Cover Story Plant Life On Fitness Northwest Living Taste Now & Then


Extended Wear
Through every season, this gorgeous garden keeps growing

David Gemes has increased planting space by squeezing in changes of level throughout the garden. This raised bed is filled with variegated plants and accented with a pot of agapanthus and a sea-shell fountain that drips seven streams of water into the pond below.
Small gardens summon enviable ingenuity. Plant lovers with diminutive city lots feel compelled to use every square inch of garden space to full advantage. David Gemes and partner Paul Scherfey live in a bungalow overlooking Lake Union, on a little lot taken up mostly by steps up from the street, a small front lawn and the house itself. Gemes has gone further than most gardeners in pursuing space, even buying the house next door as a rental and filling that sunny front garden with roses for cutting. He partitioned off the back yard so he could merge it with his own, creating an intimate, meandering garden of pathways, pots, raised beds and exceptional plant combinations.

No patch of dirt remains unplanted, no vertical space unused. Gemes has taken full advantage of gardening in three dimensions, training climbing roses and clematis along the house walls and around the windows. Trellis fencing along the back of the garden is laced with more roses and clematis, as is the little greenhouse squeezed in between fence and house. The greenhouse is used to overwinter orchids and other tender plants that come out to fill pots in the summer.

The kitchen and French doors to the back garden are painted a dark glossy green to accent the transition between inside and out.
  Pots on the front deck overflow with sedums and fancy-leafed geraniums.

In one of the more unusual space grabs I've seen, Gemes has trained long-caned rambler roses up two ornamental cherry trees in the grassy front garden. In April, the cherry trees bloom pink, and by June they bloom again with roses. In the fall, as the leaves yellow, the trees are festooned with bright rose hips. One of the trees is coated with the small white flowers of R. 'Bobby James' and the other with the soft pink blossoms of R. 'Albertine.' The rose roots mingle happily with those of the cherry trees in dirt circles cut from the lawn, and both trees and roses seem happy with this arrangement of living trees used as scaffolds.

A remarkable number of small trees are squeezed into the garden, all carefully pruned up to give light and elbow room to the plants beneath. Three birches provide light shade in the front garden, and dwarf hinoki, pines, azara, Italian cypress and golden bamboo give evergreen, year-round structure. Pear trees are espaliered, stretching their branches laterally to take up as little room as possible. Japanese maples, stewartia and a golden-leafed locust (Robinia pseudoacacia 'Frisia') are planted right into the raised stone beds used to define the back garden spaces. "It is a battle to keep things nicely nestled instead of choking each other in a small garden," explains Gemes, conceding that such involved planting leads to a high-maintenance garden.

It is, however, a delight to the eye, which can feast upon layers of color and texture from skyline to soil (although there is little of that showing). Overhead is the contrast of shiny dark azara foliage next to the softness of birch. The back fence is garnished with the voluptuousness of the deeply ruffled white Rosa 'Sombreuil.' And from eye level on down are artful compositions of variegated and colored foliage plants in the raised beds and pots. Little birds chirp and flitter about, enjoying the density of the vines and height of the trees, as well as the variety of the plantings.

The carefully tended layers create privacy, fragrance and a feeling of enclosure to be enjoyed at the little table and chairs in the back garden, or in a second seating area — complete with chaises and cushioned chairs — on a front terrace built over the garage. The numerous level changes in the garden present many places to pause and sit on the short stone walls that outline the raised beds. This is a detailed garden that needs to be appreciated up close. There are pots of tiny sedums, careful piles of smooth stones, perfectly groomed and trained roses. Next to the front porch a boxwood has been clipped into a poodle shape, beads dangling from one leafy ear.

"I'm not afraid of pink," says Gemes of the garden's back corner planted with the pink spires of Veronica spicata 'Pink Damask,' pink and yellow Peruvian lilies (Alstroemeria), and the miniature climbing, everblooming rose 'Jeanne Lajoie.'

The shady, narrow north side of the house is layered in both evergreen and deciduous foliage plants. Camellias, nandinas and pruned up golden bamboo provide winter interest, with Japanese maples, hydrangea, ferns, hostas, epimedium and toad lilies (Tricyrtis) creating a rich tapestry of textures. Stone and brick pathways lead past the French doors at the back of the house to a sunny terrace, which in summer is pure color and fragrance from roses, lilies, cannas, a red banana (that winters in the basement) and the 25 different clematis that bloom along the lattice fences. Lilies, daylilies and hardy geraniums fill the beds. Blue, bronze and variegated foliages enliven the mix. Inspired color play includes the pewter leaves of Rosa glauca mingling with the purple foliage of Hebe 'Amy' and the grape-colored Rosa `Tuscany Superb' set off by bronze-leafed heuchera and dark-flowered daylilies.

"I'm not afraid of pink," says Gemes of the froth of pink lobelia, petunias, veronica and alstroemeria grouped with the little pink rose 'Jeanne Lajoie' splayed along the lattice fence. Phormiums with brown/purple foliage are underplanted with the hardy geranium 'Pink Spice,' chosen because its little scalloped leaves so exactly matched the phormiums' dark, spiky blades. Clusters of pots hold a wide collection of textural plants, one or two kinds planted per pot. Phormiums, fancy-leafed geraniums, salvias, helichrysum and sedums are the stars of the stone and terra-cotta pots.

"It is easy to make a garden look good in July," says Gemes, and perhaps the most remarkable way he has extended his garden is through the seasons. In winter, even in this contained space, plenty of evergreens keep the garden going. He relies on trimmed boxwood hedges, narrow azara and Italian cypress trees, rosemary, sasanqua camellias and euphorbia for winter structure. These sturdy and dependable plants recede into the background during the summer herbaceous riot.

Rosa 'Albertine' pokes through the ornamental cherry trees in the front garden.
In springtime, more than 700 tulips enliven the little garden, planted into the ground and every available pot. Gemes repeats his successful summertime color combinations by choosing tulips that work with the emerging foliages that later highlight the perennials. He plants new tulip bulbs into pots for a spring extravaganza of color, then moves the bulbs into the ground for as long as they continue to flower well — usually two more years. He has found that some tulips bloom dependably year after year; the pale yellow 'Cream Jewel' and the yellow fading to pure white 'Duke of Wellington' have proved to be reliably perennial.

In autumn, the pots on the front porch hold asters and chrysanthemums. The ornamental grasses, phormiums, cannas and banana carry the back garden on until frost. Stone urns hold plumes of purple-red fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum 'Rubrum'), whose late-season flowers look like furry little rose-red foxtails.

Gemes has been inspired in his gardening by trips to England, and more recently by the time that retirement has opened up. "My big thing is plant relationships," he says, "figuring out how to combine plants. That's what is fun." His achievement has been to squeeze every plant possible, in every season, into a small, urban garden that offers plenty of material to play with.

Valerie Easton is a horticultural librarian and writes about plants and gardens for Pacific Northwest magazine. Her e-mail address is Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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