When I visited Gig Harbor’s open gardens in June, what I saw was what money could buy. Lots of money went into those beautiful landscapes, but they are not what I do. When I build gardens on my sprawling, mostly wooded property, I use very little imported rock, gravel, or soil so I can’t ‘start over’ with vast raised beds to overcome my hard clay soils. Some things grow, some don’t depending up how durable they are. I buy all of my plants on sale, and yet they wouldn’t begin to fill one of the gardens that I saw, which displayed hundreds upon hundreds of plants, including many expensive, sought-after varieties I read about in my gardening magazines. Complex irrigation systems are beyond my reach, so I haul hoses and measure off how far from the house my tenderest plantings should go.
My garden is defined by the terms of my income and the size of the place that I have chose to modify. When I realized that I can no longer compare to what the gardening community models as ideal, I felt alone and out matched. I am more of a botanist trying to remodel the woods. I plant in native soils and tame the wilderness around me, but it isn’t the garden celebrated by Monrovia Nurseries or photographed in Sunset.
Then I opened up my recent copy of Fremontia, the magazine of the California Native Plant Society which I recently rejoined while seeking employment down there. In it I found a name for my passion: Found Landscapes.
Photographer Suzanne Schettler writes that ‘it may not be necessary clear the land and start from scratch to create a welcoming home site. The existing vegetation may contain a beautiful landscape design waiting to be discovered but simply hidden from view. This is the “The Found Landscape’.
In the context of the article, beautiful, twisted manzanitas emerge from thickets cleared of undergrowth and weeds. In the context of my garden, leggy evergreen huckleberry gets reshaped into more shapely, productive shrubs, Douglas fir are limbed up as far as I can reach to give light to the understory, and salal are trimmed to form a low, more formalized ground cover that allows entrance into the forest. In other cases, such as those shown here, I need merely to clear away the tangled jungle to make interesting features such as mossy limbs, graceful trunks, or nurse stumps more visible.
When money is tight, I take my machete, pruners, and hand saw and head out for the backwoods to limb and trim. It is highly satisfying in many ways, like cleaning a cluttered closet. It also generates a large amount of woody material for burning. I’d rather chip it, but the economics have not yet worked for this approach. The madrone limbs are beautiful enough anyway to be laquered and used in more formal landscapes.