Urban Gardens in South Puget Sound

It pays to be in the passenger seat when you’re zipping around the city streets in the South Sound. Leave the driving to somebody else while you sit back, relax and enjoy the show as garden after beautiful garden flies past your window. We are surrounded by some of the most inspiring and creative urban gardens in the country. But they’re not just for looks; they’re for living.

It isn’t any great surprise that urban gardening began when we traded farming for industry in the early part of the 20th century. Our families moved away from the country with its ponds, pastures and endless supplies of homegrown vegetables and fruits into city homes with small plots of bare earth surrounded by other city homes with small plots of bare earth. The change from country to city must have been quite a shock. The greening of the cities immediately began taking hold. Whether out of necessity (vegetable gardens) or nostalgia (home sweet home) small scale country gardens began popping up everywhere. Fast forward to the South Sound in the 21st Century.

The typical Northwest garden with its horseshoe of large leaved rhododendrons surrounding an emerald green lawn has given way to the imagination of that uncommon South Sound gardener.Forget about coffee table books and HGTV, just check out all the garden varieties in your own neighborhood. (Don’t neglect the alleys. A lot of gardeners do their best work where nobody can see!)

It isn’t unusual to pass a tropical paradise with banana trees and giant ferns, an English cottage garden filled with delphiniums and wisteria or a Mediterranean palazzo lined with Italian pots and palms, all within a few blocks of each other.

The urban garden used to be either a sanctuary or a showplace. Now, it has taken on a new look and meaning.If you think your home has seven rooms, think again. Now it has eight. The new urban garden is your extra room. Your new room has furniture (seating and side tables), walls (hedges and fences) and artwork (containers, trellises and statuary). In this case, don’t think “outside the box”; think “part of the box”. Home and garden are a complete package.

Urban gardening, like everything else, builds on the basics. The basic of any good garden is good garden soil. Unless you’re a soil scientist, this isn’t the most exciting part of creating an urban garden but it is the most important. New homes usually have horrible fill dirt and older homes often have tired, depleted soil. They don’t need fertilizer; they need a miracle.

Sue Goetz, Gig Harbor garden designer, (www.creativegarden.com) helps her clients start new urban gardens and renovate older ones. Sue solves the soil problem with compost, and lots of it. After trying several different brands of compost, she prefers Cedar Grove (www.cedar-grove.com) because it “tends to be more weed free”. Lay the foundation with compost enriched soil. You will thank yourself later when your plants are healthy and robust. Jumping right into planting without mind-numbing soil preparation is a big mistake. It takes patience and thoughtfulness to build a new garden or change an old one. And it pays to do it right. Ten percent of the value of a home is in its landscaping.

Sue especially likes working on renovations because “sometimes gardeners just get stuck”. They know all the plants, all the names, the cultivation and bloom time but they just need a different perspective. One small change can make all the difference. Turning a straight path into a meandering one or adding texture and layering can change a tired garden (or gardener) into an energetic one. New urban gardens revolve around families and entertaining. Lawns are shrinking and gardeners are plant savvy.

Urban gardens tend to be on the small side with most houses taking up double lots 50 feet wide, leaving small areas for landscape. The smaller the area, the more it needs to be planned to maximize its potential.Just because a garden space is small, doesn’t mean the “room” has to be decorated with small plants, miniature shrubs or barely-room-for-one bistro tables.

Instead of scaling everything down in a small space, scale up like the Watermans.

Jim and Niki Waterman have always been gardeners but took on a daunting task when they completely excavated their back yard four years ago to recreate a taste of Italy. They brought in soil, rocks and well thought out ideas. They transformed their concrete drive-up into an Italianate-inspired outdoor room with coy pond, well-placed boulders and an artist’s eye toward scale and texture. Jim believes in scale…large scale. In this small back garden, the Watermans have created a scene that feels three times larger than its actual size. Enormous pots and large leaved plants trick your eye into thinking their garden space is a large slice of a terraced Italian hill town.

You won’t find much lawn at the Waterman’s but you’ll find ample supplies of Scotch moss-covered rocks tucked under and around Mugho pines, Japanese Sedge, Liriope and a collection of dwarf conifers. A healthy dose of perennials and annuals provide the color. And what happens when you run out of room for large pots and big leaved plants? According to Jim, “you go up” with vines and climbers.

Jim sees his garden as an “ever changing sculpture”. The garden is tightly packed, fence-to-fence, with carefully maintained plants and paths.Like most passionate urban gardeners Jim and Niki don’t just look at their garden, they thrive in it. Jim’s artist studio is only a few feet away from the garden so he has ample opportunity to enjoy this extraordinary creation. They deliberately designed a perfect vacation spot right out their back door. “We have incorporated our lives into our house”.

Privacy in an urban garden is often difficult to achieve because of ready access to city streets and the proximity of neighbors. It’s good to have a few tricks up your sleeve and a few judicious strategies.

Starting from scratch, Robin Dale and Mark Neumann created an urban garden on a single lot in Tacoma’s North end that has transformed a blank lawn canvas with an attached RV parking space into a multidimensional living space complete with dining room, water features and aviary.

They accomplished something that urban gardeners are forever trying to master. They achieved outdoor privacy in the city. And they didn’t do it by building a fence-fortress around their house. They did by constructing an airy wooden structure that hugs the sidewalk. Their fortress is a friendly one.

Most front yards are merely entrances to the house. Robin and Mark have an entrance that begins in the landscaped parking strip that leads to the first “room” in their house just beyond the sidewalk inside the gate. The room just happens to be outside. Instead of ring-around-the-lawn they have created a miniature plaza complete with a circular brick dining area surrounded by Bishop’s Weed (Aegopodium podagaria), white lilies and spiderwort(Tradescantia bracteata).

The former RV strip that ran alongside the house has been replaced with a long tunnel of black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra), golden bamboo (P. aurea) and Chinese walking stick bamboo (Qiongzhuea tumidissinoda).The name, “bamboo”, strikes dread in the heart of the most avid gardeners who are in fear of it running over, under and around everything in sight. Robin and Mark solved the problem by sinking large pots of bamboo into the ground. This keeps both running and clumping bamboo in check. (Make sure the rim of the pot is a little aboveground.)

The bamboo tunnel draws you into the back yard where Robin and Mark have created the Northwest Pugetropics complete with Mexican fan palm (Washingtonia robusta), Windmill palms (Trachycarpus fortunei), hardy bananas (Musa basjoo), several canna varieties and the sound of running water. A summer aviary for their Quaker parrots, China, Louis and Brittany completes the tropical scene.

The rest of the country sees the Northwest as a gardener’s paradise because of our mild climate, cutting edge specialty nurseries and unyielding passion for horticulture. Our urban gardens reflect their judgment and after a few drives around town it’s perfectly clear that South Sound gardeners have more than lived up to their expectations.

Reprinted with permission, Premier Media Group, South Sound Magazine, Tacoma, WA