In 1999, Jenn and Dan Ferrante acquired a corner lot in the North Portland neighborhood of Overlook. Looking at it today, a charming craftsman home, expertly tended, surrounded by lush gardens and artful details, it’s hard to imagine its humble beginnings. But they bought the house as a fixer-upper, when the exterior spaces were overgrown and unkempt.
When they moved to this lot, Jenn didn’t think of herself as an avid gardener. In fact, for the first several years, she and Dan spent much of their time and effort on renovating the house. Her interest in the garden came later, after she and Dan had made extensive interior updates and removed a dilapidated old garage, replacing it with a new, two-level structure that includes a garage beneath a studio apartment.
No strangers to construction by that point, the couple decided to tackle the stacked basalt wall that now frames the garden. Starting at the driveway, the wall runs the length of the property one side, wraps the corner, and continues along the full length of the other side that incorporates a front entry. They plugged away at it for two years; Jenn smiles as she says, “It got straighter and flatter as the project went on.”
The garden really got rocking in 2006, after a collaborative design process with Lauren Hall-Behrens of Lilyvilla Gardens helped solidify the layout of the garden hardscape and foundational plantings. This design process and the resulting changes in the garden kick-started Jenn’s passion for plants, and she began to garden in earnest.
Before long, lush and varied plantings surrounded their home. A tile-setter by profession, and a glass artist by avocation, she was able to bring her attention to detail and pattern to bear on her plant choices. Selecting first for foliage and texture, she gravitates toward plants that emphasize her fundamental color scheme.
Throughout the garden, Jenn creates a sense of unity by repeating key signature plants: Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’, Eucomis ‘Sparkling Burgundy’, and the red form of Canna musifolia draw the eye from point to point, reinforcing that sense that each scene is part of an orchestrated whole. In other cases, she does this using similar, yet different varieties of the same plant. For example, hydrangeas and daylilies, thoughtfully selected and carefully partnered to reinforce the underlying color story, are a recurring element in the garden.
Jenn’s attentive execution and consistent deployment of underlying color themes imparts a sense of unity to the overall garden. The sunny garden areas are typified by rich, deep burgundy foliage and dark chocolate flowers that are cheered by their association with a continuing thread of sunny foliage. Major contributors in the dark foliage department include Canna musifolia (red form), loropetalum, Sambucus ‘Black Lace’, Cotinus ‘Grace’, Berberis ‘Helmond Pillar’, and Eucomis ‘Sparkling Burgundy’ in the front and side yard gardens. In the far corner of the back yard, Fagus sylvatica ‘Purple Fountain’ underscores the dark drama with its weeping habit. The repeated use of finely textured, flowing mounds of Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’) and the big, bold foliage of Symphytum ‘Axminster Gold’ contribute golden tones and varied foliage texture.
Along a shadier,narrow side yard, serene tones prevail, with a classy plant palette in shades of purple, black, and white. Purple-blooming hydrangeas selected for striking details, such as the black stems of the mophead Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Nigra’, or the pendulous and delicate peduncles of H. m. ‘Izu No Hana‘, line the path and are skirted by a tapestry of perennials and ferns. Dark, ferny Actaea ‘Black Negligee’ echoes the stems of nearby H. ‘Nigra’. Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’ and Japanese painted fern, with their light-reflecting foliage, act as footlights along the meandering path. The purple flowers of Hosta clausa are more saturated than your typical hosta and reinforce the theme. Finally, airy maidenhair fern as an edger lends a cool and lush vibe.
The parking strip that wraps around the corner lot is both inspiring and instructive. During the initial garden creation phase, Jenn and Dan amended the native soil with rotted horse manure and use quarter-ten gravel as a moisture-retaining mulch, reapplying as needed. Many of the plants in the parking strip, including Iris pallida ‘Variegata’, Sedum ‘Matrona’, and Coreopsis ‘Zagreb’, are divisions from Jenn’s garden. Besides the obvious economic upside, this repetition reinforces the cohesive aspect of her garden. Jenn views the hell-strip plantings as a test case for low water tolerance; the plants here receive only occasional water, administered by hand, so the standard for self-reliance is high.
But there’s more to this story than pretty plantings. For example, the deck is a creative and artful solution to a challenging situation. During the garden renovation of 2006, this area was initially conceived of as three diagonally positioned, interlocking rectangles of grass; a paver patio was also considered. Both of those ideas were abandoned when it became clear that they could pose a risk to the towering white oak that dominates the southwest corner of the property. By reconceiving this area as an above-ground deck, Jenn bypassed the need for irrigation or extensive excavation around the oak’s root system.
Plants under the drip line of the oak were selected for their ability to peacefully cohabit with the native Oregon white oak (Quercus garryana), which abhors summer water. Jenn has had success establishing plants under the canopy by judiciously delivering supplemental water to individual plants via a targeted drip system, but mostly tries to make selections that willingly forgo summer water. Through trial and error, she’s been figuring out what will do well in this spot. And now, through careful planning and thoughtful plant selection, this potentially challenging situation has evolved into an area of the garden that honors and showcases the venerable giant. Enveloped on the far side by lush plantings along the house, buffered from the street by layers of foliage and flower, and sheltered by the high canopy of this wonderful tree, this section of the garden is a now a wonderful place to be, especially in the afternoon, when it’s shaded.
Taken as a whole, Jenn’s garden offers delights for any serious gardener. Its impressive and effective use of hardscape to frame the garden and solve particular challenges, taken together with Jenn’s inspired and artful use of familiar plants to uncommon effect, create a remarkable garden refuge that rewards any time spent there.
To learn more about these selected vignettes from this wonderful garden be sure to follow the links — you'll be rewarded with a plant list covering those pictured in each.
Focus: Contrasting Foliage and Texture, Foliage First, Flower Fest, Mixed Border, Low Maintenance, Seasonal Flow
Exposure: Part Sun, Morning Sun, Filtered Sun, Bright Shade, Open Shade
Focus: Color Theme, Flower Fest, Hellstrip / Parking Strip, Low Maintenance, Saving Water, Seasonal Flow
Exposure: Full Sun, Sun, Afternoon Sun
Zone: 6, 7, 8, 9
Focus: Contrasting Foliage and Texture, Flower Fest, Foliage First, Mixed Border, Seasonal Flow, Color Theme
Exposure: Sun, Afternoon Sun, Full Sun, Part Sun
Zone: 7, 8, 9
This article originally appeared in the HPSO Quarterly — Summer 2016