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


Splendor & Wonder
A profusion of trees and color, guarded by a dragon

Pass through the wattle fence (crafted by Sue Skelly of Reflective Gardens Nursery on the Kitsap Peninsula) and enter a hobbit-size room carved inside the canopy of a weeping Camperdown elm.

IN LATE SUMMER, Lee and John Neff's vegetable and fruit garden is peaking, its productiveness planned to coincide with the grandchildren's visit. The kids can jump along their own handmade stepping stones laid between raised beds holding thornless blackberries, everbearing strawberries, potatoes, squash, garlic and onions. Or if it's color they wish to admire, they can lean back against the old childhood bedsteads that define the herb garden and soak in the vibrant dahlia hedge that separates the kitchen garden from the ornamentals.

"We carried those bedsteads around with us for 35 years," says Lee, "and they were sitting there in the basement when I needed fencing." The Neff garden is filled with just such personal touches, down to a prickly dragon guarding its boundaries, a tree cave and borders of bold color combinations.

Lee Neff expresses her love for hot color combinations with red dahlias and the pinkey-orange Rosa 'Westerland,' garnished with a twining ornamental morning glory.

At the turn of the century, the property was part of a holly farm that ran all the way from Lake Washington to Seward Avenue South. Now the Neff property is three-quarters of an acre of gardens surrounded by thick, old holly hedges.

When the Neffs moved in, they found an asphalt driveway, concrete pad, lawn and hybrid tea roses as well as majestic trees. It was only when Lee quit teaching full time in 1994 that she had time to make the garden that exists today. Now when you pass through a flanking of deodar cedars and proceed down the gravel drive into the garden, it's hard to remember you're in the city. Big, old trees planted in the 1930s define the garden, including a huge, weeping Camperdown elm and towering Himalayan white pine (the oldest in the state, according to local tree expert Arthur Lee Jacobson). "The garden is wonderful because of what people planted early on," says Lee of the selection of mature trees.

From inside the tree cave is a startling view of the fantastically gnarled and twisted inside canopy of the old Camperdown elm.

The trees have, by necessity, turned the Neffs into experts on dry shade gardening. A large sloping bed beneath the pine is a symphony of greens dotted late in the season with Japanese anemones and the white flowers of the wiry wood aster (Aster divaricatus). Earlier in the summer, the deep-purple flowers and darkly blotched leaves of the dusky cranesbill (Geranium phaeum) create a contrast to the predominant green of epimedium, oxalis, euphorbia and the drought-tolerant fern Dryopteris affinis 'Rumpelstiltskin.' After much experimentation, Lee, who now edits the Washington Park Arboretum Bulletin, has discovered dozens of plants that thrive in the difficult position of being shaded by and sharing soil with large, rooty trees.

One of these venerable trees offers a surprise. For the amusement of both children and adults, the huge old Camperdown elm, with a canopy that's 20 feet around, has been pruned into a tent. If you open the woven wattle fence and bend down to pass into the tree's interior, you'll find a dome-shaped room nearly filled with tiny benches and a table fit for a hobbit. Little sunlight penetrates the thick veil of leaves, and what light comes in is a watery green that turns in late autumn to warm gold. Not only does this odd little space offer a feeling of shelter and secrecy, but also a rare view up into a twisted web of gnarled branches. We're so used to looking at trees from the outside, paying little heed to the inside view, that this unexpected perspective of looking up through the branches is startlingly fantastical.

A hardy fuchsia is topped by a birdhouse with shutters painted to match its autumn bloom.
When Lee Neff needed fencing, she pulled her husband's childhood bedsteads from the basement and used them to delineate flower, fruit and vegetable plantings.

But the Neffs have been spending their time on more than carving out hidey-holes in the trees. The old house, though perfectly sited in the center of the property, wasn't as connected to the garden as they wished. A first task was leveling the area around the house, adding a rock garden, patio and doors out to the garden. "At first you couldn't get out of the house onto level ground," explains Lee. Now the old gray-green house with cream trim is intimate with the garden. Indoors, seats in the living-room bay window make space to snuggle up and survey the garden in any weather. Window boxes overflow with foliage and flower, and the front door is painted the exact same shade of burgundy as the autumn leaves of the grape vine (Vitis vinifera 'Purpurea') trained up around it. The purple foliage of smoke tree and Berberis thunbergii 'Crimson Pygmy' planted near the entry emphasize the dramatic color of the front door.

"I never knew I was going to be a gardener," says Lee. "I knew two plants, ivy and pachysandra, before I moved to Seattle in 1981. After a year of living here I opened my eyes and saw all the things I could grow." Thus a plant collector was born, and Lee balances this lust with her passion for using bright colors, especially reds and yellows. She enjoys working with colors perceived to be difficult, such as salmon and orange. The wide border around the front lawn is planted in shades of blue, yellow and orange, with asters, rudbeckia and crocosmia anchoring the show late in the season. Another border is planted in orange and bronze, one in black and red, and there is even a Husky corner where purple and gold predominate. The borders have been widened to accommodate all the foliages needed to soften and blend these color schemes, and to house a collection of unusual small trees, such as Styrax obassia, Stewartia monadelpha and Japanese umbrella pines.

"My roots are really in the South," says Lee of her efforts to grow plants from Zone 8 and above. She has planted Chilean fire bush (Embothrium coccineum) and Azara microphylla, and even a Crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica), which is growing lustily but hasn't yet bloomed.

At one end of the wide, sloping lawn, Lee has recently taken out 15 feet of moss and grass to make a shade garden from scratch with species peonies and other treasures in the filtered shade. She has planted five Idesia polycarpas, which she hopes will grow to 40 feet and form the canopy to create shade. This Asian tree was selected for its red stems and large leaves that turn a wonderful yellow in autumn. If you're lucky enough to get both male and female trees, they'll produce chains of bright red, pea-shaped berries in winter that give a layered, wedding cake effect.

A cluster of autumn crocus brings a touch of spring to the Neff garden in September.
On the other side of this lower garden, the old holly hedge has been pruned into a bumpy, humpy dragon's back. The home's big covered porch faces southeast to the lake, overlooking terraces, lawn and "Augustus," whose undulating, prickly spine runs the length of the property, lying in watch along its borders. "Every garden needs a mythology," explains Lee of the story of how Augustus got into the hedge. Being a former teacher, she'd no doubt tell me the story, but for now she needs to water the new trees in the shade garden, and prune the teeth on the dragon holly hedge into sharper points.

Valerie Easton is a horticultural librarian who writes about plants and gardens for Pacific Northwest magazine. She is the co-author of "Artists in Their Gardens" (Sasquatch Books). Her e-mail address is Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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