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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.