Experience: Gardens, Mentors, Peers and Friends…Essential Elements to the Growing Gardner!


Gardeners find inspiration and support from all over, from nature’s expansive landscapes to the very personal and intricate jewels of fellow gardeners, to botanic gardens and the nurseries that often fuel our ardor.  We visit gardens locally, and travel when we can, seeing and experiencing what other regions and countries offer.  Sometimes it is the human culture and its exuberance which seems to drive a place’s horticulture and gardens in directions and extremes different from ours, while our growing conditions are very close…in other gardens site conditions can be very different than our own pushing the palette far from that possible in our own.  By traveling we are ‘opened’, taken out of the familiar and our senses ‘sensitized’, as we take in the new and see the familiar in new ways.  Travel can make us more receptive.  After a Fall trip to New York, followed by one to McCall, Idaho, this Spring we visited parts of central and coastal California, later taking a couple weeks driving up across the Olympic Peninsula to Vancouver Island, peppering it with gardens new and familiar, adding another island, Salt Spring, on our return. 

Like our gardens, we gardeners ‘grow’ over time, learning and changing our practice, our experiences ever evolving.  Important to this process are those others we meet along the way who take the time to share their knowledge and experience with us, perhaps including plants or seeds, but more often simply their enthusiasm for what they do, and the sharing of their gardens.  This is important to us because the practice of gardening can be a ‘lonely’ art and the world of plants is far bigger and more complex than any one of us….If we are to do it well we must seek out the aid and friendship of others.  The emotional connection to what we do, creates a ‘tension’, that can be a source for the energy that drives us…and the addition of a little supplemental ‘fuel’ along the way can go a long way.


Gardening can create collectors out of us, but these are not collections we can sequester away out of view secure and static, because plants must live to continue existing.  Even their seeds contain living germplasm and must be properly stored to keep them viable and ready for when called upon.  Our gardens then are dynamic communities of organisms which require our own engaged and informed participation.  This life of nature within our gardens is the same ‘life’ that underlies all art forms and concepts of beauty.  Beauty does not stand independently, separate from everything else, it is a byproduct of health and life.  To create it we must become its student and endeavor to understand what is happening.  Gardens and beauty do not simply happen.  There is a structure and process that underlies it and if we are to replicate it or even maintain it, we must understand what is going on, see what is essential and basic to the life within.  Gardens are not ‘turn key’ systems, that can be placed anywhere, and be expected to ‘perform’ indefinitely…though that might be the expectation of the novice.  They require an engaged gardener, because there are decisions that must be made, actions that must be taken.  By having changed the course of life in a place, its components and flow, we must forever be involved whether we acknowledge this or not because we have altered the course of life in a place.  Our actions carry with them responsibility.   To garden well we need to respect its process.  People often say that if we only get out of mother nature’s way, she will heal her self….I suppose that’s true, but it will not happen in a way that will fit our typical human expectation and we can hardly know what its outcome will be.  We cannot look at landscapes elsewhere and expect the same to follow naturally after our ‘disturbance’.  It is also incredibly unlikely that we will be able to keep ourselves away and let nature’s processes play out…this has been our ‘problem’ from the beginning, we will be involved one way or another so it is best that we learn how to positively and effectively interact with the landscapes within which we live.

Gardening is a spatial, temporal and visual art form, a slow motion dance that lingers, with the present blending in memory into an ‘after image’.  I’ve always found gardening to be endlessly fascinating with a nearly infinite range of options.  For me its best examples are not ‘forced’.  It is a demanding art form that requires its practitioners to commit to both the nature of a site and the plants that they would use on it.   While the ‘art’ of the garden  has always drawn me in, the biggest draw for me has always been the plants and the decisions they require of us as gardeners….Plants are not freely interchangeable and gardens are not ‘plug and play’, no plant is superior to any other, it all comes down to the appropriateness of the plants that you choose to the other plants they share space with, how well they work together and how well they meet our aesthetic intent, our vision.  Gardening like any art form, requires a certain mastery of one’s materials, an understanding of how the many elements blend together and a sense of humility, the patience to give the garden a degree of freedom, allowing it to express itself through the forces at play in a living landscape.  For me the best gardens are the ones in which the garden and gardener are engaged, ‘respectfully’, working with one another, not at cross purposes, not those in which the gardener has imposed his/her will upon the landscape, though those can be impressive in their own right.

