Even from a distance, Phyllis Gustafson's corner rock garden in Central Point is a landmark attraction. Arriving at the garden's curb, a curving path tempts you to find out what surprises might be just beyond your sight. What a unique variety of plants! In addition to several kinds of knick-knick, oregano, Daphne and grasses, Phyllis has put succulents, Turkish morning glories, a Japanese maple and a few small conifers among stones quarried privately in Central Point.
The front rock garden was designed by Joseph Halda, a Czechoslovakian whom Phyllis met in 1986 at an international rock garden conference in Boulder, Colorado. Halda specializes in crevice gardens, a form of rock garden with terraced rocks set close together, so plants develop deeper root systems and are protected from weather extremes. Crevice gardens work especially well in smaller yards, because so much can be planted even in a small space.
Phyllis Gustafson encourages anyone thinking about creating a rock garden to do their homework beforehand. "Rock gardens are harder to maintain than they look," she says. She encourages anyone interested in developing a rock garden to read books on the subject, and to attend some meetings of the Medford Rock Garden Club, which meets every month.
"All sorts of plants can grow in a rock garden, but you've got to build a good mound of soil before laying down the rocks so the plants can develop a good root system," she says, adding that rock garden plants need to develop deeper root systems than other garden plants in order to thrive.
"Unlike other gardens that can be leveled and redesigned, rock gardens by definition are difficult to remove and often become permanent fixtures in the garden," Phyllis says. "So be sure you really want a rock garden and take your time designing it, so you'll end up with what you want."
Phyllis was eager to build the garden that Halda had designed. First came the soil, which was loam brought in from Bear Creek. "Then we brought in the rocks from the quarry and placed them according to Halda's design," Phyllis explains, adding that this process of laying out the bones of the garden took only four days.
"I knew I wanted native plants, as well as plants from similar climates around the world, such as Turkey and Greece," Phyllis says. "Alpine plants, which grow at high altitudes in rocky soil, are well suited to rock gardens in our climate, as they don't need a lot of soil and can take our hot summers." Turkish morning glory and small campanulas, which get to be only a few inches high, are alpine plants.
"Another reason I wanted the rock garden was to give some definition to the front walkway going toward the house," Phyllis says. "When we bought this place 40 years ago, the front yard was just lawn with a sycamore and a spruce tree." She removed the sycamore tree when she decided to build the rock garden, and the spruce came down during a wind storm, creating even more room for the rock garden.
The backyard features an extensive perennial garden, including conifers and various grasses, along with peonies, penstemon, a few rose bushes, and some unusual herbs such as 'Mozart' blue rosemary. "It's a great plant. It blooms all the time," she says.
Into the shady parts of the garden, Phyllis has incorporated hellebores, trillium, cyclamen and 30 varieties of Daphne, so she has blooms from spring through summer. Watering three times a week is a requirement during the growing season.
"Gardening has always been a part of my life, and I've been a rock gardener since I was a child, as my grandmother always had a rock garden," Phyllis explains. Recently, when the Medford Garden Club celebrated its 80-year anniversary, Phyllis was delighted to find a never-before-seen photo of her grandmother working in the garden. "I knew she helped start the club, but it was a treat to see this photograph of her," Phyllis says.
In addition to extensive knowledge of rock gardens and unusual plants, Phyllis is an expert on regional wildflowers. Her book, Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest, was published in 2006 and has become a best seller for its publisher. She fits her gardening in between trips around the country, where she gives presentations on wildflowers and rock gardening.
Understandably, Phyllis' rock garden attracts a lot of attention. Passers-by in cars often pull over to talk to her when they see her working in the garden. "Once, we even got some mail addressed to the 'Rock Garden on Maple Street,'" she says, "and it was from Europe!" Without exaggeration — this garden is a landmark.