How Her Garden Grows -- Writer Ann Lovejoy Uses The Piecemeal Approach



In the beginning there were 3,000 plants.

All kinds of plants - dormant bulbs, blooming perennials, full-grown shrubs. In the spring of 1988, they were dug from their cozy but cramped quarters in garden writer Ann Lovejoy's Capitol Hill yard, plopped into thousands of plastic pots, bags and cardboard boxes and carried in a Volkswagen bus to their new home: a run-down 6 1/2-acre farm on Bainbridge Island.

It takes a lot of ferry trips to haul 3,000 plants in a VW bus. Not to mention the assorted belongings of a family of four - Lovejoy, her husband, Mark, and their two young sons, Andrew and Peter. When the final boat trip was over, the last moving box dumped in the old farmhouse and the last load of plants cast haphazardly among the vast jumble of containers that now littered the overgrown yard, Lovejoy caught her breath and contemplated the next, even more daunting task: coaxing beauty - never mind order - from the neglected surroundings.

In Great Britain, where the exquisitely manicured country estates of nobility have influenced generations of the world's best-known garden writers, Lovejoy might have whistled up a few hired hands and cheerily set about directing renovations. But on Bainbridge Island, her reaction - like her own prose - was considerably less high-handed. She despaired.

This was no Sunnybrook Farm. The once-showy gardens around the circa-1875 farmhouse had faded severely during the past quarter-century, degenerating into blackberry brambles and dog runs. Huge hollies on the south side of the house blotted the sun from the windows in the sun room, the indoor dog kennel. Ancient apple trees, specimen shrubs and rusty barbed wire were tangled up in the rank growth, and beneath it all the unworked clay soil had hardened into concrete.

``I tried to put in some plants, but the ground was so hard it took a chisel to dig a hole,'' recalls Lovejoy. Abandoning the effort, she and her husband began the long process of rejuvenating the inhospitable earth. The immigrant plant hordes from Seattle were to remain in their unsightly pots for a whole year.

People driving by the farm peered through the roadside thicket to check out the new domain of the gardening authority. There wasn't much to see. ``Everywhere you looked, there were pots,'' Lovejoy sighs. When the well ran dry in August, four months after moving to the farm, she suffered along with her thirsty plants. ``It was really quite depressing, actually, to pack everything up, bring it all over here and then kill it piece by piece.''

That was 2 1/2 years ago. Today the thousands of plants (and hundreds of their offspring) are in the ground and thriving. Though still (perhaps forever) a work-in-progress, the farmyard promises to surpass the beauty of its predecessors, both on the farm and the tiny plot on Capitol Hill. From the bones of those diverse gardens, Lovejoy has created a new landscape with a life of its own - an intricately patterned tapestry of texture, shape and color.

``I look at this as a 20-year garden and this is Year 3,'' she says. ``For Year 3, that's pretty good. We're a long way from the total wilderness that was here.''

Many of the plants brought in the Volkswagen van, a floral Noah's Ark, have been fruitful and multiplied in a deep, L-shaped mixed border that stretches for 350 feet around the perimeter of the yard. Innumerable full-fledged plants grew from pieces of single euphorbias and hydrangeas. Seeds collected from Lovejoy's favorite columbines, including the native red/yellow Aquilegia formosa, have formed countless clumps. A dozen foxgloves multiplied tenfold; one winter iris begat 50.

The big border actually comprises a whole slew of gardens - the ``wild'' garden, the quince garden, the pear-tree garden, the kitchen herb garden, the yellow/gold garden. They blend seamlessly into one another through Lovejoy's painterly use of repeating plant patterns. The new serrated leaves of ornamental maples, airy columbines and frosted blue catmints drift through the spring border, to be replaced in summer by blooming roses, lilies and irises.

Yet the repeating plants are seldom exactly the same. Instead of a single form of catmint, Lovejoy uses a dozen. ``I'm sort of a collector. I like to get a lot of different things to see what they do for me.'' She cannot have only one kind of witch hazel (hamamelis mollis); she must have several to see which smells the best. (It's the pale yellow h. mollis pallida.)

Before they were planted, the gardens were sketched endlessly with color pens. More important than color in the garden palette, says Lovejoy, is texture - the thistlelike flowers of allium, the velvet of lamb's ears, the ferny foliage of fennel. ``I'm a big fan of buying far too many plants. If you're an artist, you don't go buy a tube of red because you're going to paint a barn. You've already got it.''

But if you're a country gardener, probably not enough of it. Like other former city dwellers, Lovejoy learned that an immense planting in a town garden looks minuscule in a larger space. ``Here, you plant a hundred tulips and it's nothing,'' she says. She now has at least 1,200 tulips - bought wholesale in lots of 100. Even plants she's not that crazy about, such as roses, must be planted in large quantities to make an impact. (There are about 100 at the farm.)

Devotees of the I-can't-do-it-all-at-once school of gardening will admire Lovejoy's piecemeal approach. The border started with a 4-foot-wide strip (two widths of the tiller) that became 8 feet the following year and will eventually be expanded to 12. Someday it will be edged with pavers.

Good garden design, she believes, should consider where the clothesline goes as well as where the light falls. ``This path is here not because I think there needs to be a path here but because of the hidden fort at the end of it. There's got to be room for Frisbee, for the dog, for the tree that I don't like but someone else does.''

