Secret Garden

STEVEN ANTONOW'S TIDY, low-maintenance front yard in West Seattle doesn't call attention to itself. Though a few unusual plants line a walkway to the back yard - including Euphorbia amygdaloides robbiae, a hardy wood spurge - they're not something most people would notice from a car window. To see this gardener's award-winning creation, which captured for him the grand prize in the second annual Pacific Gardens contest, you pass through a portal and enter another world.

"My garden is a secret garden, as it were, and one that is in process - as all gardens are," Antonow says.

Venture to the back of the house, pass under an enormous tulip tree and beneath a wooden arbor laced with grape vines, and you'll find yourself in the main garden, which lies on both sides of an arrow-straight gravel path. Packed-earth pathways intersect at various points. Intensively planted with perennials, some shrubs and a smattering of small trees, this is a vibrant setting in summer and fall, filled with flowers and fruit, insects and birds.

Antonow pays serious attention to color, form, texture and how each plant relates to its neighbor. He has an artist's eye, in this sense, and can foresee the big picture while surrounded by minutia. The cultivated space is so intensively planted that if you shift your attention an inch there is a new rarity to consider.

"A garden should have hidden qualities. That idea of being confined -passing through the arbor - then bursting into the open is appealing to me. The long line of plant material one comes upon is naturally a scene of release, of verge and power," Antonow says.

He is a Jesuit-trained classicist who weaves poetry into everyday conversation and radiates contentment when he plunges his hands into homemade compost. If Gerard Manley Hopkins and Emily Dickinson are his kindred spirits, horticulture is his abiding passion. It is no wonder that Antonow has arranged his life so he can work with plants nearly every day.

Antonow chose his 300-foot-deep parcel, which angles east/west, because it met his horticultural requirements and was within his budget. The house, he says, is home, but it was incidental in his decision.

"When I came to look closely at the lot, the proper approach flashed in my mind in 15 minutes," he says. "The long, narrow lot, the enclosures, the open aspect, existing retaining walls, good exposure to the south, tree-filled lot behind and with fences at the sides. Nearly perfect."

The property was run down, but it offered sun, privacy and sandy-loam soil. The back yard, however, was a brushy dumping ground and access was limited. Equipment and materials were wheeled in by hand or he went without.

Antonow set right to work.

In summer 1990, he dug a deep trench where he knew the main gravel pathway would go and buried the sins of the previous occupants, as well as several large cedar stumps that he had to wrestle from the ground with ropes and levers. He then double-dug his cultivation area - about 12,000 square feet - to a depth of two and a half feet. (He finished about 45 square feet a day, all with hand tools.)

He had the soil tested and added amendments accordingly, but did not import organic matter. The first plant to go in was a pear tree, in 1991.

Today there is a six-foot-wide central pathway through the dense plantings that reside in a series of outdoor "rooms," 11 sections bisected by packed-earth pathways and convenient for watering.

"I divided the main garden area into `rooms' according to proportions of the golden-mean rectangle. This creates the most pleasing balance," Antonow says.

"I wanted a focal point in the entry arbor and the firm axis of the central walkway to offer a total view of what was beyond the arbor," he recalls. "I wanted to weave a collector's garden into a coherent whole, and this was a way to accomplish that."

Indeed, thousands of unusual plants - predominantly perennials and "other mainly ephemeral plants" - constitute the bulk of this garden. Foliage shape and color carry considerable weight in the composition.

Some of Antonow's favorite plants are Cortaderia richardii, a drought-hardy New Zealand grass; Melianthus major; and Buddleia nivea yunnanensis, a butterfly bush that can grow 4 1/2 inches a day and shoots up to 18 feet. He's also partial to lobelia tupa, clematis "Marie Boisselot," geranium "Mavis Simpson" and lavatera "Barnsley."

He grows about 120 specimens from seed for planting out each year, and many others arrive as cuttings. A modest cold frame on the south side of the house and a homemade propagating table in the basement serve his purposes. Thrift is a virtue here. As are trial and error.

"Winter is my time to move things. Everything out here has been moved at least once," he says cheerfully.

Antonow incorporates 32 fruit trees into his design scheme, training them horizontally for optimum fruit production. He reaps an enviable harvest that includes apples ("Prima," "Akane," "Hudson's Golden Gem"), six Japanese pear trees (which produced more than 400 pears last year), peaches (a favorite is "Harken"), figs and grapes (five European varieties, eight American varieties). "I couldn't imagine a garden without fruit," he says.

Antonow has been gardening most of his life. When he was a child in a Cleveland suburb in the early 1950s, regaining his strength during a struggle with polio, his mother gave him a little plot of ground to tend. A large woodland playground was nearby. "I think the way we see the world as we grow shapes our outlook," he says.

He gained his knowledge of plants by reading extensively, visiting gardens and talking with as many gardeners as he could. "You learn gardening by observation and reflection," he says. His advice for fellow gardeners is simple: What he can do, you can do.

"The hard part - and where many people fall flat - is the consistent grooming and watering through July, August and September," Antonow observes. "This takes persistence.

"If you are interested in plants, get into the network," he urges. "Go on garden tours. Plunge in to giving and receiving. If you persist it can be a prism to enhance your life and view of the world."

Nancy Davidson Short of The Arboretum Foundation, who led finalist judges and garden professionals Robert Chittock, Scott Pascoe and Sue Nicol during the last round to determine the contest winners, says Antonow's entry "is an example of what can be done with little money.

"His choice of plants is interesting, as are his horticultural practices, and he has made creative use of a fruit garden within his collector's garden. A lot of people don't realize what wonders are available from seed exchanges. He has some very good bartering plants here."

Antonow is looking forward to his first-prize reward: a trip for two to London and the 1995 Chelsea Garden Show, with air fare, lodging and admission donated by the Northwest Flower and Garden Show and American Airlines. (The competition is sponsored The Seattle Times and the Northwest Flower and Garden Show in cooperation with The Arboretum Foundation.) He'll share his adventure with a brother, Kenneth Antonow, who lives in Chicago.

"This will be my second time to go to the Chelsea show," Antonow says. "There is so much to learn. I plan to take 20 minutes for lunch and see and do as much as I can."

Dean Stahl is a freelance writer and editor living in Seattle. Tom Reese is a Seattle Times photographer.