Three towering eucalyptus trees grace the entry to Linda Weiss’ Vashon garden, offering delicate shade and dropping their aromatic leaves all over the blue-gray gravel just in time for the annual Vashon Island Garden Tour this weekend. But Weiss doesn’t mind. Raking up the leaves is a small part of what is a pretty low-maintenance garden, one that takes inspiration from sunnier places such as New Zealand, Arizona, Greece and the gum trees’ native Australia. Created on a sunny patch of bare grass when they bought the house in 2004, Weiss’ garden – on the tour for the first time – isn’t just another piece of outdoor eye-candy. It’s also a great example of how to pull in the sun – and the laid-back vibe that goes with it.
“It’s zonal denial, I guess,” admits Weiss, surveying the elegantly-designed outdoor rooms bursting with figs, yuccas, New Zealand flax and succulents. “We’d rather live in a warmer climate.”
Cleverly, though, a warmer climate is exactly what Weiss and her husband Ron Gawith have engineered for themselves in front of their house – at least, on a small scale. Yes, they still get the water-cooled temperatures and keen wind of the Point Robinson side of Vashon. But on a sunny, south-facing slope, the retired couple – who displayed their previous home on the 2000 garden tour – has transformed a blank patch of grass into a microclimate warm enough that tomatoes thrive until November and desert plants grow happily.
The reason for the warmth? Rocks. Blue-gray gravel lines the floor of two of the outdoor “rooms” — one with deck chairs lounging beside a fireplace, the other with a big canopied dining table conveniently located next to an Italian wood-fired pizza oven. But the rocks aren’t just for the floor. They’re also the walls: a six-foot-high gabion made of steel mesh hooked together and filled with big, dark gray rocks.
It’s an easy-to-build structure that does more than add a dash of style. The walls protect the rooms from wind without hemming them in, absorb heat and warm the sitting areas, provide a stunning backdrop for Weiss’ containers of lime-green succulents and reflect heat back onto the vegetable gardens on the outer side, where lush crops of organic strawberries, herbs, fava beans and raspberries thrive. Along one wall, 11 pots with two tomato plants apiece stand like Mediterranean sentinels, blooming lavishly. When cooler weather comes, Weiss just anchors a plastic sheet to the top of the wall and drapes it over the pots.
“We get tomatoes through November,” she says proudly.
In and around the walls, drought-tolerant plants complement the Aussie/Arizona vibe. In big containers, variegated yuccas are underplanted with lemony Angelina sedum or red yucca with lime-green echeveria. A big pineapple broom plant bursts with yellow sno-cone flowers smelling like shaved ice; beside them stretches a prickly silver hedge of olearia, a New Zealand native that died back in last year’s icy winter but has regrown to four feet, covered with delicate daisy flowers.
One wall even sports a mini vertical garden that reminds of a painting; it houses succulents Weiss grows simply in a nursery flat and mists occasionally. In the far corner is Weiss’ greenhouse, an oasis of cacti, succulents and a Meyer lemon tree, perfect for cozy cool-weather reading.
Around the perimeter of the garden path stand eight fig trees (they often ripen, Weiss says), blueberries, an enormous Sir Cedric Morris rose covered with masses of white and yellow blooms, a red bottlebrush-flowered grevillea (another Aussie plant) and a silver weeping pear, inspired by Weiss’ visit to Sissinghurst Gardens in England. Beds of heat-loving perennials such as purple-speared catmint, giant alliums and Fireglow euphorbia line the inside of the perimeter path, bordering a neat square of lawn.
Up by the house, the Mediterranean feel grows with a flagstone patio, fig and olive trees flanking the door and bright red geraniums breaking up the silvery gray tones.
Spending time outside, even in cooler seasons, is one big bonus of such a heat-structured garden. “We love eating outdoors,” Weiss explains.
Low maintenance and low water needs are other bonuses. Weiss waters new plants for the first year, then leaves them alone. She keeps weeds down with newspaper under bark chips, even in the greenhouse, or with living mulches, such as the large-leafed tropical ivy under the fig trees. Even creating new plants is easy, with sedums so easy to propagate.
“I only spend about four hours a week on maintenance,” Weiss says calmly.
Which leaves her plenty of time this week to rake up gum leaves.
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568
IF YOU GO
Vashon Island Garden Tour
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Where: Five private gardens; ticket includes a map.
Tickets: $25 online or at Heron’s Nest Gallery, Vashon Allied Arts and other local businesses
MORE INFO: 206-463-5131, vashonalliedarts.org