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July 20, 2006

Heading: Dirt, by Amy Stewart, A backyard wilderness, photo of the Pattons' garden

Vickie and John Patton live in one of those ordinary suburban neighborhoods in Eureka that back up onto an extraordinary bit of wilderness. Sure, there are a few redwood trees just beyond the rooftops, but it was hard to imagine, when I pulled into their driveway one bright Sunday afternoon, that I'd be standing in a cool, damp forest in a few minutes.

John Patton, an HSU graduate, met his wife Vickie in the Bay Area, and they moved to Eureka over a decade ago. After they remodeled their house, they started on the yard. Their 1/3-acre property includes a typical, suburban-sized patio and lawn. But at the edge of the lawn, the forest begins.

The neighborhood backs up onto a greenbelt, and every house along the street has made a different use of that space. Some are overgrown with blackberries and other weeds; they could serve as a "before" photo for the Patton garden.

Clearing out the brambles and cutting down a couple of dead trees was the first task, and once that was done, they put down a layer of plastic weed barrier to keep the blackberries from returning. (They still find a way through the barrier, of course, but it gave the Pattons a head start.) The redwoods and other trees had some room to breathe, and they selected more native plants, including elderberry, flowering currant and native rhododendrons, with some help from Donna Wildearth.

Gaining access to their woodland garden required some hardscape. A retaining wall and a simple fence separates the forest from the yard, and stone stairs descend into the trees. The contractors who helped with the construction work piled excavated soil in a small clearing down the hill, and the Pattons realized that they had created their own seating area. Now, thanks to the excavated soil, there are a few level spots for a bench or a couple of chairs, and in the summer, when it gets too hot in the yard, they can just walk down into the woods and cool off in the shade.

Wildlife has found its way into the garden, which has been a mixed blessing. One night, Vickie looked out the window and saw a bear looking in at her. "That's when the deer fence went up," she said. Although a bear could tear through the fence, most animals would just as soon browse the rest of the greenbelt and leave the fenced areas alone. "But we still don't keep a compost pile," John said. "It would attract every raccoon in the neighborhood." In spite of the unwanted visitors, they're thrilled to see ospreys and other birds, as well as butterflies, make their home among the redwoods.

Maintenance has been surprisingly easy, too. "We basically go through twice a year," said John, "once in spring and once in fall. We pull out the dead fern fronds, limb up the trees, and clear away any dead branches. It all goes through the shredder and we use it as mulch."

Because parts of the garden get full sun while other parts are in deep shade, getting plants in the right place can be a challenge. "I move plants all the time," Vickie said. "We just keep moving them until we find the right spot." Flowering currant, for example, needs to be right on the edge of the forest, where it gets a little shade and a little sun.

For a little extra color, they've mixed in a few cultivated relatives of native species. Non-native columbine, rhododendron and fuchsias brighten up the shady garden.

In the evening, the Pattons sit on a deck at the edge of the yard and look out over their woodland garden. "This is a good place to just sit and listen," Vickie said. "The wildlife is all around us here."

The Wildlife and Native Plant Garden Tour is a fundraiser that benefits the Northcoast Chapter of the California Native Plant Society and the Redwood Region Audubon Society. It all happens on Saturday, July 22, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. There will be 10 gardens in Eureka and Arcata on the tour, including the Patton garden, with a featured stop at Freshwater Farms, where you can buy tickets the day of the tour if you don't already have them. You'll also be able to meet Pete and Judy Haggard, who will be signing their new book, Insects of the Pacific Northwest, at Freshwater Farms.

Tickets are $15 and are available at The Garden Gate, Mad River Gardens, Northcoast Environmental Center, Freshwater Farms, Pierson's, Strictly for the Birds, Miller Farms and Sun, Rain, Time. For more information, call Jennifer Tompkins at 443-6959 or Louise Bacon-Ogden at 445-8304.

Send garden news to, or write in care of the Journal at 145 G St., Suite A, Arcata, 95521.


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