In John and Karin Morris’ garden, you can’t hear traffic, or even neighbors. Instead, you hear birds chattering in tall trees, frogs burping from the stream — and if you listen hard, the echo of balls thwacking and laughter from long-gone tournaments on the pickleball court. For the retired couple and their family, their Tacoma garden represents peace and happy memories — exactly like the tranquil, flowing English gardens it so resembles.
“We got here 33 years ago and it was nothing but one acre of 6-foot-high blackberries,” Karin Morris said. “And ivy.”
That’s a problem a lot of South Sounders can relate to. But not everyone confronted with a brambly mess will turn it into a multiroomed retreat with perennial beds inspired by a Dorchester cottage garden. Yet that’s exactly what the Morrises have done, bit by bit — and the result is something their children still dream about in far-off cities.
“When I arrived at home (from college) I’d go out on the balcony and look at the garden,” the Morrises’ son, David, now living in Washington, D.C., remembers. “With that view before my eyes, I was overcome by what the Germans call ‘sehnsucht,’ a longing for a place and time long since out of reach.”
What David describes is palpable to any visitor to the garden. From a shrub-filled front yard, a gravel walk cascades around a Himrod grapevine underplanted with strawberries to the first level of lawn. Beneath the back patio, framed with a trailing clematis vine, are curvy banks of pink heather, primroses, mauve asters, wandering sweet peas, purple statice and floppy green bergenia, tightly planted. Maple, apple, plum and pear trees are equally thickly underplanted with shade-loving hostas and a variegated vinca-like groundcover. Even the lawn is threaded through with clover and creeping jenny, giving a pleasantly ruffled look.
“I was inspired by the closely planted perennial beds I saw when we visited Thomas Hardy’s garden in (Dorchester,) England,” explains Karin. “I liked that you didn’t have to worry about the weeds.”
Epitomizing the classic fluidity and informality of the English garden style, the beds curve asymmetrically around the top lawn before descending down a short flight of steps to the second level — a pickleball court, flanked by wrought-iron benches, framed in railroad ties and hedged with rhododendron, box and blue hydrangea. As you look down the slope toward the Narrows, you glimpse the half-timbered Tudor-style house on the next property, and it’s easy to imagine yourself on a tranquil green English country estate.
Beyond a gnarled fence of espaliered apples and pears, glowing red in the afternoon sun, lies the lowest “room,” a vegetable garden now mostly raspberries thanks to the herd of marauding deer that regularly sweeps through the garden like salad bar patrons. The ever-present blackberries are here cut back into a wild hedgerow, forming a natural border.
But that’s just the landscaped part of the garden. On the north side, paths wind across a rippling stream (a natural part of the highly saturated property, says Karin) and into a little forest of salal, salmonberry and rhododendrons. Tall cedars — the only trees on the property when the Morrises bought it — hide the road completely. Canna lilies rim the stream, ivy is pruned back into a low hedging. Every spring the forest explodes with daffodils, Karin says, and a cherry tree in a tiny glade bursts into ephemeral blossom.
“It just sort of evolved because of the terrain,” said Karin, 76, who still works with John, now 80, several hours every day in the garden. The couple also designed and built the house that sits atop the sloping garden paradise. “We did everything ourselves. I wanted a natural look, with separate garden rooms.”
As with many English gardens, the natural, untamed look (many of the plants have sown themselves, Karin says) is balanced by structure in wood or stone-type materials — the railroad ties, a cement frog squatting on a bird bowl, scattered pots, a metal watering can hidden in the ivy.
But amid the purple-pink profusion of perennial color, one major English element is missing — roses.
“I’ve given up roses because of the deer,” Karin sighed. “They just come right through and eat everything. I even have to net the cherry blossom.”
A garden like this might look casually informal, but it’s actually a lot of work, the Morrises say.
“It’s a jungle in the spring,” Karin explained. “We slosh around in rubber boots, like farmers. That’s the time we think of moving.”
“It’s an awful lot of work, but we enjoy it such a lot,” John said. “It keeps us healthy.”
“It keeps us going,” Karin added.
The couple has no plans to add anything to the garden, other than Karin’s small project to spread the cannas the length of the stream. And it’s been a while since the last pickleball tournament — they don’t want to risk falling. For now, it’s enough to look, and remember.
“Some say a garden should be an outdoor room … an extension of the living space it adorns,” David Morris sayid. “My parents’ garden also has this function in the mind: It is an extension of memory, identity and family, inseparable from the people who created it, grew up with it and remembered it.”
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568