Practical beauty

One of the pleasures of the garden is its capacity to provide a substantial illusion. Gardens can transport you from a city street to a foreign region in the time it takes to walk through the house.

The East Medford garden of Bill Coleman and Dale Wessels is quite a distance from thoughts of town. Meandering gravel paths surround closely planted beds. Focal art and architecture make thoughtful contributions. Lush plantings contribute to the quiet and seclusion. Might as well just sit and enjoy.

It began in 2001 when the pair moved into the house, and a lawn, a jungle gym and a hot tub comprised the backyard vista.

Experienced gardeners, they'd brought a number of plants and starts from their last home across the valley. An Italian fountain, discovered at Big R in White City, provided them with an initial focal point.

"I think structure is the main element in a new garden," says Coleman, "especially starting from scratch."

Keying from the center post of the covered patio and keeping the all-important view from the kitchen window in mind, they placed the fountain and began plotting with guide strings to determine the garden's direction. Because a circular path around the fountain was a given, the garden's hub and axis shape emerged.

"A garden should guide you," says Coleman. "It's nice to have surprises, to see something unexpected when you come around the bend."

From the beginning, all the paths had to conform to aesthetics and practicality: wide enough for wheelbarrows or two people to walk side by side. The work areas, and there are several in this garden, needed to be quietly visible or unseen.

A covered dining area with a glass table seating six — an important element — is placed just a step down from the patio. A stained-glass chandelier provides mood lighting at night.

When it came to planting, however, planning took a back seat to inspiration. Plants came in by luck and chance, and the gardeners looked for places to put them.

"We built around these decisions," says Coleman. "I didn't have a plant plan. I made what I had fit and worked from there."

"What he had" included some Japanese maples brought from his home in California years earlier. The collection resides in pots placed around the garden, patios and decks, to protect them from verticillium wilt, which killed many in his original collection.

He's a plant collector as much as a garden designer, which is "sometimes hard to reconcile." He warns, however, against falling in love with plants.

"They die or fail," he says, ruefully.

He continues to pot volunteers — carefully though — because these easy growers may become garden "weeds."

In this garden, blooms and leaf color mix with a variety of textures and shapes. One bed combines low to mid-height tri-color sage, heather and daphne, with tall miscanthus grass behind.

A flowering jasmine climbs one of the supports for the lath dining room, adding its aroma to food smells. Roses dot the garden, and the variety of plants is astounding for such a small area: Asiatic lilies, hostas, grasses, herbs, groundcovers and small trees. Asters are coming into bloom as summer's flowers fade.

In a back corner, a 6-foot crescent moon commands attention — acquired from an early production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

"It lights up," says Coleman.

A gazing ball and scattered sculptures on a smaller scale illuminate with humor as well as form.

"We like our share of kitsch," he says.

Another lath structure shelters the plant nursery and conceals the small vegetable garden. Behind a wall of recycled wood, the work area holds a potting bench, tools and a compost area. Plant debris, minus seeds and rose thorns, is double- and triple-ground and placed in a wire bin. It provides compost in a year.

In place of the hot tub, Coleman has a two-room art studio to create his mixed media collages and assemblages. During the winter, it doubles as a conservatory for the tender plant collection. Garden seating includes a gazebo with comfortably padded chairs.

It's a garden you can easily spend a day, or a lifetime, enjoying.

"You start with function, and beautiful form follows from there," he says.

"If it doesn't please, calm or reward you in some way, then what's the point? It has to be livable."


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