"This garden is insanity," says Farley cheerfully.
A WELL-WORN pickup truck reading “Kate Farley Garden Structure” is parked in front of the designer’s foliage-drenched property in West Seattle. A hebe hedge along the roadside strains to contain cascades of purple barberry, hefty euphorbias and fragrant pink rugosa roses.
This exuberant medley gives way to a small opening that leads to a stone bridge crossing a ditch to a narrow walkway. The entrance to Farley’s garden is mysterious, winding past a cobblestone wall and the trunk of a dead madrona where a woodpecker pounds out his staccato vibes. Where’s the house?
“When people look at my garden it’s like they’re looking at my mind,” says Farley of the place she’s cultivated for 31 years. She’s planted every single bit of flora here except for the laurel hedge and a few boxwoods.
Continue past the massive tree stump and you come to the front door and a driveway so filled with pots it must not have seen a car in years. “I call it my playground; there’s lots of trial-and-error going on here. I’m learning what will grow in a pot,” she says. Many of the plants will find their way into clients’ gardens. The eclectic assortment, from kale and collards to semi-tropicals and small trees, hints at the variety of plants growing right around the corner in the backyard.
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“This garden is insanity,” says Farley cheerfully, leading the way around back. The lot seems far bigger than its 60 by 120 feet, with winding pathways, obscured corners and glimpses through and around shrubs and trees. Farley started out planting one of everything to see how the plants would do. “Now I’m retrofitting for structure,” she says.
Professionally, Farley designs, installs and maintains other people’s gardens. She tells her clients that they can’t just have the candy; they’ll be happier when their gardens have good bones.
Trees, art and paving add structure to her own garden, but there’s still plenty of candy. She grows more than 40 different roses, which she yanks out at the first sign of disease. Her favorites? ‘Darlow’s Enigma,’ ‘Westerland’ and the coral pink David Austin rose ‘Lillian.’
Farley waters from rain barrels, and runs a drip on thirsty plants like roses. “I believe most people overwater,” she says, adding that a drip system for pots is the best gift you can give yourself.
I asked Farley to share some more of the hard-earned wisdom she lavishes on her client’s gardens:
• If you only have so much money, go for structure first. You can “frost” the garden later.
• A good garden has a balance of deciduous trees and shrubs, broadleaf evergreens and conifers.
• Finding conifers you can manage is key. Farley relies on Hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa) because it can be pruned, and yews (Taxus spp.) because they’re easy and healthy.
• Prune early, prune often to help your garden age well. Some plants occupy too much real estate without regular pruning.
Farley may preach the gospel of structure, but her love affair with self-sowers pleasantly blurs the garden’s hard edges. “I orchestrate them, moving them about. It’s crazy work, but fun,” she says of all the poppies, columbine and larkspur. She cultivates rare plants as well as common ones like phlox, lilacs and hydrangeas. “But I don’t have any daisies,” says this irrepressible designer who is still gardening furiously and joyously after all these years.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of “petal & twig.” Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com.