To garden in this way requires the gardener to become ever more intimately aware of both their site and the plants they grow.  If they are working on a site new to them, they go in ready, watching it for signs, weighing its responses to their attempts and never forcing.  This doesn’t exclude those who must garden with their favorite plants, but it causes them to take effective and calculated action, modifications to their practice, changes to their ‘vision’, to assure their plant’s success, even if this means a life limited to a pot or trough.  These are the gardeners I pay special attention to, the one’s I quiz about their conditions and methods to try to understand what their success or failure has meant for them and, by extension, what it means for me.  This pushes the garden beyond simply ‘Right Plant, Right Place.’  Gardening, well practiced, is not formulaic.  One garden cannot be lifted from one place and imposed directly on another.  With gardening it is perhaps an even stronger imperative to follow the old maxim, ‘adapt or die’.


This is the Pritzlaff Conservation Center, which houses the conservation, research and administration staff at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. I love this garden. Sitting on a ridge top above Santa Barbara, overlooking Santa Cruz Island, one of the Channel Islands.  This particular part of the garden, still being planted, features the native plants of the Channels, more than a few of which are endemic and endangered. The larger Botanic Garden includes more of the California and regional flora, reserving most of its research and restoration work on the Channel Islands. Aesthetically, this garden works beautifully and is a wonderful example of what can be done with one’s own regional flora.

In my experience when a gardener does this they are more likely to have aesthetic success as well.  While their original vision may not be realized, such a garden will have a ‘rightness’ to it because we are placing plants together based on compatibility and relationship.  Whether we rely strictly on local natives or some blend with exotics, because these plants must ‘play together’, in terms of conditions, aesthetically, visually, there will be a stronger degree of compatibility.  Plants from the 5 mediterranean regions of the world can work together in this way in the Northwest, as can alpines or those from steppe regions or plants that typically occur in any given biome, depending on the conditions at our particular site.  If you do much traveling at all to native regions different than your own, you will come across the landscapes that look ‘familiar’ from a distance, that fit the look and your expectation, but upon closer examination you discover that the species composition of these landscapes are very different, they look like plants we know because of their having evolved under very similar conditions which shape the plants to a large degree….This can work to the advantage of the intrepid gardener.

On our recent trip, we visited Linda’s garden for the first time on the Olympic Peninsula near Hood Canal and Puget Sound.  From her photographs and the experience she freely shares, it is clear that she is a formidable plantswoman.  She’s recorded some of her growing experience in her blog, Linda Cochran’s Garden, producing a trove of valuable garden experience, something I wish more gardeners would do.  Such resources are of inestimable value to the gardener, encouraging us on and perhaps helping us avoid some of the mistakes we might other wise make.  Touring her garden with her was a true treat.  We discussed soil, climate, the history of ‘disruption’/development on and around her site and her particular management of her garden, her techniques for establishment, her failures (we all have many and should refer to them as learning opportunities, not judgements), and her remarkable successes. 

One of the things that the visit brought home to me was how important it is to follow our garden’s lead, to understand the nature of our relationship with the place we garden…in particular, its nuances, and to let go of our notions and desires when repeated failures should be telling us that it isn’t working and we should try something else.  Call and response.  When we act in our gardens we are aiming for a particular outcome.  When it fails we need to be patient and ask ourselves why.  The more slavishly we adhere to a vision, the more frustrated, exhausted and financially drained, we may become.  I’ve written in a previous blog about this kind of approach, ‘adaptive management’, in the context of sustainable landscapes, but really it is an idea and approach that we should all use as gardeners in any garden. 

