a visit to the Vetter garden

I’ve been religiously checking the Hardy Plant Society of Oregon’s Open Gardens schedule to see what lines up with my own schedule for the approximate 2-hour drive from the coast over the Cascades to Portland. And there were a couple other factors besides scheduling to consider too: Discerning from the descriptions which gardens would have the most to say to a complete neophyte PNW gardener like me, and not too rainy of a day, please. The weekend before last, everything aligned for go.

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along the driveway, which has been commandeered for more gardenable space, pots front in-ground plantings

I count it as very good luck that it was Mr. Thomas Vetter’s 20-plus-year-old garden that was my first HPSO Open Gardens experience. Deeply plant-focused, it’s just the primer I needed to better understand plants that thrive here and ways to combine them. Mr. Vetter studied landscape design but ended up working outside his field — that knowledge and bottled-up enthusiasm permeates his remarkable garden. It’s that rare garden that manages to articulate both profusion and expert control, in studied, calibrated layers you have to crane your neck up from ground to sky to follow.

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The front door to the house just visible beyond the border flanking the street, with grasses, spirea and berberis

The house is screened from the street by a deep border masterfully built up with shrubs and trees, deciduous and evergreen, as well as climbers and herbaceous plants. And the property is not particularly deep but long and narrow, so this allocation of space might at first seem idiosyncratic — it halves the planting space around the house and eliminates the traditional short walk from the street directly to the front door, requiring one to enter the property via the driveway and walk along a path to the front door. Yet it is the exploitation of the planting opportunities afforded by this privacy screen and paths that makes this garden so enthralling.

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every plant visible and balanced in proportionate layers is Vetter’s signature style. Here maples, evergreen Lonicera nitida and sedums build up to the borrowed views from neighborhood evergreens.
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The red obelisk in the previous street-side photo seen from the house-side, with fatsia, podophyllum, maples, spirea, Impatiens omeiana. Certain plants like the deciduous golden spirea are repeated over and over, I’m guessing partly due to its climate suitability, early spring presence and long season of interest.
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The dense, intricately planted privacy border along the street — yes, it was raining!

Mr. Vetter has been opening his garden for decades — why had I not heard of it before? Turns out it has been covered by blogs like Danger Garden and Dirt Therapy, and featured in Fine Gardening. From the viewpoint of someone managing a dry, frost-free zone 10 garden, I imagine articles on this garden were mostly incomprehensible to me. A garden like this can only be understood when you’re ready. Now, having spent a few months in the PNW, I at least have a slightly better grasp of the regional issues involved, the challenges and opportunities. The challenges this year included a very late and cold, rainy spring.

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Thomas says Solanum ‘Glasnevin’ has been struggling to find its footing to bloom this cool spring
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street-side border, deciduous berberis and Tiger Eye Sumac with a golden conifer lower left
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still street-side, with spirea, phlomis, conifer
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streetside, spirea again, euphorbia, persicaria
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leaving the streetside planting and turning up the driveway. Neighbor’s blooming dogwood in the distance
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Despite the lush planting, the driveway still manages to function as a driveway and utility space. Note the pots of lilies getting ready to bloom
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view of ceanothus in bloom in the border along the driveway, which screens the neighboring property
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Yucca rostrata and hypertufa containers on the driveway
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The driveway appears to get the most sun
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The path from the driveway leading to the front door
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so many plants to admire slows your progress along the paths — fortunately, I was the only guest in the garden when I visited
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at the front door
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looking from roughly the front door area back toward the driveway. White-flowered tree is a styrax, I believe
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from the driveway, pathways meander around the house, under two arbors, ultimately leading to a small grassy area
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looking back at the same arbor
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Tracing the canopy skyward. Relatively narrow conifers planted densely to me are a hallmark of one kind of PNW style
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Along the paths — I’m told that dark-leaved liigularia is impossible to grow without some kind of slug control
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Remarkably, there is no visible ground after a very late, cold spring — with snow in early April! Quite a sight after staring at mulch with tiny green nubbins in my new garden all winter and spring
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golden comfrey
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Hardscape paths around the house lead to this area, which Thomas said is a favorite of photographers

I took an embarrassing number of photos, so it’s best I end this visit with a manageable amount of the basic layout. The Vetter garden will possibly be open at various days throughout the summer, so become a member and check the HPSO schedule here. It’s an incredible resource that fosters the education of gardeners at all skill levels.

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5 Responses to a visit to the Vetter garden

  1. Kris P says:

    SO beautiful! I’m glad the stars aligned for your visit. Independent of the difference in what one can grow in that climate versus zone 10b/11a, the Vetter garden does an excellent job of emphasizing the value of shrubs of varied color, texture and height. Did you go home and make up a plant list for yourself?

  2. Elaine says:

    What a gorgeous garden. Everything looks so lush. We are having a cool and wet Spring too but everything is just sulking. No fair! Lots of gold used in this garden. Particularly love the spirea with the barberry. The dark foliage tones down the gold but the pink blooms brighten the dark foliage. Wonderful placement.

  3. Gerhard Bock says:

    This is the kind of garden that makes me think that I’d be happy gardening in the PNW if life ever took me there. Thank you for capturing it so masterfully.

  4. Oh! You picked a good one to start with. It’s been a few years since I’ve visited, thanks for the look.

  5. hb says:

    Missed this post; how glorious! Thanks for the great photos of masterful design and superb plant care and maintenance.

    Rain, oh rain…

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