The Self-Taught Gardener: Gardeners I have never known

By touring their gardens, I came to have an understanding of how gardeners respond to the land that would prove just as essential for me as seed sowing charts and precise measurements.

Photo Chase Garden
The Chase Garden in Orting, Washington, is one of the gardens that will be discussed at Berkshire Botanical Garden on April 3.

Stockbridge —  We all have lists of people whom we have known that shape who we are as professionals, and gardeners are not different in this respect. A friend of my father, whose lake house was across from ours when I was a child, was the person who first connected me to the world of gardening. With his greenhouse filled with perfectly grown annuals waiting to be set out after the last frost date and the precisely seeded rows of beets and bush beans in his vegetable garden that would have made one think that he was a engineer versus an insurance executive, Mr. Zeiler taught me the significance of list-making and scheduling, and the importance of carefully measuring parallel rows and precisely edging borders. It was a trait held by many other gardeners I would know, from Peter Wooster to Martha Stewart, and this attention to detail is an essential part of being a good gardener.

But there is another group of gardeners who influenced me as well. And the oddest thing is: I never knew any of them, but by touring their gardens, I came to have an understanding of how gardeners respond to the land that would prove just as essential for me as the seed sowing charts and precise measurements of Mr. Zeiler. For while the teachers we know share with us sowing depths and proper spacing, the gardeners we never knew teach us about instinct, judicious plant selection, and the art of placement, not by telling us directly, of course, but by forcing us to observe these principles in action.

Photo mimics alpine meadows
This planting, with its pattern first drawn in the snow by Ione Chase, mimics the alpine meadows of the surrounding Cascade Mountains.

And perhaps the most influential gardener I never knew in my life was Ione Chase, whose garden in Orting, Washington, is being preserved for public use and teaches me something new every time I visit. Ione was a self-taught gardener who, along with her husband Emmett, built one of the most beautiful gardens in America. A mix of Asian and modernist aesthetics that also took its influence from the alpine meadows of the surrounding Cascade Mountains, the garden is the product of a lifetime of responding to the land and sculpting and forming the acreage around the mid-century house that she and Emmett built with their own hands from plans that they acquired from a local architect.

Photo Garden bench
A garden bench set along woodland’s edge and a rectilinear lawn balance the natural with the man-made.

Each visit to Chase Garden taught me something new. On the first visit, I realized that good design takes advantage of what it has and does not compete with it. The property’s view of Mount Rainer, which apparently is as moody as I am in spring and either reveals itself or doesn’t just as capriciously depending on the cloud cover and rain, is used to the best effect possible. As one looks to the mountain, endless beds of perennials and flowering shrubs do not compete with the view, but there is simply one of the most sublime uses of a lawn and a border of juniper one could imagine. I can almost hear Ione whisper, “Don’t compete when you can’t win,” in a voice I never knew.

Photo bench and view
Ione Chase knew that the view of Mount Rainer simply needed to be framed by lawn and junipers cascading down the hillside. The garden sits not within the view shed but in opposition to it on the other side of the house, almost as if the earthly counterpart to this sublime mountainscape.

This reverence for the mountain and nature reveals itself throughout the rest of the garden, which is filled with curving beds and carefully placed stones that reflect the surrounding topography and are nestled into the spaces between the house and the native woods on the side opposite the mountain, beaming in the reflection of Rainer’s glory but always in its shadow. The paths through the garden are serpentine and narrow like the rivulets of water that flow into a mountain valley. Native dogwoods and ferns are mixed in with rhododendron and other flowering shrubs and trees that call to mind the natural beauty of the region and the artfully sited placement of a Japanese garden. “Natives can be the most beautiful plants, but there are great plants from other places, too,” I almost hear Ione say as I walk by a bed awash in dogtooth violets and exotic azaleas.

Photo Dogtooth lily
Natives, such as this dogtooth lily, give a garden a sense of place.

While many of the areas of this garden were carefully laid out – and the border mimicking an alpine meadow was first sketched with a stick in the snow to create drifts of blue, butter yellow, pink and orange, the garden was a combination of carefully measured spaces surrounded by areas that felt more loosely and artfully drawn. A perfect rectangle of lawn, with a stone bench at its end is set next to a gracefully curved bed. Although I never met Ione, I knew that she understood the need for both math and measurement and a hand-drawn line in creating a garden that was at once precise and artful – natural and displaying the hand of man. I saw her ghost laying out the curvilinear edge of the bed with a garden hose and cutting it into the lawn with a spade, as I admired the artfully placed false Solomon’s seal in the bed.

On another occasion, as I volunteered to weed a bed of sedum and phlox, the spirit of Ione taught me another lesson. As I tried to determine how much phlox to leave as the sedum spread to overtake it, I turned to Jeannette, the head gardener at the Garden in its early days under the Garden Conservancy and said, “I guess I will just let the two of them battle it out over this territory.” Jeannette turned to me, slightly ashen, but with a smile, and stated that Ione used to say that exact same thing.

So maybe on these visits to the garden, I had met Ione after all.

Photo Chase garden will be discussed
Chase Garden in Washington State, will be one of the gardens discussed as part of Page Dickey’s talk on Outstanding American Gardens at Berkshire Botanical Garden on April 3rd at 2 p.m. The talk will be followed by a signing of the book of the same title that chronicles the work of the Garden Conservancy.