Her’s is an excellent example of such a practice when well followed.  Sweeps of various Castilleja. Penstemon, Phacelia and Pedicularis, mixed with Stipa among other perennials grasses and annuals, shifting, growing and responding to one another.  Often her choices come from a local native palette, other times they come from further afield, but always there is strict consideration for the needs of the plant.  We all attempt this to some degree, but she goes well beyond the common practice of ‘Right Plant, Right Place’.  There is a dynamic tension that exists between every gardener and their site, pulling us back and forth between our desires and the reality of our gardens.  Well played, such a garden becomes more ‘Jazz improvisation’ than a precisely reproduced piece of classical music strictly following a pre-determined ‘composition’, a plan.  We can appreciate either style and still have our favorites, but the garden as Jazz Improv more truly reflects the ways of Nature…while the gardener’s ‘fingerprints’ remain.  Hers is not a ‘wild garden’, changed over time by a series of additions and edits, but one that was built from scratch, it’s original plant community removed and the ground ‘scraped’ and regraded.  It borders ‘industrial forest lands’ which are forced to follow the very limited purposes of its timber oriented owners and the heavy handed management plan they follow, indifferent to the understory as long as it doesn’t present too much competition for their ‘crop’, replete with its own particular resident population of surviving native and weedy exotic species.  The gardener’s intention is obvious in Linda’s garden, the way it stands separate from both its neighboring gardens, yards really, and surrounding compromised forest.  The plants we choose to grow, their fates and where they  move, are part of a ‘conversation’ we need to be having and she does, sensitive to the garden’s response, letting it play out or taking it as a suggestion for other possibilities. 

There is still plenty of ‘room’ for the gardener to change it up.  Sometimes our invitees are too successful or their effect simply takes the garden too far from where we want it to go…and we step in and alter course.  Other times it is more of a matter of tiring of once loved plants, plants grown overly large, out of scale, and others calling to us to be planted.  Such is the case of one bed she intends to have Cymbidiums star in sharing space with other orchids and companion plants. 

Planting is a way to impose our preferences more strictly and this is fine, maybe even necessary, especially in the early stages, to establish a theme and structure to the garden.  What Linda has done next has always been more difficult for me.  As an active and attentive seed propagator she has learned that often times the best, most successful way to establish plants, is following mother nature’s lead, by scattering seed directly in the garden on those particular sites where you want them to establish…those places which have demonstrated the highest likelihood of success.  Sometimes plants resent the handling, the disturbance, that is inevitably entailed with growing on, potting up and planting out.  In some of these cases, by seeding directly into the garden, plants are able to grow in such a way as to increase their viability and success…of course this requires that we be patient and attentive, consistent in our commitment to following the process out, not weeding out the seedlings that appear or changing our care regime mid-stream….


Parts of Linda’s deck is crowded with benches and tables holding flats of seedlings, others with the larger plants of those she’s potted up, the later often including seed she acquired of plants that have tantalized and challenged her to grow, some which she may be able to later plant out, others she will definitely not.  Several contained the gorgeous perfect green rosettes of Lobelia deckenii, mimicking the form of some thinner leafed, and spineless, Agave, though its endemic to the Mt. Kilimanjaro area in Kenya, Africa…wrong continent!  Her plants are 3 years old or so bulking up nicely.  Those growing in situ typically take several decades to reach blooming size and, like Agave, can form linked offsets which will survive the monocarpic mother plant.  Very cool!

Next to those are a small collection of Dendroseris litoralis, the cabbage tree, an evergreen, perennial species in the daisy and sunflower family, Asteraceae, with woody, tree-like stems, and rubbery leaves up to 18″ long, her plants growing quickly from last year’s germination.  These are a rare and threatened endemic from tiny Robinson Crusoe Island, only 18 sq.mi., 416 miles off the coast of Chile at 33º south.  This curiosity grows where temperatures range from a low of 37ºF to a high of 84ºF with only occasional light frost, while receiving some 40” plus of rain a year.  Limiting high temperatures is important.  Linda Cochran posted this a few years ago.  Check out this link on Strange and Wonderful Plants for more on this Dendroseris.

