Years ago, Ron Williams worked at A&D Nursery in Snohomish and was paid in peonies. Now, 15 years later, his garden is bursting with these blowsy beauties. Paper-fine petals and flays ...

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YEARS AGO, Ron Williams worked at A&D Nursery in Snohomish and was paid in peonies. Now, 15 years later, his garden is bursting with these blowsy beauties. Paper-fine petals and flays of colorful stamen add to the romantic air of this old garden in the upper Rainier Beach neighborhood of Seattle.

When Williams and Don Reed bought their 1920s Tudor bungalow, its double lot was pure 1960s pink, packed with azaleas, roses and rhododendrons. The place had been over-pruned and sprayed into sterility. It took years of composting, mulching and chemical-free nurturing to bring the garden back to life. “It was so rewarding to restore this place to health, and watch the bees and birds return,” says Williams.

They’d been living in the Wedgewood neighborhood, doing a bit of gardening, when they saw an advertisement for a “rose garden estate.” “We bought it for the garden,” says Williams. “We couldn’t even remember the details of the house.”

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Their property used to be the garden for the 1904 house that still stands next door. For the first few years, their work was more archaeology than gardening, uncovering remnants of the old garden beneath the bland mid-century plantings. A few old apple trees, once part of a larger orchard, now bear fruit in one corner. The original rockwork is still intact in some areas. A pergola supports a venerable old wisteria, its gray trunk so stout and twisted it could be attached to an ancient elephant.

Pointers on peonies

Few flowers match peonies for lavish blooms plus handsome foliage. Ron Williams shares tips on nurturing them:

• To plant, think shallow. Peonies won’t bloom if the “eyes” are planted more than 2 or 3 inches below the soil.

• Peonies need sun, although the singles and tree peonies can take partial shade.

• The trick is to leave them alone once planted: Peonies are deep-rooted and long-lived and resent being moved.

• Refrain from over-fertilizing. Every couple of years, use a time-release fertilizer such as Osmocote.

• In cold winters, mulch peonies well. When the temperatures drop into the teens for more than a night or two, Williams covers peonies with sheets or burlap.

• Stake peonies; they always need it.

• Extend bloom by planting a variety of types. Tree peonies flower first, then the singles; doubles bloom last, often well into June.

Old holly hedges, towering magnolias and lilacs form stately garden bones, which the men have enhanced with daylilies and roses, as well as peonies. Lavender edges beds full of delphinium and hollyhock. The garden feels quintessentially English with its aged bones, flowery formality and expert plantsmanship. Each plant is well-tended, yet the overall atmosphere is casually comfortable. You get the feeling these guys live in their garden, and not just because of the Weber grill on the patio.

Reed, a baking and pastry chef at Seattle Central College Culinary Academy, is the rose fancier. He lavishes attention on the dozens of roses, feeding them with alfalfa and Epsom salts in the spring. Two ancient rambling roses climb a gnarled apple tree, but most are David Austin and old roses Reed has planted.

The garden is thick with fragrance, starting in early spring with daphnes, then hyacinths and exbury azaleas, lilacs and wisteria. In summer, the scent is a swirl of roses, lavender, Chilean jasmine and Oriental lilies. The border of daylilies includes many scented cultivars. “Your taste evolves, and pretty soon you only like the $50 ones,” Williams says a little sheepishly, pointing out his favorite spidery daylilies, and red ones with green throats.

Wisteria, akebia, clematis, grapes and climbing roses tumble from a long pergola bisecting the garden. When the vines leaf out, the pergola forms a shady tunnel through the sunny garden. Anchoring the back corner are raised beds for blueberries and cutting flowers, and a rustic building originally used as a washhouse for the old estate. Now it houses garden furniture in winter and is a dining room in summer.

Reed explains that they work really hard in the spring to get the garden ready for the season, then try to relax and enjoy the place during the summer. Williams looks skeptical about the relaxing part. “We’re really like farmers,” he says contentedly. “We pretty much have to work in the garden and can’t go anywhere.”

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her e-mail address is Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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