JARS v46n1 - The Creation of a Northwest Garden

The Creation of a Northwest Garden
We started with a hay field
As told to Bob Minnich by Betty & Bob Anderson of Enumclaw, Washington

"There is a garden you really ought to see in Enumclaw". I'd been hearing that for years, but the weeds and the call of the hoses, plus the fact that Enumclaw is hardly the crossroads of the world, had diverted me from a visit.

Now, on a warm October afternoon, I found myself seated in the home of Bob and Betty Anderson looking out over the main vista and I asked Betty how the garden came to be. And she said, "We started with a hay field..." .

Suppose I begin by telling you just a little about how we got interested in growing rhododendrons. Bob and I met as students at Penn State where he was studying landscape architecture. After graduating in 1931, Bob went to work for a landscape contractor in northern New Jersey. While there he designed and supervised the construction of many beautiful gardens in the area. He also designed exhibits for the New York, Philadelphia, and Atlantic City flower shows.

Gradually, he became more interested in the plant material than in the designing phase of the work. He finally decided to start his own nursery and developed a beautiful seven acre tract into a garden and sales area. Rhododendrons and azaleas were featured.

In the late 1950's we began coming west for vacations and were impressed with the great variety of rhododendrons in the Pacific Northwest varieties we couldn't possibly grow on the East Coast because of the hot summers and bitter cold winters. After several years of this travelling back and forth across the country we decided to move west. We were struck by one small town that took such pride in its homes and gardens that we decided Enumclaw was the place where we wanted to settle. We have never been sorry.

We built the house in 1962 and began the garden the next year. The house and garden were designed as a unit - each complimentary to the other and each a part of the overall design. In every artistic creation there are a number of factors that determine the result. In the case of a garden these would include: 1) The nature of the site - what you have to work with. 2) Personal choice of plant material and how you use that material. 3) Intended use of the garden. 4) Cost - how much are you willing to invest. How you develop these points will determine the success or failure of the venture.

Briefly, here is how we handled them: The site was a four acre hay field. The biggest plus was the view of Mt. Rainier with the foothills in the foreground. Those of you familiar with the garden know it is the focal point of the main vista. Then there is the soil. What we have is known as "Buckley loam", a 12 inch layer deposited by a mud slide from the mountain. It is relatively free from rocks and not too difficult to cultivate.

Bob and Betty Anderson garden
The Anderson garden with Mt. Rainier
Photo by Bob Minnich

We began with the front garden and circle and kept the rest in cover crops until we were ready to go ahead with the planting, each year going back a little further. The chief disadvantage of the site was the exposure to that east wind which hits Enumclaw much too often. To overcome this as far as possible we planted a row of Douglas fir trees to form a windbreak.

Because the site is almost perfectly flat, only a nine inch drop from the front to the back line (660 feet), we planted a lot of trees to give height and to add interest to the plantings. Some visitors to the gardens are as much attracted by the collection of trees as by the rhododendrons. Trees with special appeal are the bristlecone pines, as a species the oldest living thing known. Other pines in the garden are white, shore, Japanese, lodgepole and pinyon. There are oaks, maples, sour gums, sequoia, locusts, and the smaller dogwood and flowering cherries. But, our first love in plants are those in the rhododendron family.

Interest in the development of rhododendrons as a garden plant first began in England about 100 years ago. This is surprising to me because there are no rhododendrons native to the British Isles. English explorers brought back species from the wilds of the Himalayan regions. England is a nation of gardeners and the English immediately took these plants to their hearts. Nurserymen began hybridizing for a divergence of color and form. Over the years many wonderful varieties were developed.

Interest in the Northwest, with its similar climate, began about 40 years ago. Fanciers here are taking the old English hybrids to develop plants especially adapted to this area. New names are being added so fast it is almost impossible to keep up with them. Only time will tell which will last.

We have collected 70 species and 300 hybrids and the total numbers of individual plants I don't know. We like rhododendrons for a number of reasons. For one thing, the climate in the Northwest is ideal for their growth - mild winters, cool summers, and plenty of moisture. Then, in the plants themselves there is great variety: low growing compact forms to huge spreading treelike forms.

There is a great variety in the texture and size of leaves - tiny leaves to lush, almost tropical types. There is variety in the shades of green - yellow green, blue green, dark forest green and bronze green. Studying these features and combining them in an aesthetically pleasing manner is one of the joys of gardening.

The high point of the year is the burst of colors in April and May. Much as we enjoy these months, the flowers are really only an added bonus. The plants themselves are so satisfactory and give much pleasure the year round.

Many visitors to the garden get no further than the main vista. They miss the side gardens - what we like to call outdoor rooms - and the paths and cross paths that encircle the garden. Off to one side is a small alpine garden. Our lewisias have an interesting history. They are native to Wyoming and were discovered by Lewis and Clark on their expeditions and were later named in honor of Meriweather Lewis. The plants we have are a special strain we grew from seeds we got from the Jack Drake Nursery in Inferew, Scotland. So these plants we have have come full circle. The nice thing about an alpine garden is that you can get so many kinds of plants in a small space.

People are always asking where we got the plants in the main garden. The parent plants we got from various hybridizers up and down the coast and then propagated more from cuttings. We have done no hybridizing ourselves. The propagating frames and young plants are in the service areas of the garden, along with the compost pile, sand, gravel, manure, top soil and the vegetable garden. Beyond the service area is a small orchard, mostly apple trees of unusual varieties, including the little Lady apple I like to use during the holidays.

Finally, there is the cost involved - the initial cost and then upkeep and maintenance. As I said, we bought the original plants and went on from there.

By working with nature we have kept maintenance at a minimum. Of course, gardening in the Pacific Northwest is a year round thing, relocating plants, pruning, weeding, all of the usual gardening chores. Over the years we have built up a natural duff of leaves, branches, twigs, etc., that helps conserve moisture, keeps down weeds, and enriches the soil. We use no commercial fertilizers and no insecticides and only a little Roundup on dandelions. Two years ago the garden was designated a "Backyard Wildlife Sanctuary" by the State of Washington.

One final pleasure that I should like to mention that the garden has provided is that, though the garden has never been promoted by any other means than word of mouth, we have enjoyed visitors from around the world! And that is the story of our garden.

Bob Minnich, a member of the Tacoma Chapter, is author of several articles in past issues of the Journal ARS.

The garden of Betty and Bob Anderson will be included in the tours for the ARS Annual Convention in Tacoma in 1993.