Clusters of magenta berries drip from a rust-red trellis. Five-fingered leaves, big as dinner plates, loom over a passionflower vine. And in between, swelling seed pods and spiky stalks hide bulbous ceramic shapes.
It’s a Tacoma front yard that artist Melissa Balch has sculpted from bare lawn into a riot of tropical blooms, foliage and living architecture.
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“To me, a garden is like a palette,” says Balch, whose ceramic art echoes the lush, organic shapes of seeds and fruit. “You’re creating an environment. It’s more important than creating a piece (of art). Because once you’ve made that, what do you do with it? This is alive, it keeps evolving.”
In fact, Balch’s North End jungle garden has spent 10 years evolving from lawn-and-rhodies to something straight out of Hawaii. A ceramicist, yoga teacher and massage therapist, Balch bought the 1927 Pueblo-style house with her husband in 2005. Painted lemon and sage, it had a standard Northwest landscape of grass, rhododendrons and camellias — plus a tall palm tree.
The first thing Balch did was repaint the house seashell pink. The second was to rip out the lawn and truck in some serious soil — Magic Dirt, which is bio-composted dairy farm waste.
Then she started planting. Using all the rooms in her house for her work, she wanted plants to frame the view from each window as well as offer some privacy. She installed a tall, rust-red fence that was mostly wide wire grid. It’s now covered with passionflower, akebia with long purple fruit and white-blossomed winter clematis. Bursting through the fence are the big lime leaves and virulent magenta berry clusters of Himalayan honeysuckle. Filling out the front yard year-round are nandina, with touches of red; the tight leaves of white-green and gold-green shrub honeysuckle; and purple-edged ribbon grass, with lush perennials such as gunnera, with its elephant-ear leaves, hardy banana and pink Joe-pye weed.
Towering over them are tree peonies some 8 feet high, the weeping blossoms and fringy leaves of an ornamental cannabis, the fingered leaves of tetrapanax, Chilean guava (it fruits, though, doesn’t ripen) and an astonishing tree dahlia that sprouts anew every summer with roof-high stalks 3 inches in diameter.
Sheltering underneath are burgundy-fringed heuchera, lady’s mantle holding glistening dewdrops, herbs such as mint and gotu kola, and painted ferns, all emerging from a thick carpet of succulents like serrated-toothed saxifrage.
But it’s the giant succulents that steal the show. Just below the front steps a mounding Beschorneria “Ding Dong” with big flat leaves shoots out spiky stalks bearing globular, lime-and-purple seed pods the size of golf balls. A pineapple lily showers out bursts of pink flowers on waist-high stalks from purple leaves.
As you walk around to the back of Balch’s house, though, you also start to spot sculptures, nestling into the foliage like highly unusual plants. A hollow tube perches on the end of a dead stalk. “I actually like it when they die, so I can put a pot on them,” says Balch. Two bronzy pots capped with rings emerge like giant fungi. A scalloped shell on the front porch holds water plants; a slumped face peers out from under the twisty red trunk and hummingbird-pink flowers of a manzanita.
The garden even smells tropical, thanks to the jasmine scent of a pink-flowered Clerodendron trichotomum.
And around the back several yellow ceramic squash-shapes seem to grow between the hostas and the honeysuckle hedge that completely hides the pocket lawn from the alley. Coral-edged succulents flow up out of turquoise and salmon pots, and another wry ceramic head lurks beneath the wisteria on the back porch. A Decaisnea fargesii (dead man’s fingers) sports bean-pods that turn electric blue — the exact hue of a large U-shaped Balch sculpture by the front steps.
I don’t plan too much. I just do (the garden) organically, like my ceramics.
It’s a fluid mingling of nature and art that perfectly expresses Balch’s artistic philosophy.
“To me, art is just living,” she says. “I don’t plan too much. I just do (the garden) organically, like my ceramics. I don’t see what it is going to be until it is.”
And now, 10years later, the view from every window in the house is of lush jungle.
“Wherever I sit and look, it’s green,” says the artist. “It’s very soothing.”
Want jungle plants that’ll survive in the Northwest? Try these species that thrive in Melissa Balch’s Tacoma garden. Most she obtained from Jungle Fever Exotics nursery in Tacoma or Heronswood nursery in Kingston.
(Note: Balch’s garden is mostly full to part sun.)
- Akebia vine
- Lonicera (honeysuckle, shrubs and vines)
- Mondo grass
- Hakonechloa macra (Japanese ribbon grass)
- Beschorneria ‘Ding Dong’ (false red agave)
- Agave Americana
- Saxifraga geum dentata
- Leycesteria formosa (Himalayan honeysuckle, can keep leaves if winter is mild)
- Tetrapanax papyrifer (rice paper tree)
- Rosa glauca
- Decaisnea fargesii (dead man’s fingers)
- Clerodendrum trichotomum (peanut butter tree)
- Chillean guava
- Tree peony
- Tree dahlia
- Passionflower vine
- Campsis radicans (trumpet vine)
- Eutrochium (Joe-pye weed)
- Eucomis (pineapple lily)
- Orange ginger
- Hardy fuschia
- Musa basjoo (hardy banana)
- Abutilon hybridum (Chinese bellflower)