Linda McDonald may have the only acanthus walk in the Northwest. A path behind her Bothell...

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LINDA MCDONALD MAY have the only acanthus walk in the Northwest. A path behind her Bothell home is lined with 11 different species of these large-leafed perennials. But that is only one special feature of the former rhododendron glen that McDonald has transformed into a plant collector’s treasure trove.

“We built our house 18 years ago, but I wasn’t a gardener then,” she says. So she spent years studying plants before starting the transformation — digging up the rhodies and moving them to the neighbors’ yards. In the rhodies’ place came exotics and an ornamental-grass border. Inspired by a trip to the Chelsea Physic Garden outside London, she began collecting the genus Acanthus.

McDonald spends every moment she can find tending her mélange of unusual plants. A busy psychotherapist, she even dons a miner’s hat with a light so she can keep on working after dark. “Gardening is my therapy,” she says.

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Part of refashioning her hillside property from typical to remarkable was taking out lawn in front to create generous circles of soil for island beds. As she became more sophisticated in her plant choices, McDonald realized the garden needed hardscaping to support and accent the plantings. “It was only when I began making pictures with plants that I went back in and put up the arbor,” she says. Now this sturdy structure serves as a centerpiece and lends a feeling of enclosure to an area that was exposed to passing cars.

“I never leave the plants in one place long enough for them to get to their eventual size,” laughs this hard-working gardener who has dug out every inch of her property’s clay and replaced it with soil more encouraging to plants. McDonald and her husband, Roger, who cares for the lawn and photographs the garden, are on their third iteration of the steps and raised beds that retain the steep slope beside the house. “When we built, we planted the hillside with ivy,” says McDonald. Not a shred of ivy remains. A small sunken garden holds gunnera and calla lilies; silvery cardoons add height, and ornamental grasses and hardy geraniums flow over the sides of the beds.

A dedicated traveler and connoisseur of the unusual, McDonald haunts plant sales, teaches classes and is an active member of the Northwest Perennial Alliance. She’s expert at tracking down the new, rare and got-to-have it plants, then arranging them in pleasing combinations. One bed features a rich mixture of blue, purple and red; oranges blaze in another; a third is drenched in silvery shimmer. “I try to have all the colors,” says McDonald. She cools down the garden with blue-toned foliage plants like Festuca ‘Elijah Blue,’ Echeveria glauca and a recent find, Eucalyptus pulverulenta ‘Baby Blue.’

McDonald successfully winters over her impressive collection of tender plants sans greenhouse by cutting them back, bringing them into the house and encouraging them with grow lights.

Later this summer, she’ll be sharing her secrets at a class called “Tropical Plants in the Garden,” offered by Edmonds Community College. For information or registration, call 425-640-1739.

Linda McDonald’s favorite finds

A list of McDonald’s current enthusiasms reads like a horticultural who’s who of hot plants. She’s scored these rare and special finds at local nurseries and plant sales, except where noted.

Ensete ventricosum ‘Maurelii’: A bold banana tree with purple-tinted leaves (tender).

Musa paradisiacal: This variegated, paddle-leafed banana steals the show planted against a dark background. From Royal Palms Enterprises in Hawaii, 1-866-255-0240 (tender).

Podophyllum delavayi: A huge-leafed perennial curiously mottled in purple not unlike an exotic toad skin. From Heronswood Nursery (hardy).

Anigozanthos: Also known as kangaroo paws, this half-hardy perennial has furry tubular flowers atop tall spikes.

Echium wildpretii: A rosette of hairy silver leaves and a 6-foot-high column of pink to scarlet flowers. Protect from getting too wet in winter.

Sambucus ‘Black Lace’: A hardy shrub with foliage as frilly and dark as you can find. Brought back from a trip to England.

Melianthus major ‘Antonow’s Blue’: Arched, serrated leaves in a luminous blue-green on a reasonably hardy plant that grows 4 to 5 feet tall and nearly as wide.

Echium tuberculatum: A half-hardy biennial, its nubby, polka-dotted leaves add texture to beds and border.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her e-mail address is Jacqueline Koch is a writer and photographer living on Whidbey Island.

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