You know you've arrived at Johanna Nitzke Marquis' garden when you spot a towering bowling ball pyramid at the curve of the driveway.
Johanna Nitzke Marquis has infused her garden with her presence so delightfully and so palpably you could never, ever imagine this plot of land belonging to anyone else. Her love of vegetables and flowers, of soil, art and poetry is clear in what she grows, what she collects and how she arranges all these elements into one charming, productive garden.
You know you’ve arrived somewhere very special when you spot a towering bowling ball pyramid at the curve of the driveway. In a minute you spot a giant glass carrot, and then look up into a weeping willow tree sprouting leaves along its cobalt blue trunk (painted with nontoxic milk paint). This explosion of creativity and hard work must be why, out of the more than 150 gardens I’ve written about for Pacific Northwest magazine in the past decade, Johanna’s is the one that called out for a second look.
And maybe a third or a fourth, because this Whidbey Island garden is as rich in personality as the artists who own it. Johanna is an assemblage artist who creates collages combining found objects with her own watercolor paintings. When I visited her garden last spring, parasols sprouted out of the beds like mushrooms after a rain shower. Each little umbrella sheltered peonies, protecting their ephemeral ruffles from rain and sun until Johanna had a chance to paint their portraits.
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Johanna’s husband, Dick Marquis, is an internationally known glass artist with a hot shop in the nearby barn. His handblown cloches dot the garden and trim the fences; vivid glass test cones and glass eggs are here, too, along with an intricately patterned glass top for the fountain. When he was artist-in-residence at the Tacoma Glass Museum, Marquis blew the nearly human-sized carrot that presides over the garden.
The garden has remained uniquely itself while evolving considerably over the past decade. “It was time to restore and replant,” says Johanna of her freshly poured raised concrete beds that replace the old wooden ones. Vegetables have edged out flowers in the raised beds, which now produce crops of beets, kale, parsnips, leeks and potatoes. “I want to know what I’m eating,” says Johanna. “I’m mostly interested in heirloom varieties.” Yet roses still climb the trees and arbors, columbines and iris and other old-fashioned flowers grow along the fence, and pots hold a flock of precious little fritillaria.
The garden does have a new round focal-point bed with edges uniformly crimped as if a master pie baker had been at work. Centered with a tiered fountain, originally an electrical transformer salvaged from Eastern Washington, the bed is planted with dozens of Oriental lilies. In autumn, pumpkins and squashes take over. Letter presses were used to stamp favorite poems into the concrete edge. “The garden is a transformer; poets know that,” Johanna says.
The garden has expanded beyond its fence line, taking over lawn for beds of shrubs, peonies and more peonies. One bed holds a matrix of boxwood balls interspersed with daffodils in spring, followed by iris and cabbages in summer. “I’m learning to simplify and specialize,” Johanna says. “I don’t need to grow one of everything anymore.”
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of “A Pattern Garden.” Her e-mail address is email@example.com. Jacqueline Koch is a Seattle-based freelance photographer.