the curvilinear Courtney garden, Banks, Oregon

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View from the driveway, level with the house, where paths lead down through the sloping property into the garden. The descending grades are easy to traverse. All surfaces are rock mulch. No lawn grass was retained. Other than mature trees, Mary’s gorgeous planting is incredibly just a few years old.
one of the earliest garden buildings on the property, at the driveway entrance, looking from the garden. One of Harlan’s sculptures on the right.
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area of the garden closest to the driveway entrance

Before starting a tour of the Courtney garden in Banks, Oregon, USDA zone 8b, it’s only fitting to first visit the “engine room,” the workshop of Harlan Courtney that fabricates the idiosyncratic hardscape of Mary and Harlan’s garden. The house and garden are situated on a hilltop of 5 acres in Banks, Oregon. The unpaved access road off the highway eventually leads to the driveway and front door of the house. The garden is on the sloped ground to the back of the house, a strolling garden accessed by carefully graded paths and terraces. Some of the flatter acreage is leased to a local farmer for grass crops, but the majority is under intense use by Harlan and Mary for their home, a new home addition in progress, the garden and workshop. Harlan has lived on the property since the ’80s, but most of the garden work was started around 2015. After marrying and moving in, Mary’s love of gardens jumpstarted the frenetic pace, which accelerated after 2020 into a “pandemic project.” Through the HPSO Open Gardens program, on the weekend of July 16 and 17, their unique collaboration of plants and hardscape was open to members to tour, entitled “Hilltop Artistic Gardens.”

The workshop is a goldmine of wondrous creations, like this mimicry of chains and levers sculpted from a single piece of wood
experiments with different media fill the workshop, whether it be chains of wood or bowls of copper, some meant to be reliquaries
When asked if he ever sold any of his work, Harlan responded that he did sell some through an Etsy shop, just enough to buy with the proceeds every tool imaginable to fulfill his metal-working, wood-working, and sculpting needs.
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An older part of the garden near the driveway entrance, serenely green

Touring other gardens, you may have noticed a lot of us are into repurposing materials and incorporating salvaged items in our gardens — my theories on why that is would take a much longer post, but suffice to say it’s definitely a recurring theme. Sometimes it’s a cost-saving impulse but not always — the bespoke can end up being just as pricey as an off-the-shelf solution. From the moment I parked the car and stepped into the Courtney garden, I recognized a kindred spirit at play, albeit an assured artist with incredible manual dexterity and exacting engineering standards: no rust, other than the evolved patina of Corten, no rough edges, and no hard angles.

The ground slopes steeply down from the back of the house. Incredibly, most of the digging and leveling was done by shovel, until a large tree made the work impossible. The purchase of a small Kubota tractor was revelatory, Harlan says, and is now one of his prized possessions, with a special shed of its own. Containers are made from culvert pipe and oil drums, always painted in a limited palette. Garden hose was cut to make smooth rims for the sharp edges of the culvert pipes. I asked about watering, and I think most of it is done through an automated system.
View from the upper deck off the house. A short length of path was made of mats puzzled into place on rock, incredibly comfy underfoot. Playground mat, I asked? Horse stall mat, Harlan answered. How’d you cut it, Harlan? It took him a while to find the right jigsaw blade to cut the heavy mats, but he made it work. Harlan calls it his “PacMan path.” When he asked me what shape the handrail referenced, I couldn’t say. Later at home I asked Marty the same question — he said a horse, of course! Some people just get it!
The “PacMan path” made of horse stall mats was designed in forced perspective — Harland doesn’t do anything by halves. Hand-made arbor of branches on the right leads to a seating area with open views of the valley
An upcoming article on the garden written by the Courtneys will be included in an upcoming HPSO quarterly.
This little stretch of path is a great example of how Harlan and Mary work together, the lime green set off to stunning effect against the black mats

Harlan says nature doesn’t do straight lines, and he’s not one to gainsay the natural order. So the Corten siding for the raised beds is bent into submissive curves, and the various iterations of gabions he designs are induced to curve as well. Mary dreams in color, in plants, Harlan dreams in curves devised from some surprisingly prosaic materials he loves to source, like the horse stall mats.

A kniphofia from the Popsicle series. Mary says she once saw a herd of 60 elk in the meadow, a large beast capable of considerable trampling damage. They never strayed from the meadow and left without incident. Surprisingly, damage from deer has not been much of a problem either — along with avoiding deer favorites like roses, could the raised bed design and hardscape also be scaring them off?

Unlike gardens planned on a grid, the linear flow of the layout defies whatever small ability I have to give a logical tour for readers, with an entrance and an exit, and I do apologize for that. A strolling garden designed in curves and circles creates a multiplicity of intoxicating views. And I was so intrigued by the unique use of materials that I often failed to grasp the overall layout. I’m hoping the photos at least convey how the sumptuous plantings play off the novel solutions to retaining and containing the plants. But to Harlan and Mary, there are very distinct spaces, seating areas to capture views or privacy, a cutting garden, a vegetable garden. It was only when Mary asked if I wanted a view from her upper deck off the back of the house that the pieces and interlocking areas fell into place.

