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Originally published Friday, November 1, 2013 at 12:15 AM

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A new gardening strategy: lighten up

Horticulturist Tina Dixon has moved from her home in Bothell, and from her splendid, but labor-intensive, garden there. At her new home there is still plenty of land, but she vows to take it easy this time.

Special to The Seattle Times

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TINA DIXON is a professional horticulturist specializing in container plantings, and her home garden in Bothell was on the cover of this magazine a few years ago. She and her husband lived in the Bothell house for 29 years, and Dixon had extravagantly planted the third of an acre with palms, grasses, banana trees and colorful perennials. Its tropical vibe, bright-blue containers, vivid stucco walls and profuse mix of plantings made it one of the most toured and published gardens in the Northwest.

But when Dixon’s gardener moved away, she faced up to the reality of maintenance. There wasn’t a line item in her retirement budget for a gardener. “So who was the gardener going to be? Me!” she says. So the couple sold their house a year ago, planning to downsize. “We did the opposite,” says Dixon. They bought three-fourths of an acre on Echo Lake in Snohomish.

This time around, Dixon is resolved to create a lower-maintenance garden. “I put in a single Japanese forest grass, and a rabbit is already eating it. I know what I’m up against here.” The hillside down to the lake will remain lawn, and Dixon is learning to coexist with weeds, because she doesn’t want to use any chemicals near the lake. She doesn’t irrigate the grass, leaving it to brown out during August and September. As she sets about planning a very different garden, Dixon has a new mantra: “We’re in the country now, we need to lighten up, it can’t be perfect.”

Her most basic strategy is simply to garden less of the property, leaving most of it as naturalistic as her self-discipline allows. Dixon plans to concentrate her time and energy on borders and container plantings close to the house. “I’m going to try to leave the area around the fir trees alone,” she adds.

A solid, stamped concrete patio will cut down on the need to weed between cracks. No more gravel paths, which Dixon calls “the perfect weed-growing medium.”

With garden art and her signature cobalt-blue containers as focal points, Dixon will rely less on plants to carry the garden through the seasons. And the plants she does use will be more evergreen than deciduous. When she succumbs to perennials such as her favorite coneflowers, she won’t deadhead, but leave the spent flowers for the birds to enjoy. Dixon looks forward to planting sweeps of the ornamental grasses she loves most, like porcupine grass (Miscanthus strictus) and enough golden Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘All Gold’) that the rabbits can’t put too much of a dent into it. Compact hinoki cypress, dwarf nandinas, mahonias, evergreen huckleberries and her favorite dark-leafed, compact Berberis thunbergii ‘Concorde’ are on her plant list, as well as dahlias, which she considers well worth the work involved to grow them.

“No more zonal denial,” says Dixon. “My days of mulching, covering, lifting and bringing tender plants indoors are over.”

After so many years of gardening, Dixon isn’t rushing to plant. “The longer I wait, the more time I have to think about what I really want,” she says.

In the meantime, there’s the lake view to enjoy. As Dixon says, “At least I don’t have to weed that.”

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at

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