GAYLE BARD is famous in the art world for her large-scale landscape paintings with their elegant forms and ethereal light. She’s an impresario not only with a paintbrush but also with plants, soil and pots. Bard transformed her half-acre of lawn and concrete into a garden of privacy and illusion, as the hundreds of people who tramped through on last summer’s Bainbridge Island garden tour can attest.
When 11 years ago Bard moved into a 1950s home on a quiet Bainbridge Island road, the property was nothing but an expanse of driveway and overgrown foundation plantings. Now the golden locust tree in front of the house so dazzles golfers walking between holes on the nearby course that they stop to ask about the tree shimmering gold on the deep green conifers around it.
Bard’s corner property offered plenty of challenges. A steep hill rises behind the house, squeezing the deck and patio area into a narrow strip. The garden, now hedged in laurel and escallonia, was fully exposed to the street on two sides. “Just junk,” is how Bard describes the hardpan soil. The out-of-scale driveway dominated the front garden.
“I moved here because I could turn two bays of the three-car garage into my art studio,” says Bard. But her studio opened out onto a sea of concrete turnaround. Now a grouping of pillars and pots creates both a view out from her studio and a sense of entry. The paved area in front of the studio has the feel of a sheltered little terrace. A dark green bistro table welcomes you into the garden with an invitation to sit down among the squashes, cauliflower and tomatoes overflowing the pots. Other pots hold evergreens like boxwood and nandina to carry the scene through the seasons.
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Bard comes from a long line of Kansas farmers. She’d always grown food, but it was her move to Bainbridge 30 years ago that turned her into an ornamental gardener. “In my last garden I had a great big canvas to fill up, so I started growing shrubs and flowers,” she says. Now she loves to prune, clipping the barberries, boxwood and camellias along the front of the house into flowing, undulating shapes.
Bard sees her garden with an artist’s eye, paying close attention to shapes, textures and how light and shadows fall. “I’m not really a plantsperson. Most of my plants are so pedestrian,” she says. “Except for a red lace-leaf hydrangea (Hydrangea serrata ‘Beni Nishiki’) I got from (plant explorer) Dan Hinkley 20 years ago.”
Her farming-family ethos informs her choices, too: She rarely purchases plants; instead, she reuses, repurposes, makes do. Bard brought most of the plants in the garden with her from her earlier property. “I just lay my hands on plants, talk friends into dividing hostas, take a pinch here or there,” she says.
Bard and an artist friend made the metal armatures along the driveway out of rebar. Threaded with green beans, the curvaceous towers punctuate the puffs of golden ‘Sum and Substance’ hosta lapping up against the driveway. Bard crafted her own pillars out of PVC pipe. “I always wanted a Little and Lewis column but couldn’t afford them,” she says. She painted the pipe and piled heavy rubble in the bottom to keep the pillars upright. Now a rhythm of vivid red pillars defines the back garden, day lilies growing up between them. Because the soil was so bad that Bard had to use a jackhammer to dig a hole, she plants annuals and her favorite golden Asiatic lilies in tall, skinny pots on the back terrace.
A lifelong gardener, Bard left her previous garden because it was too much work to maintain. After developing her current garden for more than a decade, she plans to move on for the same reason. “I’m going to miss gardening, though,” Bard says, as she contemplates her next creative endeavors.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Reach her at email@example.com. Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.