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Cover Story Plant Life Northwest Living Taste Now & Then

Plant Life
Our Gardens, Ourselves
Through an outsider's eyes, we see the beauty of what we've made
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Starr Ockenga does all the writing and photography for her books, which feature several Northwest gardens and the gardeners who created them.
GARDEN WRITER and photographer Starr Ockenga hadn't intended to include two Northwest gardens in her award-winning book , but once she saw the Chase garden in Orting, she was hooked. Ockenga's photos of Mount Rainier looming over the sleekly simple garden of groundcovers and Northwest native plants are among the best ever taken of this Garden Conservancy garden. The Chase garden and Jocelyn Horder's waterfront property in Poulsbo were showcased in Ockenga's book "Earth On Her Hands: The American Woman in Her Garden" (Clarkson Potter, 1998). Ockenga, who has a studio in Manhattan and a garden in upstate New York, was so impressed by the gardens in our corner of the country that she included Linda Cochran's Bainbridge Island garden in her new book, "Eden on Their Minds: American Gardeners with Bold Visions" (Clarkson Potter, 2001).

Ockenga will be in Seattle Sept. 13 to give a talk as part of an evening of festivities for the Northwest Horticultural Society's annual fall plant sale. You'll be able to meet Ockenga at a wine-and-cheese reception, and have a chance to do some bidding at a rare-plant auction.

I'm looking forward to seeing Ockenga's slides because her oversized garden books are some of the loveliest ever. Which is no wonder, because she taught photography at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for a decade. Especially stunning are the black-and-white portraits of the gardeners themselves, often with hoes in hand and dogs at feet. It was only when I saw her arresting, honest portraits that I realized what was missing in most other garden books — the gardeners themselves. It is so revealing to see who created each garden. Decked out in rubber boots, or dressed graciously as if attending their own garden parties, the women look directly into the camera. It was for the portraits as much as for the inspired garden descriptions that "Earth on Her Hands" won the American Horticultural Society Book Award.

When I spoke with Ockenga on the phone recently, she was at home in Livingston, N.Y. Always a city dweller, she started gardening only about 10 years ago when she and her husband bought acreage. Then she swept through England, touring 33 gardens in 13 days. "I didn't know much, but I was falling in love," says Ockenga. Since her career has always followed what she loves (she collects and has written about antique toys, children's books and 19th-century art) she turned her lens and pen toward the garden. Because she does it all — research, travel, writing and photography — Ockenga's books take years to produce. Throughout her varied career, she returns to the exploration of what Americans are up to. This last time, she set out to see what surprises might lurk behind their garden gates.

One reason Ockenga trekked way out here is for our lightly overcast skies, which cast her favorite photographic light. "No photographer wants broiling sun," she explains. "This climate is heaven for a photographer. I always think of the Pacific Northwest as the perfect climate — the perfect place to be a gardener." She admires the lushness of our gardens, their eclecticism, and the range of greens intensified by the pearly, indirect light (we tend to call that cloud cover, and complain about its gloom). Perhaps it takes someone with Ockenga's nationwide garden perspective and keen photographer's eye to give us a revealing look at our own gardens and all their possibilities.

Shop and talk | Starr Ockenga's lecture is part of the Northwest Horticultural Society's fall plant sale the weekend of Sept. 13-14 at the Center for Urban Horticulture, 3501 N.E. 41st St. You can shop for a spectacular assortment of plants from 2:30 to 6:30 p.m. Friday and from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. The reception for Ockenga begins at 7 p.m. on Friday; the rare-plant auction follows. Cost for the lecture and reception is $10 for society members; $15 for non-members. To register in advance, call the society office at 206-527-1794. Tickets will be available at the door only if the event does not sell out.


graphic Now In Bloom

Hardy waterlilies bloom for months floating on the surface of a pond or water pot, with flat, rounded leaves nearly as decorative, if less colorful, than the flowers. They need sun, fertilizing in early spring, and dividing every few years when the bloom declines. Nymphaea 'Pink Sensation' is dependably hardy but nearly as exotic-looking as a tropical waterlily with star-shaped pink flowers and bright yellow fluffy stamen.

Valerie Easton is manager at the Miller Horticultural Library. Her book, "Plant Life: Growing a Garden in the Pacific Northwest" (Sasquatch Books, 2002) is an updated selection of her magazine columns. Her e-mail address is

Cover Story Plant Life Northwest Living Taste Now & Then

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