JEANNE SIMMONS and Tony Bartling looked for a vacation house for years while they lived in Brier. They were searching for a riverside location. But when they came across a 1909 house that had been barged over from West Seattle to the Kitsap Peninsula along Miller Bay, they fell in love with the place.
“We were lured to Kitsap by this house,” says Simmons, who, 17 years later, admits it was an absolute mess when they found it. While Bartling still commutes to work, a decade ago Simmons retired from 30 years teaching kindergarten and first grade and took up full-time residence. The couple has spent thousands of hours restoring the house. They added rooms and windows to better see the water view and the flower gardens Simmons has planted around the house.
“The garden was nothing,” says Simmons. “There was a nasty lawn and a single maple tree.” Coming from a shady garden in Brier, Simmons was inspired by all the sunshine to plant flowers and more flowers. She grows a few tomatoes, pumpkins and peas, but mostly dedicates the back garden to a colorful mix of perennials. Simmons calls the terrace on the waterside “the dance floor” because both of their daughters were married here.
“I’m working on getting more foliage and shrubs to make this easier,” says Simmons as she wanders through borders thick with variegated iris, peonies, blue-blooming corydalis, wisteria, lilies and roses. “I paint with watercolors, so I Iove all these bright colors,” she says.
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She’s adding foliage plants such as lacy Japanese maples and paddle-leafed bergenias. Flower colors are knitted together by the deep purple heuchera and purple sage repeated throughout the beds. “I buy one plant, and then divide it and divide it, spreading it about,” says Simmons of the strategy she uses to generously fill beds and borders. The entry garden around front is more restrained, planted for winter interest with hellebores, boxwood, acuba and evergreen viburnum.
As if fixing up a century-old house and creating an intense garden wasn’t enough, Bartling and Simmons bought a couple of lots across the road and set to clearing out blackberries. Bartling built more fences, paths and arbors, and Simmons began planting. “My husband doesn’t weed,” she says. “But he does build paths and structures.”
In the new gardens, Simmons grows espaliered apples, blueberries and lilacs transplanted from her grandmother’s garden. A leafy banana tree, blue-painted fence and several little garden sheds form a backdrop. Simmons has planted shrubs with colored foliages, including barberries, spirea and Diablo ninebark, to keep the gardens going through the seasons.
In the new gardens’ sunniest spot, Simmons created a sheltered little patio and mounded pebbles into fast-draining beds. She planted yuccas, sedum, agaves, thyme, hebes and other dry-land plants, mulching them with gravel. Hot-red furniture plays off the purple barberries and red maples. Here Simmons can take a break from her 6 a.m. slug patrol long enough to plot new color combinations.
While the color play appears casual, even riotous, it works as well as it does because Simmons carefully considers shades, tones and groupings. “I’m adding more orange,” she says. She doesn’t shy away from vivid color, mixing lavender foxgloves with orange day lilies, and in a shadier corner, bright pink drumstick primroses, yellow Japanese forest grass and dark-leafed Ligularia dentata ‘Othello.’
Are there any plants Simmons doesn’t love? “There are a few I wish I’d never planted, like the chameleon plant (Houttuynia cordata) and columbines that spread about too much.” But she doesn’t dwell on mistakes, quickly moving on to all the roses she adores, especially the old-fashioned ones.
“I take care of it all myself,” says Simmons, who figures she spends an average of three hours a day year-round working in the garden. “The garden for me is artistic; the fun is in creating it.”
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com. Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.