In another corner of her garden she still grows her Musa basjoo, a plant she brought with her from her previous garden and would not be without…we all have our attachments.  In the entry bed she has a Cussonia, a plant I intend to add to my garden even if it must live in a pot.  Nearby is a Myosotidium hortensia, the Giant Forget Me Not that looks like some cross between a Bergenia and Myostis..it is in fact a member of the Borage family, and the sole species of its genera, an endemic species from New Zealand’s Chatham Islands. (Check out these links, Burnacose Nursery in the UK, and this one from the New Zealand Conservation Network.  Want to try your hand at this one, go to Jellito Seed’s site.   For those of us gardening in the Pacific Northwest be sure to read Linda Cochran’s description of this.

As you walk her garden you will come upon various other southern hemisphere plants, particularly New Zealanders that do well for her, plants we will also see in other gardens on this trip, which generally perish for me in too ‘hot’ Portland, plants like the alpine Celmesia spp. and the ‘wicked’ and piercingly spiky Aciphylla, need anymore adjectives for these?… especially A. aurea which performs best for her.  Here, perhaps counter intuitively are Yucca rostrata and Y. linearifolia doing surprisingly well.  There’s also the other SW desert dweller Dasylirion wheeleri, but she thinks she lacks the heat to grow many of the other Agave relatives I can in warmer Portland. 

This distinction in our climates is  undeniable and more than a little significant when determining one’s palette.  There can be important differences from garden to garden, even between gardens often thought to commonly share the same conditions.  Look close!….One garden for a variety of reasons will present quite different conditions to the gardener, differences that if ignored, will guarantee failure to certain choices.  We can’t always take lessons directly from other gardens we might visit or lift them from books or online photo spreads, all of us have to learn to pay attention to the opportunities and limitations our gardens present or be willing and able to accommodate the changes that a particular plant requires.  Sometimes we will simply have to enjoy those plants in the gardens of others…and that’s okay.

We visited another friend, Judith’s garden in Victoria…for the third time.  Not having much serious propagation experience myself, propagators like Judith, their scope and detail of knowledge can be intimidating, but like so many plant people I’ve met their willingness to share is astounding and refreshing in this world today.

I worked in landscapes for most of my career, primarily maintenance, construction with some design thrown in, but left the propagation to others.  Propagation places the gardener in the position of every day having to more directly weigh questions of life, playing a more critical role, making that decision of what to bring into this world, whether they can provide what it needs and at least considering whether there will be any ‘demand’ for it, or will the efforts be for naught?  Every species has its own particular ‘recipe’ for success and either the propagators memory must be near eidetic or the note taking scrupulous along with their dedication to their art.

I’ve learned something new on each visit with Judith, plants and techniques, but I’m still most interested in the plants…I can’t help myself.  Just as each of us will take something different from a garden we might visit, we ‘take’ different things from the gardener.  Restios, Aciphylla spp., Celmesia spp. and Carmichaelia are seductive and tempt me…I don’t think that I’m that unusual.  The seductive nature of plants requires that we constantly remind ourselves that these are not just pretty objects to be acquired and held, but living organisms, each with their own set of requirements that must be met if we are to grow them successfully.  Growing any plant that is marginal will end in futility if you can’t find a suitable micro-site or make the necessary adjustments to soil or whatever the limiting element is in your case.  In this plants aren’t unique, deprive any plant of something they need and they will be weakened.  If that state continues long enough or there are too many compromises made and anything will die.

Restios…they suffer seriously if you attempt to divide them.  Just because they grow in dense clumps like bunch grasses doesn’t mean that you will be successful in doing this.  Propagators grow them from the seed produced on the female plants.  They treat them with smoke  to help break their dormancy and then grow them on to salable size.  Isn’t it slow?  Well it’s faster than dividing a larger plant and then watching your divisions all die or languish.  Does knowing this change the way I garden…no, not really, but knowing the stories behind a plant adds to my understanding and enriches my connection to the living plant world.  It also helps us as gardeners understand and value the work of the propagators and nursery operators upon whom we depend.  We can’t all do everything.  By valuing the work of those dedicated to propagating and growing our plants for us our gardens are both potentially more diverse and wonderous for us as gardeners.  Gardening is an exercise in community, all of the overlapping biotic communities.

