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Cover Story Plant Life Northwest Living Taste Now & Then

Northwest Living
WRITTEN BY VALERIE EASTON
PHOTOGRAPHED BY JACQUELINE KOCH
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green acres
A transplanted couple honor Northwest natives on a majestic scale

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Deborah and Jim Heg's property is divided by outbuildings and pathways as much as by trees and island plantings. Here, Clematis montana smothers the studio with its fragrant flowers in late May.
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OFTEN IT TAKES someone from quite a different climate and landscape to appreciate what we have here in the Northwest. When Deborah and Jim Heg moved from a 5,000-square-foot lot and Mediterranean-style garden in Sausalito, Calif., to Whidbey Island, they were determined to capture the essence of their heavily treed property rather than transform it. They revel in the green and brown of native plants, the moss and shade, all helped along by the wide-open view of Puget Sound and snow-capped Olympics. The house they designed and built in 1994 with contractor Bob Arndt stretches long, low and lodge-like, settled into the curve of the land as if it had grown there. A classic Craftsman style, it is stained dark brown to match the tree trunks.

Early on, the couple visited Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island in search of inspiration, and admired the concept of introducing geometric line into the forest. Deborah had been impressed with a photo of a round pond in a forest glade. So even before the house was finished, the Hegs dug the reflecting pond that forms the calm and secret heart of the property. The pond measures 22 feet across, and is raised up about a foot, just perfect for Auto, their lumbering Burmese mountain dog, who laps up the water as if from his own custom-size water bowl.

Most distinctive of all are the size, subtlety and hush of the garden. The Hegs have tamed five acres and left 17 more in woodlands and trails. Perhaps because Deborah has a trained eye from her years as an interior designer, all parts of the garden blend harmoniously. And maybe because Jim spent his youthful summers driving a tractor in Ohio farm country, he had the courage to clear underbrush and plant acre after acre. These days, both of them garden nearly full time, though Jim complains the work cuts into his golf game.

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Above: The predominant color in the Hegs' garden is the restful green of a Northwest native forest. Deborah, who particularly dislikes white flowers, is careful not to 'tart the garden up' with too much color.
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Right: A 4-foot square has been cut out from the terrace's stone paving to house a miniature Japanese garden. Three elements create the composition: a lacy little Acer palmatum 'Sishigashira,' hedged in germander and embellished with three carefully placed stones.
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The dynamic tension between Deborah's strong sense of design and her goal of creating a naturalistic woodland garden is what makes the Hegs' Whidbey Island garden unique. An old metal urn planted with variegated foliages provides a subtle focal point among the fir trees.
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Where to begin working on such a landscape? Trial and error, says Deborah. When the Hegs arrived, a 1940s driveway led straight down through the property from road to beach. Now a new, fern-lined drive curves past big-leaf maples and stumps sprouting huckleberries, winding around garages, the guesthouse and studio on its way to the main house. The beds in front of the house were first planted in vine maples, 'Unique' rhododendrons and lots of native groundcovers, most of which didn't survive. The look was severe, so they've added gentle berming and a wider variety of textural plants. Terry Welch, owner of a much-admired naturalistic garden in Woodinville, consulted with the Hegs and changed the contours a bit, bringing in mountain hemlock and huge rocks to anchor the entrance to the garden.

Numerous native plants thrive in the mid-Whidbey climate of only 20 inches of rain a year, and the Hegs found native rhododendrons, deciduous huckleberries, salal, sword ferns, foam flower, ocean spray, false lily of the valley and Oregon grape already clustered beneath the firs and cedars when they began the garden. They introduced serviceberry, evergreen huckleberries and more native rhododendrons. But Deborah is not a purist about natives. "We're trying every groundcover on earth," she laughs, gesturing at a great deal of ground to cover. On this scale, shrub-sized groundcovers work best, massed to provide color and keep down weeds.

At the back of the house, the waterside granite terraces face southwest for a full dose of sun and sunsets. Low, jagged stone walls are rimmed with rugosa roses. Thymes and dwarf salal mound up between pavers, softening the expanse of stone. The view from the terrace is of ruffled blue water and distant mountains. On the shore, at the site of the original cabin on the property, is a totem pole carved by Whidbey Island artist Glen Russell. A gift to Deborah from Jim and her mother, the cedar has turned a soft silver that blends with the variegated elder behind it.

Every garden has its problem spots, and Deborah calls the exposed hillside facing the water "the dead zone" for all the plants that have lost their lives there. After much experimentation, they are gradually covering the hillside with the few plants that can survive; yarrow, salvia, rugosa roses, salal and Miscanthus sinensis 'Morning Light' seem to be persevering. Deer are as much a problem as sun, wind and drought, but you'll find no deer fences here except around the sunny garden where Deborah grows vegetables, flowers for cutting and plants deer find especially tasty. At 90 by 120 feet, this fenced garden is larger than it needs to be, says Deborah, explaining that at first they were "drunk on land."

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The waterside terrace is decorated with shallow pots as curvaceously spiky as a Viking's headgear. They hold Deborah's sedum collection, kept tidily trimmed back by visiting deer.
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The Hegs bumped up against the issue of maintenance early on, which influenced the decision to depend on native plants wherever feasible. Several mammoth Douglas firs fell during the windstorm of 1996, and have been left to bisect the lawns with their horizontal lines. The Hegs have simply started with the fallen trees and landscaped out, cutting into the lawn. Snags and broken stumps are treated as sculptural reminders of the property's history, and left to sprout huckleberries and provide wildlife habitat. A goal has been to add fall color plants to brighten the evergreen forest, such as scarlet and pin oak, vine maples, winter hazel and the deciduous Berberis wilsoniae, which has brilliant little fruits that linger on its bare branches through the winter.

Except for those around the house, all new plants are watered for only the first two years. Volunteers such as foxglove provide color. During her interior design years Deborah always chose shades of beige rather than white, and here in her garden no white is permitted except for mock orange, a shrub so spectacular and fragrant she can't resist it. Deborah worries about tarting the garden up with too much color, and losing her vision. "I just can't get it quiet enough," she says of her silent, majestic garden. "I can't get it unjangly enough, so I keep subtracting."

Valerie Easton is manager at the Miller Horticultural Library. Her new book, "Plant Life: Growing a Garden in the Pacific Northwest" (Sasquatch Books, 2002) is an updated selection of her magazine columns. Her e-mail address is vjeaston@aol.com. Jacqueline Koch is a writer and photographer living on Whidbey Island.


Cover Story Plant Life Northwest Living Taste Now & Then

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