Ben Hammontree overheard a visitor during the Georgetown Arts and Garden Tour exclaim to a friend, "Now this is a mature garden!"
Ben Hammontree overheard a visitor during the Georgetown Arts and Garden Tour exclaim to a friend, “Now this is a mature garden!” not realizing the plants burgeoning up around her had been in the ground a scant five months. Only a fearless gardener like Hammontree could turn a blank slate into a tour attraction in the space of a single springtime.
You might expect planting with such abandon to stem from ignorance of how fast plants grow, but in Hammontree’s case it’s quite the opposite. No one knows plants more intimately and takes more joy in combining them creatively. He’s expert at searching out the newest and coolest plants; if Ben has it, we all want it. “I’ll have to rip most of the trees out in a few years,” says Hammontree happily. “I love the thickness and lushness of it, but it does mean constant editing.”
Hammontree moved not only his household but also his garden from Wallingford to Georgetown in January 2007, arriving with truckloads of plants dug from his old property. His new house is a mere 800 square feet, set back from the street on a narrow lot measuring just 2,111 square feet. The existing landscape was a laurel hedge Hammontree yanked out before he’d even slept in his new house, and a ratty lawn trampled by a Saint Bernard.
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Ignoring his property’s small dimensions, Hammontree set in to plant a garden “so big that it hugs you.” Keep in mind that by day this hard-working guy manages a grand Eastside estate garden, coming home at night to garden in Georgetown. He’s already planted 13 trees, including a hedge of skinny yews (Taxus baccata ‘Beanpole’) and three magnolias. He spruced up the house, painting its exterior eggplant purple as backdrop to the garden. He’s outlined its front window with a variegated kiwi vine and planted dozens of lilies, brugmansias, daylilies, hostas and ferns.
Pots and more pots draw your eye to the entry, furnish the patio and lend height to the planting beds. “This is such a small space, I know every inch of it,” says Hammontree. “I constantly move pots around to fill in somewhere else.” He always plants in groups of three, five or seven, and plans this spring to repeat plants in more linear patterns. And where might he find the room to do this?
“Oh, I’ll be pulling out half the stuff this year,” he says. Yet his favorite hellebores, liriope, ferns and hostas will remain.
In his signature pot plantings, Hammontree emphasizes foliage, the bigger the leaf the better. He especially likes rodgersias, their fat, textural leaves dwarfing the pots. In summer, he sometimes garnishes his foliage pots with a single kind of flower, depending on what color he’s into at the moment. “Last year it was yellow everything,” says Hammontree. “This year I think it’ll be orange, and still plenty of yellow.”
Inspired by Dale Chihuly’s glass spears, Hammontree whittled wooden dowels into spikes and painted them purple. He uses these effective, inexpensive verticals as fences and gates and to punctuate plantings. “I just go out there and tinker,” he says. “I think of this garden as a big container, or maybe containers within containers that I’m going to jam so full the house disappears.”
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of “A Pattern Garden.” Her e-mail address is email@example.com. Barry Wong is a Seattle-based freelance photographer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.