While Californians may have broader success with more of the existing Restio taxa, we can grow several of them and seeing them grown well in milder maritime gardens should perhaps be more surprising than it is growing them further south in Portland where we get more heat, even if that heat comes with a little more winter cold.  Yes, cold is a factor, but drainage may be even more so as the winter rainfall amounts increase.  This is true for many of the plants we might try to grow.  Seeing the success other gardeners are having with various Restio genera and species out of South Africa and Australia, has emboldened me as I add plants to my own palette, though I’m realistic enough to understand that some of these will always be container plants for me like my Elegia capensis, a zn9b plant, and Chondropetalum tectorum, typically rated a zn9a plant.  (Please note that the mature size of several of the Restios can be another limiting factor as some become downright huge.  Linda has removed some of her’s due to their size.)  Rhodocoma capensis is proving to be a durable and dependable candidate for our gardens in the Portland area.  Sean Hogan has utilized them beautifully in the garden he created around the Argyle tasting room in Dundee, Oregon.

I acquired Carmichaelia aff. virgata from Wind Cliff Plants this spring, encouraged by Judith’s success…even if it is more ‘oddity’ than beauty.  Brooms aren’t for everybody, but in New Zealand at least, this one seems to be well behaved and these are in fact endemic to that part of the world, with only one of the 24 species found elsewhere, on and limited to tiny Lord Howe Island.  (Some of these species are quite rare across their remaining native range and the subject of some study.  I haven’t made it all of the way through this dissertation on ten of the South New Zealand species.   It is an examination of their ecology and conservation status, in a world which is experiencing a frightening acceleration in the number of species extinctions.  This may be more than I need to know in order to grow this, but we can never know too much to enrich experience.)  The gardens of other’s can serve as proving grounds, test beds, for winnowing out possible plants for our own use if we observe carefully and ask the right questions.

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This map shows the USDA defined hardiness zones applied to the SW coastal area of British Columbia. What is surprising to me is that these zn 9a and b conditions continue much further north in a coastal band that includes most of the Haida Gwaii archipelago…of course the further north you go the lower your average summer high temps!  This is somewhat akin to the coastal Chilean region.  The northern end of the archipelago reaches just beyond 54ºN latitude! Much of this coastal region is rain forest.  Add all of the shoreline along BC’s coast, which includes many miles of deeply cut inlets,  to the straight line distance around its 40,000 islands and you reach about 16,000 miles!  Straight line distance from Victoria to Stewart, BC, the northern most point on BC’s coastline, is about 600 miles.  All of this ‘edge’ tells us something about the maritime influence on the region.  Water and precipitous land define this border.  It is dominated by Fir and Cedar forests, though the drier parts of the southern islands are home to Madrone and Garry Oak and includes Hairy Manzanita at its southern extreme. See this website.

