July 13, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., offers 13 local gardens.
HBGF President Maria Krenek said she hopes revenue from the tour will exceed the $12,000 brought in last year. Money raised from the annual June plant sale also supports HBGF.
The effort to establish a botanical garden, which began in 1991, is now at the point where a site is being leased and architectural plans are nearly finalized. "We are leasing the property -- a very long lease -- from College of the Redwoods. They have been tremendous in their support," said Krenek.
The master architectural plans, drawn by Crow/Clay, are expected to be completed by fall, with an unveiling celebration planned at that time.
The master plan was paid for from the Bench Campaign. Twenty benches with plaques were sold to be placed in the garden in perpetuity for $5,000 each, raising $100,000. The money paid for the master plan and $50,000 is being used for seed money to attract grant funds.
Construction is expected to begin in the next couple of year, possibly in the year 2,000.
"I'm hoping in five years we will have a garden that people will be visiting. I think once people see what's happening it will provide even more impetus for the garden to develop further and faster," Krenek said.
The botanical garden will boost tourism , as well offer and educational and recreational resources for locals. It will be visible from highway 101 and will offer a plant and gift shop.
"I hope the botanical garden becomes a center for educational things to happen. But I also know it will be a community type place. If all you want to do is stroll through a beautiful place, the garden will the there."
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