Lovejoy can rhapsodize about the glories of gardening with the best of the English writers, but on the issue of practicality her voice is uniquely American. ``Sissinghurst (where some of Britain's most famous gardens are located) is beautiful, but I don't have a castle. I see those places and I think, that's nice, but when does it get relevant? I'm not going to have an 8-foot-wide hedge of yew because I don't have 8 feet (to spare) and I don't want to clip it.''

She tries ``to have as many plants as possible and fuss with them as little as possible.'' (Lovejoy wrote that keeping up her Seattle garden took only an hour or two a week.) ``I have a full life and gardening is not all of it. I've got all kinds of things to do.''

That full life includes rising at 4 a.m. to write in peace. After a late start (in previous careers she taught Italian, went to nursing school and set type at her husband's print shop in Seattle, Columbine Printing), Lovejoy has found herself as a writer. Her knowledge and enthusiasm for gardening is infectious, expressed in lyrical, deft prose. And she's prolific.

Lovejoy has written four garden books in three years (the latest, ``The Border in Bloom,'' was published by Sasquatch Books this spring). She is a contributing editor for Horticulture magazine, a garden columnist for Seattle Weekly, and contributes to other magazines as well. Her most recent project is a chapter on flowers and flower gardens in a book that will accompany the upcoming PBS series, ``Great Gardens of the World.''

Her family's lifestyle has an enviable simplicity. Lovejoy is just now learning to

drive, so the children are used to walking places (when they were younger, she would schlep them to day care in a taxi). There's no TV at home. But there are lots of books, a baseball field, a 1939 Allis-Chalmers tractor that still works, rabbits, chickens, cats and a dog. The boys have their own garden, a charming melange of bulbs and things they planted themselves.

The first step in planting the new border was making room for it. Lovejoy was ruthless in choosing what stayed and what didn't (hello weigelia, goodbye camellia). ``We probably took out 60 trees and shrubs,'' she says. ``In time, we'll take out more. I have a lot of little things coming on that will be big enough to replace what's there.''

Hacking through the thicket around the farmhouse uncovered many surprises, such as the slender 20-foot madrona that popped up near the long south fence line. ``We were finding stuff all the time - we'd take down a fence and find a whole apple tree.'' Clearing underbrush for a peony walk turned up the remnants of an old peony bed.

Among the keepers were old apple trees, purple hazel, native willow, berberis, mountain ash and a graceful yellow-blooming laburnum in the corner of the border. A nameless antique rose, scores of canes poking from its huge gnarled crown, still blooms profusely. Lovejoy detests the use of plants as architecture - ``if you want a fence, build a fence'' - but she kept many of the shrubs (lilac, weigelia, kolkwitzia) and trees along the back of the border for an informal hedge. Some will disappear as the new evergreen shrubs at their feet mature. The hedge remains open in places for a view of the meadow beyond.

While the bonfires of discarded shrubbery blazed, the Lovejoys' new tiller ripped up the stony ground. ``About the only thing I really regret is that when we first started, we weren't as skilled with the tiller as we are now. We didn't work the earth as well as we learned to later on, and it makes a tremendous difference,'' says Lovejoy.

The basic soil amendment was compost - lots of it. Not only yard and kitchen waste but all kinds of other free stuff gets tilled into the compost heap. (Lovejoy scrounges for pickup loads of horse, chicken and rabbit manure - the last she likes best because ``you can use it hot - it's just recycled alfalfa pellets.'') From the nearby school she gleans bags of leaves and grass clippings. Once she dumped out a trash bag ``and all these little coats and hats went flying'' - the school had put the lost-and-found bag in with the yard bags by mistake.

At first composting took place on the beds themselves, which were tilled and covered with raw manure and clippings, then left alone for several months before planting. Now compost comes sweet-smelling and ready to use from the pile behind the house, and the gardens thrive on it.

Keeping up with an estimated acre-and-a-half of plantings sounds like a lot of grunt work. But Lovejoy says maintenance is minimized by hefty applications of mulch on the beds. The usual kind - commercial bark mulch - is seldom seen around the farm. ``We couldn't possibly buy it, we'd need so much,'' Lovejoy says. ``I'd rather spend the money on plants.''

So they use cheaper alternatives: homemade compost, rabbit and hen bedding straw and coffee chaff from the coffee roasters in Seattle. She uses reject (burned) coffee beans, which over-acidify the soil and block plant growth, for paths in the beds. The tree-trimming company that clips branches from power lines recently dropped off a load of macerated tree limbs. Voila! Free bark mulch for the parking area.

To most gardeners, Lovejoy's handiwork is astonishing; for the connoisseur, there's always something to nitpick. The hedge of accidental evergreens in the back of the border, including wild rose, native willow, an old holly - too wild. ``I love it, but a lot of people hate it,'' says Lovejoy. Various areas of the yard that are havens for small boys but have yet to fall under the trusty tiller - too unkempt.

Then there's the lawn. Never fertilized, seldom watered and mowed sporadically, the lumpy grass (though much improved from the rough lawn of two years ago) can trip the garden-club ladies who come visiting in high heels.

``A lot of people are horrified by the lawn,'' Lovejoy admits. ``You come here and look at the garden and there are bits that are really good. Then you turn around and see something really hideous, and I KNOW people are thinking, gee, lady, what is your problem?'' If Lovejoy has a problem, it is caused by her own growing reputation as a garden writer and the expectations it brings. ``It's not a showplace here but a workshop,'' she says.

``You want it to be wonderful. But the garden doesn't have to be wonderful to anyone but you.''