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From grass to garden

Cora and Haydn Lee may have moved into their east Medford home a year and a half ago, but you'd never be able to guess it by their garden, which they installed soon after they arrived.

"I'm fast," Cora says, definitively.

They downsized from another property in the valley to reduce the amount of their yard work, so they could, um, go work in the extension service garden"¦ Hmm, that's a gardener.

"It's our social life, too," Cora says of their 15-year commitment to the Jackson County Master Gardeners.

The new corner lot home had "good bones but a lot of lawn," says Cora. They left the shrubs, took down some trees, and began eliminating that pesky lawn, beginning with the side and back yards. Cora followed behind the professional hired to cut the sod, flipping the grass root side up. "I use what I have and do everything to improve the soil first."

Haydn is a railroad enthusiast, and when he's not working with the Master Gardeners or at Medford's Railroad Park, he's thinking about installing his own backyard railway. Cora had to plant around his plans, and with trademark efficiency, she planted what she calls "littles" around the track area: small hebes, dwarf conifers, mini daffodils and different thymes. Dubbed "Frog and Bird Railroad," between 15 and 20 birdhouses dot the track, which will run the full length of the backyard.

At the eastern end of the yard, Cora has been experimenting with growing vegetables and some flowers in a sunny bed along the house and in wine barrel pots: tomatoes, beans and kale share the space with flowers: marigolds, alyssum, nasturtium, coreopsis and zinnias.

"Next year I want to plant more perennials and some more challenging plants," she says.

She's very aware of her plant choices. "In a small yard you have to be careful about what grasses you use." Stipa made the cut and the birds love it as much as she does. Cora loves watching the birds ride the waving seed plumes as they sway in the wind.

The side yard, visible to the street, demonstrates her dedication to perennial herbs. "I really like herbs, as far as plants are concerned. They're hardy souls; they are beautiful and they smell good." The garden also includes evergreens, "so you have something in the winter."

All the plants in the garden "have wheels on them," says Haydn, laughing. Cora says she considers the plants "expendable," but moves them to meet their cultivation needs, as well as to change the color scheme. "It's my hobby. If a plant doesn't work; it doesn't work," she says matter of factly.

Valentine's Day of their first year in the new house saw the delivery of 8,000 pounds of rocks. Some were easily handled, while others were up to 30 inches across — a heavy stone. Next, because of all the Bermuda grass, the lawn was killed with Roundup and then mulched with newspaper and leaves. About 120 bags of topsoil "topped" it off. While this may not be the cheapest way to create a large garden bed, it is the easiest to handle, according to Haydn.

All the plants are drought-tolerant and chosen strictly adhering to herbal taxonomy: rosemary, lavender, cistus, hebe, and ceanothus. Some iris and sedums were chosen for interest. Thrift and heathers provide early blooms in the spring. More "littles" rim the garden perimeter.

Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) is a particular treasure, for its yellow fuzzy blooms in February.

Because the Lees almost moved to Hawaii, Cora wanted a little bit of the tropics for her own backyard. "I wanted a quiet place," she says. "I wanted it to be reflective of island décor."

Because we don't have an island climate here, she searched for and found plants with big green or variegated leaves. Most are perennials, her preference, but she also plants brightly colored caladium. "I like variegated plants in the shade because they move the light." Hostas, aurelia, bamboo (in pots), a Japanese maple, brunnera and acanthus fill the shady area. A sunny spot was perfect for a few cannas.

Cora hasn't yet found the right place to sit in her tropical paradise and is still looking for the perfect chair. We have to forgive this omission. After all, despite the dense lushness all around us, this is a very new garden. She can have all the time she needs.

Bird houses are integral to Cora and Haydn Lee’s garden, which will include a model railroad with the Potter-esque (Beatrix not Harry) name of Frog and Bird Railroad. Blooming beneath this avian residence: zinnia and salvia.