GARDENING AND WORKING with plants can be a wonderful distraction. It’s a way to turn inward, get quiet and disengage, all while focusing on a task that requires attention and reminds us that life goes on. Plants are living, vibrant things that lift the spirit and give hope for future seasons. Putting something in the ground today pays dividends for the future because it’s a positive investment with both immediate and long-term returns.

The Backstory: Finding respite — and even a new friend — in the garden

This year has proved challenging for many of us, and it doesn’t take much digging to see how we have responded — many of us have stuck our hands in the dirt. Vegetable seeds were all but impossible to buy this past spring, and garden centers kept busy while other businesses shuttered. To put your hands and your energy into something alive and well, like a garden, is calming.

Joanne White poses inside the gate near the entrance to her garden   in Redmond. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)
Joanne White poses inside the gate near the entrance to her garden in Redmond. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)

JOANNE WHITE, A self-taught gardener who lives on just more than 6 acres of land in Redmond, has been accessing that calm for more than four decades. When her husband found the undeveloped acreage in 1977, they chose the property for its artesian well, which continues to produce more than a gallon of water per second. They cleared the land, dug three ponds out of an existing bog and completed the house in 1979.

“I’m always trying to improve,” White says of her evolving landscape. “The first thing I did was plant a vegetable garden. Then I turned that space into dahlias, but that was a lot of work, and then I finally got rid of it,” she says. In the early days, she surrounded the ponds with rhododendron and azaleas. “It was the only thing I knew how to do.”

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As of 2002, she had planted garden beds to the edge of the ponds, but then her husband, George, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and she decided to stay home and take care of him. “I expanded the garden, and that was my project while I was home taking care of him,” says White.

She found sanctum in the garden, and would turn on an audio book and work outdoors for solace. “The garden was my therapy while he was home. I’m not sure I would have done that (work) if he hadn’t been sick,” she says. (George later passed away.)

The resulting landscape provides a place of respite for all who wander down its looping pathways. “I do things in the round, if I can,” says White, noting the shape of the ponds, a round berm at the home’s entrance, a moongate, the well house, a gazebo, big timber posts holding up white wisteria. She feels it gives the large property visual consistency.

Josh Knudson, then a student at Lake Washington Vocational Tech (now known as Lake Washington Institute of Technology), built the free-standing granite moongate in Joanne White’s garden in 2016. It is one of several entrances to the gardens. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)
Josh Knudson, then a student at Lake Washington Vocational Tech (now known as Lake Washington Institute of Technology), built the free-standing granite moongate in Joanne White’s garden in 2016. It is one of several entrances to the gardens. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)

THE PROPERTY IS bookended by large swaths of lawn. Down the middle, she cultivates garden areas around each pond and along circular pathways surrounding the house. “I decided the garden should never end with dead-end paths,” says White.

The sound of water fills your ears, thanks to a series of waterfalls connecting the ponds, which White built. The second pond has an aerator that works to keep the water clean and does double duty as a fountain feature. Off the second pond, she installed a sculpture by Andrew Carson, and a “tree necklace” hangs nearby, made by her artist friend.

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There are collections of plants that repeat, and sprawl out into mini-fields of foliage and bloom accessed under a hand-built, stone moongate. What started as six primrose plants is now a large sweep of flowers spreading under a Metasequoia ‘Gold Rush’. There is a dense planting of Turkish sage. “I’ve kind of given up on trying to control some things,” says White of plants that take over. “If you want the space, have at it.”

At the pond shoreline, she planted huge Gunnera manicata, which has spread along the water’s edge over the years and is flanked by reed grass. Along pathways, you find Solomon’s seal, dwarf maples, mossy mounds and low-growing London Pride.

The newest addition to the garden is an island of plants smack in the middle of what used to be a wide, open asphalt driveway originally intended for easy maneuvering space for large vehicles and “toys.”

Candelabra primroses (Primula beesiana) add color during the spring of 2020 to Joanne White’s gardens in Redmond. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)
Candelabra primroses (Primula beesiana) add color during the spring of 2020 to Joanne White’s gardens in Redmond. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)

White hired Sue Moss Garden Design to fill some of this space with garden. They designed a tall berm and planted a winter garden full of trees, plants, benches and boulders. “In the winter, it has color and interest. It has witch hazel and berries and things that are interesting, like an upright clematis and Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’,” says White.

She also has overcrowded the space with peonies that pop up in early summer. “I’m enraptured with ginkgos,” she says. “They’re slow-growing; they have an interesting leaf. I like gingkos.”

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A planting of hydrangea, peony, rhododendron, bleeding heart, allium, ferns, clematis and meadow rue sits across from here, as does the entrance to the garden along the back of the house. This twisted gravel pathway is flanked by shade plants in all sorts of variegation. She points out special plants — a Cardiocrinum giganteum and a Kirengeshoma palmata, “a beautiful plant with a little yellow bell flower.”

A hummingbird grabs some nectar along the side of Joanne White’s house, which is next to her gardens. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)
A hummingbird grabs some nectar along the side of Joanne White’s house, which is next to her gardens. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)

WHITE ECHOES WHAT many have found this year: Gardening provides stillness when the world feels chaotic.

“Gardening has been an escape for me,” she says. “My theory is, you start with the known and then tackle the unknowns, and you don’t do it all at once. Take care of what you have, and keep expanding little by little.”

If her landscape is a reflection of this ethos, it’s sage advice.

“I don’t think anyone gets the full benefit of how good gardening is for you unless you actually work a garden and see how it evolves from year to year and see the product of your work,” she says. “I have the greatest admiration for Mother Nature.”