140 miles up Vancouver Island, from Victoria, is the town of Comox where you can catch a ferry across the 20 miles of Georgia Strait to Powell River, continue up BC-19 the 288 miles to Port Hardy and the end of the road…or visit Kaylee’s garden…well, there are a few other things to do up there….  In the states we tend to think of Canada as the cold north, well, coastal BC doesn’t really fit with that.  Comox, just east of Courtney, is where another friend gardens, is zn 9a.  Not far from here is Denman Island, where my father grew up and, later in the day we’ll go and stay at my cousin’s.  Yes, it snows there and it is definitely north of Portland, but the maritime effect on the climate is powerful with cooler summer temps and milder, on average, winter temps.  Being on the lee of Vancouver Island’s mountainous spine does make it a bit warmer and drier than the Island’s exposed western coastline.  The region is also further away from any cold air drainages that can chill it with frozen blasts from Canada’s interior.  Here Kaylee gardens with multiple palm species, bamboos, Himalayans and many of those same New Zealanders that are so tempting to me, but I shy away from in Portland with my rich, heavy soil and our ‘hot’ summers.  Knowing that his soil was crap, it’s severely compacted and was once the site of mining operations(?), he brought in soil and raised all of his beds improving his drainage and making many things possible.  His 1/2 acre garden is truly drool worthy a garden Julie said she would never leave were it ours.  It’s not just filled with exotics from distant lands.  Some of his exotics came from closer to home.  His work takes him into northern Alberta, a much more severe climate, where he has rescued native Orchids which would otherwise be destroyed by the expansion of natural gas well sites.  These populate parts of his garden though he also shares them with nurseries for propagation and wider distribution.  He grows and collects bamboos and seems to be connected to plant specialists from around the world who share his particular interests.  He has a group of fellow plant nerds whom get together when they can, each member bringing a plant and a beer that they are ready and willing to discuss…my kind of group.

Kaylee told us to visit the little Park next to the Comox marina where they built three very nice little crevice gardens…near a popular playground, yet the gardens were unprotected and impeccable!

The north end of Salt Spring Island, BC, not too far north of Victoria, is considered zn 9b!  There I visited Fraser’s Thimble Farms, a nursery that lived up to its billing with an amazing variety and quantity of plant material, with an Island population limited to around 12,000 full time residents, and another private garden.  The island is fairly rugged with a network of ridges and mountains, yes, mountains, to over 3,000′, with  thin rocky soil on their slopes.  The availability of water for irrigation is more of a limiting factor there, than cold.  In mid-June they were already operating with water restrictions.  In contrast in Comox, where Kaylee gardens, they have unmetered water, though they may irrigate only on scheduled days.  Here Joe can grow plants most of us in Portland must dig or protect, planted out on his sloping garden….Both he and Kaylee are both growing, Trachycarpus sp. Manipur, sometimes called T. ukhrulensis in the literature I discovered after I got home to research it.  One source said that Manipur is a form of the species that exhibits whiter undersides to its leafs than the species.  It is reputed to be one of the hardier Trachys that has survived down to 5ºF though more testing is necessary.  This is one of the newer species to horticulture described in the early 2000’s found in northern Myanamar at 4 -6,000′.

Joe has been gardening here for a long time and has included many plants that wouldn’t be found in a typical mixed border or even NW garden.  Absent also are the plants that require much summer heat, though he’s tried many of them, demonstrating again that every garden will present conditions in unique combination, that either allow or prohibit plants grown easily elsewhere.  Our sites present as puzzles that we must figure out to be successful.  Joe’s energy is unbounded.  He works in the local Parks for CRD, the Capital Regional District, the local government administrative district encompassing the southern tip of Vancouver Island and the southern Gulf Islands and supplies Palms to regional garden centers on the side.

Salt Spring Island has a relatively long history of orchards, due to its climate, and is dotted with vineyards and wineries amidst its forested slopes.  At the south end, in the Burgoyne Valley above Fulford Harbor, one of the island’s three which are served by ferries, is a relatively young orchard of 3,100 Olive trees…so their is enough heat, at least in places, to ripen Olives!  They had their first oil pressing in 2017!

Just south of Salt Spring, on Saanich Peninsula, a few miles north of Victoria, a little out of Sydney, Bob and Verna Duncan run a small nursery, Fruit Trees and More, with an orchard on which they grow several hundred different fruits, including figs, olives and Citrus productively in the ground.  Check out this link! and watch his video for growing Citrus outdoors successfully in the maritime NW.  We didn’t have time left to check out their operation.

Successful gardening requires us to go outside of ourselves in a way that is both creative and respectful of nature’s own demonstrated ‘methods’ and limits, pressing us to rely less on our individual machinations and preferences.  A successful garden reflects the gardeners understanding of this and our accommodations to this fact.  There are many ways to get there and room for all of them.


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