An eclectic Northwest garden

Most gardeners favor certain kinds of gardens. Lee Neff is an exception. In her Seattle landscape, she has a vegetable garden, rock garden, woodland garden, perennial garden, mini arboretum, and space devoted to climbers and potted plants. All grow on a site with an interesting horticultural past.

Once, this garden’s rich loam supported a holly farm. Then it was cultivated by a notable collector, Loren Grinstead, the plant acquisitions chairwoman for the Washington Park Arboretum during the late 1930s. Grinstead planted such gems as a stately old Himalayan white pine, an immense Camperdown elm, an impressive Sawara false cypress, and a few Exbury azaleas.

After Neff and her husband, John, bought the garden in 1992, she hired Sue Skelly and Kelly Dodson ― horticulturists based in Poulsbo, Washington ― to help update it. Skelly supervised replacement of a circular driveway with a rock garden, while Dodson focused on introducing Neff to an array of unusual plants. Gradually, Neff designed and built the rest of the garden with input from friends, family members, and fellow gardeners.

Her early interests were perennials, but she developed a strong love for shrubs and trees. “Being a gardener,” she says, “is going outside and looking. Once you realize what grows in this climate, the next challenge is to try things.” That philosophy led her to put in plants like Iigiri tree (Idesia polycarpa), which is seldom grown here.

Neff tries to do most of her planting in fall, continuing into winter. By the following summer, the plants have begun to fill in, weaving themselves into a three-dimensional tapestry.

Like Grinstead before her, Neff brings an arboretum connection to her garden. As editor of the Washington Park Arboretum Bulletin, she is in close touch with plants and the people who love them.


Use variegated plants to brighten the shady places beneath tall trees.

Repeat colors. For each bed, use plants whose colors are either complementary (opposite on the color wheel) or closely related. Group them throughout the planting.

Blend colors thoughtfully. “Once I get a color in my head, I think about what might go with it,” says Lee Neff. “When I became interested in the mahogany flowers of Calycanthus occidentalis, I realized that I liked a number of other plants with red flowers or dark leaves. So I began putting them together in a bed that featured foliage and flower color in red, black, and white.”

Repeat textures. To unify plants in beds and borders, repeat foliage textures. “I work harder at texture than color,” says Neff. “In a collector’s garden, that’s critical.”

Experiment. Over time, plants have to prove themselves ― both in their ability to compete and to fit in. “I do a lot by trial and error,” Neff says. “If something doesn’t work, I move it, usually in winter.”

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