by Nita Hill

Leaving Portland was a decision not made lightly. We had lived in our last house there for six years and I had just “finished” the garden the year before. We were comfortable but restless. Portland had changed over the thirteen years we lived there and not for the better. Perhaps better to attract people from California and New York but it had gone from a working-class town to an aspiring wealthy city and the rise in real estate prices and increase in homelessness reflected that intent. So, I find myself in Spokane, Washington, in an undistinguished ranch house with a large and unkempt garden.
The first gardening rule I broke was waiting a year to see what was in the garden. We moved the tenth of November. Even weeks before, when we put in the contract, the garden beds were dormant and grassy. While we were still in the throes of unpacking, a “sale” email came from my wholesale bulb company. With a sixty-dollar minimum, I was able to get a large box of bulbs. The front bed is austere. We live on one of those streets where the houses are “neat” as my mother would have said. Maybe a single tree practically placed so as not to block the broad ranch window, shrubs and annuals tucked next to the house and swaths of grass from the bed to the sidewalk. The back of this house was anything but neat. It had already frosted, so in contrast to the intended orderliness of the front, the back had become piles of brown peony, day lily, and lupin foliage. The rudbeckia and coneflowers were standing and on a sunny day I raked leaves (more on that later) and cut back perennials making an inventory as I waited for my bulbs.

The bulbs arrived on black Friday and Saturday morning I was researching planting depths and spacing while drinking coffee. Then came my second rule broken or first mistake. I bought Brodiaea which is hardy in zone 7b. I now live in 5b. You would think I would have thought about it but there is almost nothing you can’t plant in Portland. Hum.

Starting with the front, between the sorry-looking Rhodies I put Allium Nigrum, counterintuitively white at 24” and, in front, some little oxalis. It would have taken 30 minutes tops except under a lovely three inch layer of mulch was landscape cloth. No wonder the bed was so neat. That required scissors and a knife. A couple of hours later and after lunch when the sun would have moved I could plant in the back.

That takes me back a week or so ago when I made, as I now realize, my first mistake. While I was cutting back I also tried to remove some of the invasive grass. I was using a hori hori and got a bit impatient and went for the shovel. I walked over to the patio which in this case is covered and the size of a national park pavilion. I said to myself, “you must remember that there is a sprinkler system.” In the time it took me to cross the garden I placed the shovel and popped up a sprinkler head on the first thrust. That can wait until spring.


I started with the bed that is between the house and a sidewalk. At three-feet wide there was peony, daylily, peony, daylily neatly placed like children playing “duck duck goose.” The ground was shrouded again with landscape cloth. And while we’re on the subject of ground: someone thoughtfully deposited about a foot of sand in the beds. I like sand. The texture of this soil seems to be that dark sticky kind of clay. The cure for that being sand and very coarse organic matter. (I could write forever about all the soil I have had to work with. The worst however was the beige caulk in Nashville.)

In the cut holes, I put the rest of the alliums between the peonies and daylilies and in front corydalis. The bed will cook in summer and those might have to be moved. The other bed almost uniformly three-feet wide, goes around the periphery of the rest of the garden. It is edged in large river rocks. The rest of the afternoon I found the places it was easiest to remove the grass growing between them and into the beds and placed rock garden iris. I filled some empty pots with soil from a bed I plan to move in order to build a garden shed and packed them with the Brodiaea and stuck them in the garage hoping they won’t perish. Then I washed and mended my gloves and called it a day.