WHO BUT AN author would base the design of her garden on a poem? When J.A. Jance and her husband, Bill Schlib, bought a home in Bridle Trails nearly a decade ago, they consulted Alan Burke of Classic Nursery and Landscape Co. When Burke suggested using words in the garden, Jance’s first thought was “Are you kidding? I write murder mysteries.”
Then she remembered hearing Cecil Day-Lewis read his poem “Baucis and Philemon,” when she was a student at the University of Arizona. Jance kept that love poem, based on an ancient Greek myth, in her heart all these years. Now words from it are engraved here and there throughout the garden, creating both a literary atmosphere and also the feel of a treasure hunt.
“I haven’t had the good fortune to work with as many writers as I’d like,” says Burke, who has used literature as a theme in his award-winning gardens at the Northwest Flower & Garden Show. In Jance’s garden he was encouraged to use words as the cornerstone of the design.
Burke started out with a mess of a property that included the remains of an asphalt go-cart track, a leaky fish pond and broken waterfall. Over the years, he’s worked with Jance and Schlib to transform the place into a mirror of their interests and tastes. The house is golden-colored stucco, and grandly scaled with generous porches and terraces. The outdoor kitchen and cabana are large enough to entertain the couple’s extended family. “We can seat all 17 kids and grandkids for dinner,” says Jance. This covered area by the pool is the spot-of-choice for rainy-day barbecues and marshmallow roasts with the grandchildren. The fountain, hot tub, swimming pool and warm desert colors remind Jance of her history and second home in Arizona.
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In 2002, Schlib and Jance tried downsizing to a Seattle condo. That didn’t work out very well, and they moved to the Eastside to be close to their daughter and grandchildren. Now Bella, their rescue dachshund, has the run of a full acre of gardens.
How does this prolific writer, with 20 million copies of her books in print, find a moment to get outdoors and enjoy her garden? She writes in a comfy chair overlooking the pool, sheltered by the home’s extended roofline and warmed by a heat lamp. This is where she recently finished her 48th novel.
From Jance’s writing perch, she can look down a stone pathway and steps to the restored fish pond, which is all too often visited by heron in search of a snack. The fan palms, rhododendrons and azaleas around the pond were original to the garden. Burke brought in stone, laid terraces, installed a fountain that creates enough water sound to muffle traffic noise, and planted dark red Japanese maples, as well as ornamental grasses and perennials, around the swimming pool.
To flank the pond, he added gunnera, their vast leaves lending a tropical feel to the garden. Behind the pond is a stone circle with a linden tree and an oak, just as in the poem that inspired the garden. Over in a sunny corner are raised beds thick with herbs and vegetables. “Bill’s the cook,” says Jance, although she takes obvious pleasure in the kitchen garden.
“When I came to Seattle from Phoenix in 1981, a refugee from a bad marriage and a worse divorce, driving a used car I hadn’t paid for yet, I never envisioned this,” says Jance of her word-filled paradise on a hilltop.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com. Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.