Seattle native Arthur Lee Jacobson's garden is a living almanac
Gardeners admire Seattle native Arthur Lee Jacobson for his vast knowledge and insatiable curiosity. His garden in the Montlake neighborhood reflects those strengths as well as his penchant for teaching what he knows. Even weeds have a place here, and Jacobson eagerly shares wisdom about each plant's special characteristics.
EVEN IN A garden community rich in characters, native Seattleite Arthur Lee Jacobson stands out. Jacobson is so steeped in the wonders of plant life that he seems to live in a world more verdant than most of us can even imagine.
Walking along a sidewalk with Jacobson is an experience. He'll all of a sudden bend down, snatch an unlikely shred of greenery poking up through the concrete, and wave it about, extolling its nutrient properties and declaring it fit for the salad bowl.
A natural forager and tireless scholar, Jacobson has acquired an encyclopedic store of knowledge about plants from the cultivated to the wild. His award-winning tome, "North American Landscape Trees," runs to nearly 750 pages, while his Web site (www.arthurleej.com/) includes dozens of articles on topics that catch his fancy, including "Leaves Worth Smelling" and "Special Ballard Trees." Jacobson is perennially curious and thoroughly engaged in our city's flora, whether he's leading a graveyard tree tour or bicycling around the city delivering copies of his books.
So what does a plant omnivore like Jacobson grow in his own garden? It'd be easier to ask what he doesn't grow.
Jacobson became interested in plants as a teenager, then worked his way through college by doing yard work. He lives and gardens on the property where he grew up in the Montlake neighborhood. On this steep city lot, beneath the shade of giant pine and eucalyptus, Jacobson manages to raise 526 kinds of plants, including what he calls "intentional weeds."
The place is a wonderland of oddities and beauties, growing in pots and in the ground, weaving their way around and through each other to compete for the little sunlight that makes its way through the dense canopy. "Notice there are no straight lines," says Jacobson of the terraces and paths that flow down the hillside. "I like organic shapes . . . straight lines are for engineers!" There are begonias with edible petals, blueberries from the Canary Islands, and a 90-foot-tall Eucalyptus dalrympleana that looks more like a towering telephone pole than a tree. Jacobson modestly understates his planting style: "I like to experiment with new and rare plants . . . I jam them in."
Jacobson opens his garden to visitors twice a summer, encouraging them to sniff and taste plants as they wander through. "Agastache smells like root beer," Jacobson says as he pulls on the perennial's gray-green, fragrant foliage. The banana shrub (Magnolia figo) wafts a bubble-gum scent about the garden. Jacobson planted a Himalayan dogwood in 1987, and by his measure it's now the tallest of its kind in the state. Potatoes grow in a wooden box, and scarlet runner beans clamber up a tree trunk in this casual, diverse and most personal of gardens.
"Beauty alone doesn't cut it," says Jacobson of his selection criteria, which, considering the garden's density, doesn't appear too stringent. "I grow plants that are fragrant, experimental, edible, native, medicinal." Always the teacher, he adds, "Like this dog rose (Rosa canina), which has the best hips for eating . . . they're ripe by Thanksgiving and high in vitamin C." Then there's the early-blooming, sweetly scented Japanese apricot (Prunus mume) he grew from a pit, and the hemlock he encourages visitors to sample. "Have you ever eaten a hemlock tree?" is just one of the curious questions out of Jacobson's mouth as he roams the garden, sniffing and snacking. He thoroughly enjoys each and every one of his plants, from rarities to weeds.
Does Jacobson really encourage weeds in his garden, or is it just that he hasn't had time to pull them? "I grow weeds purposefully because they're fragrant, edible or because they win my heart," says the ultimate plant-worshipper. Here in his own garden, it's clear that Arthur Lee Jacobson is a scientist who revels in the sensuousness and mystery of plants, even as he can't resist measuring, classifying, counting and collecting all that he comes across.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "The New Low-Maintenance Garden." Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com. Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.
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