The Rarest Of The Rare In A Medford Garden

Matilija poppies, growing along the fence line of Baldassare Mineo's house in north Medford, give visitors a slight hint of the splendor beyond the border. The pale green leaves of this hard-to-start perennial (Romneya coulteri, shown on the cover) are topped with large solitary white flowers with yellow centers. "It's a summer flowering jewel," says Baldassare. "They'll bloom all summer with irrigation."

Listen carefully to whatever he says. After 27 years as owner of Siskiyou Rare Plant Nursery, this man knows rare plants. His garden is full of them — in containers and scattered in beds throughout the garden. Far from being bored since retirement, he's expanded his focus beyond alpine and rock garden plants.

open garden days

Sharing the results of planning and hard labor is an opportunity most gardeners cherish with friends at small garden parties. Others, including Baldassare Mineo, are willing to share their gardens with the general public.

Baldassare's Italio Gardens, an appellation honoring his heritage, will be open on selected days in the spring and fall, including 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., September 22. Former site of Siskiyou Rare Plant Nursery, the garden covers two and a half acres, with rare plants, a stunning pond and established rock gardens. Plenty of irrigation, shade and sun provide a variety of habitats for his amazing plant collection. Call for directions: 772-8787.

"I want to expose the garden to as many people as are interested in this plant collection," he says.

The stellar garden at Northwest Garden Nurseries in Eugene is open for touring Thursday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and by arrangement on Sunday. Any group of 15 or more, or bus tourists, must make prior arrangements, says gardener Ernie O'Byrne. Plan to spend about an hour and a half touring; there's always something to see in this garden. It includes perennial borders, shade, sun, rock, dry land, and conifer gardens in its acre and a half.

Learn about other open gardens through The Garden Conservancy, an organization dedicated to preserving exceptional gardens, especially when their creators are no longer able to do so. They sponsor open garden days nationwide and publish the Open Days Directory annually.

"I now grow everything from unusual annuals to tropicals," he says. "Now I can talk about big, tall tiger lilies that have no place in a rock garden."

The tiger lilies in question have the unusual characteristic of being double-flowered. They've been invited into the garden bed in front of Baldassare's house, where they can be seen from the dining room window. The shady garden is an arrangement of shining flagstones, raised beds and water gardens.

Another favored plant in the front bed is a threadleaf mulberry (Morus alba, 'Itoguwa'), an incongruent, 2-foot shrubby relative of the fast growing fruitless mulberry. Most of the year it's just deciduous sticks, but in summer's heat it produces leaves reminiscent of curling ribbon. It's planted in a bed of Begonia grandis, a summer and autumn flowering plant with showy leaves, "rare for no good reason," says Baldassare.

Equally unrecognizable are the miniature elms and rare maples that Baldassare has planted in his front garden. Acer palmatum, 'Mikawa Yatsubusa,' a miniature maple, grows dense stubby clumps of leaves that are hard to clone, thus keeping this small tree a rare commodity. Another maple, Acer sempervirens, is evergreen, sporting small, dark green leaves reminiscent of ivy or holly.

The path from the front garden leads into sunshine, the rock garden and pond. Here, clerodendron bursts into bloom in late summer.

"I'm collecting plants that are summer and fall blooming," he says. "Without much effort, we gardeners enjoy spring color. The trick is to extend the beauty into summer and fall."

Clerodendron, or Cashmere Bouquet flower, named for the similarity to the fragrance of that old-fashioned talc, requires a large garden setting, because it forms a spreading thicket, says Baldassare. "It's never to be planted by delicate plants. They'd all be devoured." He's given it a large, sunny setting adjacent to his rock garden. The sturdy stems with dark shiny and pungent leaves are topped with multi-flowered clusters of fragrant pink flowers. They spread by underground runners and need continuing control.

"In a landscape, some control has to come in, because we are trying to grow so many exotics side by side," he says. "Pruning is essential in an artificial environment where you are jamming so many plants together."

He hasn't joined the chorus of moans heard throughout the valley about our heavy clay soil. "Clay is great soil. You mulch it and keep it moist. It's so rich. I never use fertilizer in my gardens."

A crevice garden by Czech landscape artist Josef Halda rises next to a pond with a waterfall. The rock garden is filled with the plants that were the focus of his business. A large clump of California fuchsia (Zauschneria californica), a hummingbird magnet, begins its bloom season in August, attracting the birds with brilliant tubular blossoms.

After nearly 30 years of care, Baldassare still has new goals for his garden. A visit to Northwest Garden Nursery in Eugene ("The most beautiful garden in the country.") inspired a renewed interest in top-notch plant combinations. And he has plans to include a wading pool in the pond.

"I'm a believer in 'bloom where you are planted,'" he says. "I love to take something that exists and nurture it. I could never leave this garden. The rich soil, a well that pumps 45 gallons per minute"¦ I'm living my childhood dream of living in a garden."

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