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Secret Gardens
Personal touches and well-tended spaces make magic in Medina and beyond

The blue backdrop of Lake Washington showcases an island bed of perennials in a two-acre estate garden featured on this year's Secret Gardens of Medina tour.
By late summer, docks will be brimming with containers of annuals at their peak.
A weathered totem pole serves as focal point in a native-plant part of the garden where the owners have lived and gardened for 35 years.

THE LAKESIDE community of Medina brings to mind great sweeps of property with meticulously manicured gardens. This summer, the Secret Gardens of Medina tour presents an inspiring blend of inventively planted, more modestly sized gardens as well as a glimpse of the expected waterfront grandeur. Perhaps this welcome diversity of gardens is in part because the tour's boundaries have been nudged out to include Hunts and Yarrow Points, as well as a garden on Clyde Hill.

Because the tour is a benefit for the beautiful St. Thomas Episcopal Church, many garden owners who might not otherwise open up to the public do so for this tour. Surely that's the case with a lovely, two-acre waterfront-estate garden, presided over by old-growth Douglas firs, where the owners have lived for 35 years. The scale of this hushed garden is so magnificent that purple beech, stewartia and Japanese maple serve as understory trees, along with a complex herbaceous layer of huckleberry, salal, hardy fuchsias, ferns, hydrangea, viburnum, Solomon seal and epimedium.

A modest little gate along the road leads to a clearing in a woodland grove centered with a circular pool and splashing fountain made by George Tsutakawa. Mossy pavers and a bench complete the feel of a sheltered retreat, a place of contemplation.

The aged Northwest theme is continued with a venerable totem pole in a shady native-plant garden. Take another path through the woods and you'll pass beneath 30-foot-tall rhododendrons, pruned up to show off a verdant carpet of maidenhair ferns. Mindful of the lakeside location, the gardener hasn't sprayed this garden for 15 years, so the trees are full of birdsong, flight and rustle.

"There is something spectacular going on here in all months of the year," says Mark LaFayette, who has designed and cared for the garden for more than 20 years. For fall color and winter interest, LaFayette uses many unusual shrubs such as fothergilla, hamamelis, corylopsis and disanthus. Thousands of narcissus bloom from February through May, when the fragrant hybrid Loderi rhododendrons take over the show. More than 200 rhododendron trees bloom prolifically, laden with giant tresses of pastel flowers. Be thankful, as you admire them in their summer leafiness, that you aren't the one climbing up ladders to dead head every plant in early summer. LaFayette explains that he is slowly perennializing these woodland beds which used to be filled with summer annuals (the edges are still trimmed with white impatiens). In this loosely planted, naturalistic area, LaFayette encourages self-seeders such as foxglove, columbines and forget-me-nots.

The heart of the waterfront-estate garden's woodland glade is a George Tsutakawa fountain splashing into a round stone pond.

The passage around the side of the house brings you from woodland shade onto an expanse of sunny lawn and flower beds. Wide borders hold roses, perennials and one kind of annual, such as cosmos. The lawn is sufficiently vast to be softened, but not unduly shaded, by weeping willows and birches. Dockside pots as well as large pots on the terrace hold a colorful mix of flowers and foliage. No weed killer is used here by the lake, so the lawn is dotted with buttercups and English daisies, continuing the naturalistic vibe of the landscape.

If you're feeling a little overwhelmed by the result of decades of thoughtful gardening in one location, you'll enjoy your visit to the "Tomato Queen's Garden" — a vibrant, lively place that's been recently renovated. Actually, you won't find very many tomatoes here, just some `Early Girls' grown in pots up against the south side of the house. Owners Maro and Charles Walsh participate in an annual tomato-growing contest that has produced a crop of rabid tomato growers (about 20 couples) competing for the crown of Tomato Queen. Maro describes the contest as "lots of trash talk comparing compost and tomato varieties." Last year Maro was the victor, so be sure to look for her crown, white gloves and her grandmother's tomato tea set, lovingly displayed in a potting shed down by the water.

First planted in 1948, the garden of Maro and Charles Walsh has been updated and softened with perennial plantings.

While the Walsh garden dates from the late 1940s, the owners didn't take much interest in gardening until five years ago. The whole affair slants down toward the lake, and the lower levels were a sea of mud. Maro added sand to increase the drainage, then planted colorful shrubs and roses to soften the grand staircase leading from the house to the lakeside lawn, where a giant weeping willow provides privacy and filters the bright sunshine off the lake. Maro took out or pruned up old overgrown rhododendrons to make room for a lush display of perennials including lady's mantle, hosta, lavender and daylilies. Throughout the garden are personal touches, including family shoes planted with sedum and masks grinning down from the tree trunks. The potting shed housing the tomato shrine is built of wood salvaged from an old boathouse. It has its own little perennial garden, lace curtains at the windows and old birdcages hanging from the ceiling.

Humor and personal touches abound in the Walsh garden, where a flamingo presides over a sedum-planted chair.

In the "English Country Garden" a difficult site that slopes off into a ravine has been festooned with roses, hollyhock, clematis and hydrangeas. The whole garden is in bloom, with flowers covering arbors, fences, rockeries and every inch of ground. The owner has even carved out space for flowering shrubs and vines along paths down into the ravine.

If you enjoy the sound of a train whistle along with your flowers, visit "The Train Garden," complete with stations, depots, dwarf conifers, tunnel and miniature Austrian Alps. A rose garden and perennial garden, as well as waterfall and pond, make this one worth visiting even if train tracks aren't a draw for you.

"The Discovery Garden" holds a surprise along with tiled fountain, pool, outdoor kitchen, raised vegetable beds and fruit trees. And because the best gardens are usually the most personal, you'll enjoy seeing "Nana's Garden," where the owner has been nurturing plants for 28 years. Sunny perennial beds, paths, fountain, clematis arbor and many pots are lovingly tended. Look for the personalized stepping stones the gardener's grandchildren made.

Take the Tour

What: The Sixth Annual Secret Gardens of Medina Tour, a benefit for St. Thomas Episcopal Church.

Where: Northeast 12th Street at 84th Avenue Northeast, Medina.

When: Saturday, Aug. 25, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (You're encouraged to buy tickets for either the morning or the afternoon).

Tickets: $30 in advance; $35 the day of tour. Call 425-454-9541. Tickets are being sold at the church from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday. Shuttles will run to all six of the gardens, leaving from the church. The church will also host a plant and book sale, and refreshments will be served from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. the day of the tour.

Valerie Easton is a horticultural librarian who writes about plants and gardens for Pacific Northwest magazine. Barry Wong is a magazine staff photographer.

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