"There are very few places in life where you can do exactly as you please," says Nancy Davidson Short, an extraordinary gardener and former Northwest editor of Sunset. "Your garden is one of them!
On a 3/4-acre slice of lakefront in Bellevue, Washington, Short has done just that. Her tendency to experiment and play in the garden has led to a horticultural treasure.
Green and richly textured, Short's garden reflects decades spent scouting and reporting the best of Northwest landscaping. Her gardening skills, inherent sense of good design, and all-embracing joie de vivre have made lasting marks here. (This month, when the American Horticultural Society holds its annual convention in Seattle, her garden will be one of the stops for AHS members from all over the country.)
Near the house's entry, ferns and other plants spread a leafy cover over a table. There are a sunken garden; a sun border; a dry shade garden; a bog garden; a cutting garden filled with roses, lilies, and peonies; and big containers everywhere.
For Short, gardening is clearly a lifelong passion. Since she moved into her home, the cedars and Douglas firs along the property line have grown into timber-size trees, creating privacy and shade. (Lower limbs were removed as the trees grew, allowing in some daylight under them.) Northwest natives such as sword and maidenhair ferns, flowering currant, and evergreen huckleberry weave a continuous thread throughout the garden. Among the plantings, benches and other seating perch on small landings and little terraces. "The garden looks and feels very different from different places," Short says. "I want to be able to sit and think and enjoy a new view as I move through the garden."
Over the years, Short has sought the advice of a dozen landscape designers. But since 1997, well-known horticulturist Jim Fox has lived and worked on her property. Nancy feels she's struck gold: "Jim is a master at bringing wonderful color and texture to the garden in all seasons―most astonishingly, in winter." Plants in this garden are chosen for their leaf color, form, texture, year-round interest, and, lastly, for their bloom. "To choose a plant for its bloom," Short says, "is like marrying a woman because you like her Easter hat."
As the year turns
Nothing in this garden is wasted. In autumn, fallen leaves are raked back under the trees and shrubs ("the way nature does it," Short says). Prunings from trees, shrubs, and perennials―as well as spent annuals―are composted; the homemade compost most often ends up as top dressing around new plantings. In late winter and early spring, beds are covered with a 2-inch layer of organic mulch to cut down on weeds, enrich the soil, and help retain moisture.
Newly acquired shrubs or small trees might spend a few years in a pot before being planted in the garden. Potted shrubs are underplanted with bulbs or colorful annuals. In winter when the garden is defoliated, its structure is examined to see that plants are healthy.
Short advises new gardeners to be intrepid. "Fear is an inhibiting emotion," she says. "Look at (the garden) as an exciting challenge, a bold life experience. Reinvent it every year. Never come to the end of it. You'll never want to!"