During March, most gardens in the Rogue Valley are just beginning to wake from their long winter naps, but in Dan and Mary Heath's garden, spring bloom is already well underway. "We probably have something going on in the garden for a good 10 months a year," says Mary, "and I'm always looking for new plants to stretch our bloom season out just a little longer."
The Heath's home is on a shy .75 acre in east Medford and the size of the lot is part of what drew the Heaths to the property. Both are long-time devoted gardeners. Mary has been gardening for most of her life, and Dan picked up the hobby when he and Mary married about 25 years ago. It's clear they relish the gardening opportunities this large yard presents. Over the past eight years, they've managed to transform it from an ordinary suburban yard to a tapestry of color and texture — truly a garden for all seasons.
Even in early spring, the spacious front yard is a delight to passers-by. Wide flower beds wrap around a soft green lawn and a few large specimen trees spread a lacy canopy overhead. The overall effect is English cottage garden meets "walk in the spring woods." The garden here is anchored by a variety of shrubs including forsythia, barberry, Oregon grape and Portuguese laurel, and early-blooming perennials and spring flowering bulbs peek out from underneath every shrub. "The beds along the sidewalks fill several functions," explains Dan. "They're nice to look at and they also work as a privacy screen and help cut down noise from the street."
In contrast, the backyard feels like a secret garden — amazingly quiet and private. Dan enjoys working with stone and brick, and the gardens here showcase his handiwork. There's a large koi pond, several gently curving flagstone flower beds, and two lovely bricked sitting areas. Winding paths lead through irregularly shaped beds, inviting you to wander and explore. Much of the backyard is shaded by large trees, and the Heaths have planted the area with a variety of woodland plants including dogwood, columbine, anemones, and hellebores. Hellebores are a favorite of both Dan and Mary. "They're such a beautiful flower," says Dan, "subtle and long-blooming." A clump of dark blue Algerian iris (Iris unguicularis) is next to the back door, near a group of sweet-smelling daphne. "The iris is a real early bloomer, too," says Mary. "It often starts blooming right around Christmas."
Mary says that bulbs are a mainstay in their spring garden; both traditional varieties like crocus, hybrid tulip and narcissus as well as a number of less common bulbs. "We love the species tulips, like T. humilis, T. turkestanica and T. clusiana," says Mary. "They come back reliably every year, and they bloom earlier than other tulips." Other favorite early bulbs include grape hyacinth, spring starflower, and glory-of-the-snow. Later in the season, stands of checkered lily and camas grace the yard. Dan adds, "For me, part of the fun of growing bulbs is the excitement of going out to look for the first green shoots poking through the soil in the early spring."
The Heaths also rely on a group of plants Dan refers to as "four-season plants" to provide garden interest in winter and early spring. "We really like a lot of plants that gardeners tend to think of as "common," like Oregon grape, nandina, viburnum and manzanita. They're humble plants, but they're also real workhorses, because they contribute something to the garden in every season — flowers, berries, even changes in foliage color in the winter.
The Heaths aren't finished yet, though. "I'm a bit of a collector," Mary says with a laugh, pointing to a stack of garden catalogs waiting on the dining room table. "We'd like to try growing some of the heathers. They're another great four-season plant." There are varieties of species iris she'd like to try, too, and she's always looking for something new to catch her eye --an all-season gardener.
finding species bulbs
Many of the species bulbs in cultivation today are native to dry, mountainous regions of the Near East. They're sturdy, early bloomers and add a charming wildflower look to garden borders. If you're ready for a spring planting, look for them in pots at local nurseries.
Dale Sullivan, owner of Siskiyou Rare Plant Nursery in Talent, grows several types of species bulbs in pots, including Checkered Lily (Fritillaria meleagris). Sullivan also especially likes Iris reticulata 'Gordon,' a blue-violet cultivar. "The reticulatas are really nice, especially if you allow them to go fully dormant in the summer; they get really robust," says Sullivan. Christie Mackison, owner of Shooting Star Nursery in Central Point says she grows several varieties of species narcissus and tulips in pots.
If you wait until fall bulb planting season, catalogs will offer a good selection of species bulbs. Get a glimpse of the future at two such mail order sources: John Scheepers (www.johnscheepers.com) and Brent & Beckie's Bulbs (www.brentandbeckiesbulbs.com).