"I view plants as things that change ... You can't rely on every plant to last for 20 years."
A WELL-KNOWN designer once told me that the way to have a really great garden is to move every seven years. Then you never have to deal with the more dire results of overplanting.
Urban garden designer Phoebe Fine proves it’s possible to cultivate a garden for decades without it closing in around you. Fine bought a brick Tudor in Ballard after she graduated from the University of Washington with a landscape-architecture degree and has been gardening the 50-by-100-foot property ever since.
Coming from a vegetable-gardening background, Fine looked out at her blank slate of a new garden 22 years ago and realized she had never actually planted a tree. She paid $125 for a bare stick of a silk tree (it was winter) and launched her new garden.
Remarkably, Fine has managed to keep the space open and bright while dividing it into tidy little rooms. She’s a realist when it comes to flora: “I view plants as things that change … You can’t rely on every plant to last for 20 years.”
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An organic gardener, she has put energy into enriching the soil to give every plant the best chance possible.
“I’ve always loved foliage, and have come to love flowers,” says Fine, taking the opposite route most gardeners travel in their plant tastes. She keeps her garden interesting over time and through the seasons by planting both deciduous and evergreen trees and shrubs, and not relying on plants for everything. The shade garden on the side of the house is centered with a little pond and stone fountain to attract birds.
Tall urns planted with pheasant’s tail grass (Anemanthele lessoniana) and impatiens flank the front porch. Around back, trellising, arbors and a patio define spaces. There’s a hammock, carried home from a trip to Mexico, draped enticingly between trees in a back corner. The surprise of a formal chandelier swings above the raspberry patch. An open-air dining room in the back garden lures family and friends outside.
Fine has even shoehorned edibles into the mix, and says that many of her clients with young families are asking to have vegetables integrated into existing ornamental gardens. Fine’s herb garden near the kitchen door holds peppermint, parsley, oregano and sage. Tomatoes and beans grow along a warm south wall of the house, and she recently carved out a more separate vegetable plot toward the back of the garden.
Despite Fine’s preference for foliage plants, flowers and vegetables seem to be taking over the back garden. She allows self-seeders like nasturtiums, poppies, cosmos and amaranth to settle in for summer color. “Self-seeders make my job easier,” she says.
One back border is devoted to flowers for cutting, including crocosmia, astrantia, salvia, asters, daisies and rudbeckia.
Fine used to work for the design/build firm Kemper Iversen Ltd., where she helped create a display garden for the Northwest Flower & Garden Show. Now she works from home, and most of her clients have small, urban properties.
Fine incorporates lessons learned in her home garden in every garden she designs. She makes sure there’s plenty of structure, and emphasizes symmetry and plant repetition. She designs in evergreens for year-round presence.
“I like plants that perform well … I don’t like to fuss,” concludes this most pragmatic of gardeners, who has found satisfaction in staying put.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of “petal & twig.” Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com. Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.