Looking at part of Mary’s cutting garden from the deck off the house. The curvilinear Corten reminded me of a series of interlocking gears of some fantastical plant-driven machine. I’m guessing that Harlan, with a background in engineering as well as sculpture, would not be offended to be described as a “gearhead.”
There’s a kind of Burle-Marx vibe discernible when looking down at the ground patterns from the deck. A garden in the round? Harlan said very much so, with all the shifting perspectives and varying points of view that affords.
Mary says a friend had a lot of leftover cosmos seedlings to share this year for her cutting garden
Looking up at the deck with espaliered fruit tree from the vegetable garden, with a phalanx of a containerized retaining wall. I asked if the containers and raised beds were also a response to poor soil and was told no, not really. The clay soil drains freely on the hillside.
The Corten siding was not easy to source but was ultimately found at Western States Metal Roofing in Phoenix, Arizona, then shipped to a local welder who agreed to accept shipment. The Courtneys’ small pickup truck brought the panels up the 1/4 mile of rough road to the property in increments
side view of the layered tiers and terraces of containers, mainly growing vegetables
the tallest, roofed container is also a storage shed for Mary’s garden essentials
the deck from another angle, with foreground planting of Allium ‘Millenium’ and Acaena inermis ‘Purpurea’ — this area is one of the newest additions to the garden
the cutting garden adjacent to new plantings — some of the work was completed just a week before the tour
veronicastrum is one of the earliest additions to my new garden too
Gabion fence near driveway entrance. On a recent visit to Germany, Harlan was impressed with the widespread use of gabions, with their equivalent of the big box hardware store offering gabion baskets off the shelf. But for Harlan, the gabions have to be able to curve. Hog panel, I asked? Horse panel, Harlan responded — there are distinctive differences in aperture and strength to the various livestock panels. Internal metal fence posts support the pillars.
Were the gabions a solution to a surfeit of rock on the property? Nope, the rocks were all trucked in, sourced from Gales Creek if I remember correctly
Another style of gabion using metal bands for a planter with Beschorneria ‘Flamingo Glow’ — there were at least six style of gabion in the garden
Mimulus overflowing gabions alongside the driveway which use window-frame components. Lower right gabion is a shin-high style fabricated in the workshop for retaining low plantings.
near the house, a gabion steam-punk farm sink out of copper bands to wash vegetables
an area in progress with a new style of gabion, and a prototype experiment for a gabion staircase
outside the main garden, a hilltop view of the valley is carefully retained — the perfect place for scheming new plans for their ever evolving, curvilinear garden

Look out for an upcoming article in the HPSO quarterly by the Courtneys on their garden. These two are having so much fun with their garden, and they love sharing everything they’ve learned thus far.

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7 Responses to the curvilinear Courtney garden, Banks, Oregon

  1. Tracy says:

    Wow, a stunning, and interesting garden with great artistic flair.

  2. Kris P says:

    That garden’s a real find, Denise! I’m impressed by the amount of ingenuity – and sheer hard work – that’s gone into its creation. I appreciated the overhead view as it gave me a clearer understanding of the flow. I enjoyed the range of colors too, all of which had an upbeat vibe encompassed within a lush green envelope.

  3. Elaine says:

    What a gorgeous eclectic space. So many interesting niches and additions. Hard to believe it’s only 3 years old. Love the gabions with the glass brick inserts. Lightens their solidity. As usual your photographic skills bring the space to life.

  4. ks says:

    There is certainly nothing mundane about this garden ! I’m glad you were able to get the birds-eye view shot-it really helped with understanding the layout-it’s quite spectacular. What a gift to have that wealth of imagination and creativity.

  5. “Harlan doesn’t do anything by halves”… I’d say not! Wow, you picked a great open garden to visit. Thanks for your fab photos and sharing your conversations with Harlan.

    I would love to learn more about your theories on why “a lot of us are into repurposing materials and incorporating salvaged items in our gardens” I was just thinking about this yesterday.

  6. Denise says:

    @Tracy, so glad you enjoyed their garden!
    @Kris, the amount of projects going on and seeing what’s been accomplished, the garden just buzzes with energy.
    @Elaine, this garden was a huge boost for me. I still can’t fathom houses surrounded with unused land, even small lots. Maybe people are intimidated by shovel work? I really admire the Courtneys’ attitude towards their property, whether it be used for fields or garden, it’s all thoughtfully considered.
    @Kathy, I’m hoping to have a another look in fall…if they’ll let me!
    @Loree, isn’t that an intriguing subject! I wonder if anyone besides us is interested. I might develop some ideas and pull old photos together — your garden included of course!

  7. Pam/Digging says:

    Wow! I really love this garden’s creativity and Harlan’s talent in making the beautiful walls, steps, paths, and handrails. Even the rocks in the tall gabion wall are in colors that echo the painted hues of the culvert pipe planters — such an eye for detail. Thanks for sharing, Denise.

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