Kelley Leonard began gardening when she was 8 years old.
A dozen years on 1.5 acres above Medford with pasture, animals, flowers and vegetable gardens refined her growing skills. But when she realized the house and lawn "owned" her, she and husband Pete downsized their landscape, and she swore never to have a lawn.
Indeed, no grass surrounds the house she and Pete built in a canyon above Jacksonville, but that doesn't mean Leonard isn't just as busy outdoors. She's created a densely planted perennial and rock garden in the hillside's red clay and learned even more about gardening in the process.
"We fell in love with the property," she says. In the quiet canyon where they built their home, "the noisiest things are the weekly garbage trucks and when the coyotes start singing across the canyon."
The property includes a game trail where gray fox and cougar are seen occasionally. In the woods above the house, pileated woodpeckers nest and turkey vultures roost. In the garden, lizards, snakes and frogs are regular visitors.
But creating a building pad on the lot caused so much damage, Leonard swore to repair and mitigate it. Rather than create a garden solely of natives or perennials, she's mingled the genres and selected a number of uncommon plants to complement the surrounding woodland.
"No matter how much you've learned, you still have to learn more when you move," she says. "Stretching" to solve the new set of problems Leonard inherited with her property has given her a lot more patience and produced a lush garden full of little gems.
The main garden, fenced from the deer, is entered just off the driveway where a trellis holds two climbing roses, "summer wine" and "secret-garden musk," along with one of the garden's 45 clematis, "Montana rubens Mayleen."
From here, a garden visitor can descend into a narrow slope of densely planted perennials or trace the decomposed granite path that winds around the house and branches into the garden's different "rooms" and seating areas, several with delightful views of the garden and the wooded area above the house.
Leonard's steep slopes and red-clay soil reshaped her original vision. The land rises to the rear and side of the house, and Leonard is planting up to the wooded areas. She uses a lot of compost and adds decomposed granite to amend the soil. On the slopes, fallen and pruned branches are staked the length of the garden bed to prevent the looser soil from eroding.
Leonard is a planter. "Whenever there's bare ground, I pack it in, and the biggest and strongest wins."
She sowed some of the bare ground with perennial rye grass and clover, which she removes as she expands the garden. Although native flowers get special preference — she weeds with a pair of scissors instead of a weed-whacker — native poison oak didn't make the plant list and took four sometimes-itchy years to remove.
Leonard's plant list is extensive and includes commonly used perennials and unusual and rare plants. A slope filled with flowering perennials of differing heights, colors and leaf forms flows into a mound of rock-garden plants. She loves rock-garden micro-environments, where many different and unique plants live in close proximity.
In the perennial garden, yarrow, California, Oriental and Shirley poppies, Asiatic lilies, sedums, a variety of bulbs, peonies, nepeta and thrift grow along the paths. Baptisia, a lupine-like perennial, is extremely drought-tolerant, says Leonard. The colorful bloom spikes create ornamental seed heads, making it a worthy plant she repeats throughout the garden.
Less frequently seen plants include agastache, with pink flower spikes that attract hummingbirds, and the tree peony "delavayi." Leonard also has "sambucus black lace," with ferny, dark leaves and umbrellas of pink blossoms, species tulips with delicate blooms and fragile, multicolored seed heads and a dramatic, ground-hugging evergreen, "cedrus libani sapphire nymph."
The rare and unusual appear in the woods around the garden, too, where Jacksonville's famed Gentner's fritillary thrive. Leonard's sharp observation found this plant forms seed heads in the wild, something botanists have been questioning. She gathered seed last year and is successfully growing starts in a nursery off to the side of the garden.
Leonard's gardening passion appears inexhaustible.
"The longer I live, the more I want to do," she says. "If I could only grow one kind of plant it would be conifers, but I hope that doesn't happen."