Woodland Wonders

Credit: Carolyn Jones

The following plants are hardy to the zone number indicated:

Acer palmatum ‘Villa Taranto’ – zone 6 • Asarum europaeum (European wild ginger) – zone 4 • Athyrium otophorum – zone 4 • Bergenia ciliata (fringed bergenia) – zone 7 • Blechnum spicant (deer fern) – zone 5 • Cryptomeria japonica ‘Nanhiski-sugi’ (dwarf Japanese cedar) – zone 7 • Disanthus cercidifolius (redbud hazel) – zone 5 • Disporum cantoniense ‘Aureovariegata’ (variegated fairybells) – zone 4 • Epimedium grandiflorum ‘Red Queen’ – zone 5 • Epimedium x perralchicum (barrenwort) – zone 5 • Fagus sylvatica Atropurpurea Group (copper beech) – zone 4 • Gaultheria shallon (salal) – zone 6 • Helleborus foetidus (stinking hellebore) – zone 6 • Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Pee Wee’ (oakleaf hydrangea) – zone 5 • Hydrangea serrata ‘Blue Deckle’ (mountain hydrangea) – zone 6 • Mahonia aquifolium (tall Oregon grape) – zone 6 • Mahonia nervosa (dull Oregon grape) – zone 6 • Osmunda claytoniana (interrupted fern) – zone 4 • Oxalis oregana ‘Wintergreen’ (redwood sorrel) – zone 7 • Podocarpus nivalis – zone 7 • Primula sieboldii – zone 3 • Pseudotsuga menziesiii (Douglas fir) – zone 5 • Rhododendron campanulatum ssp. aeruginosum – zone 5 • Rhododendron quinquefolium (fiveleaf azalea) – zone 6 • Saxifraga ‘Maroon Beauty’ – zone 6 • Smilacina racemosa (false Solomon’s seal) – zone 4 • Thuja plicata (western red cedar) – zone 5 • Tiarella cordifolia (foamflower) – zone 3 • Trientalis latifolia (broadleaf starflower) – zone 5 • Trillium decipiens (Chattahoochee River wakerobin) (This is best in zones 8 and 9 in a protected place. Although the rhizomes are hardy to zone 6, the leaves emerge so early that they may be damaged by frosts. After a few years the plant will weaken and die.) • Tsuga heterophylla (western hemlock) – zone 6 • Ulmus parvifolia ‘Yatsubusa’ – zone 5 • Vaccinium ovatum (evergreen huckleberry) – zone 7 • Vaccinium parvifolium (red huckleberry) – zone 5 • Viburnum opulus ‘Nanum’ (dwarf Guelder rose) – zone 4 • Waldsteinia fragarioides (barren strawberry) – zone 5

Elisabeth Carey Miller Botanical Garden in Seattle is a splendid example of a West Coast woodland garden and offers us some answers.

Most notable in the natural landscape are towering conifers, predominantly Douglas fir, western hemlock and western red cedar. They aren’t easy trees to garden under! But when the Millers bought their five-acre property in 1948 and Mrs. Miller started to garden around their new home shortly thereafter, she made her mind up to restore the native plants. The lawn and formal rose garden that she inherited were removed and in went the conifers that dominate the woodland garden today, decades later.

In 1984 she wrote, “At the time of building our home, I had no particular interest in gardening and was admittedly unaware of daffodil or dandelion. Then, having majored in art, I began to see the texture, form and colour of plant foliage, bark and flowers. That settled it. Everywhere I looked I saw a composition.” Like the evolution of VanDusen Botanical Garden under Roy Forster’s painterly eye, the Miller Garden was composed of scenes filled with plants. The dreamy woods look like a fairyland in spring and a glistening, stained-glass window in autumn.

To create planting pockets on her steeply sloping site, she hauled in tons of rock and driftwood. “This material has been sited so deeply in the ground that no one is the wiser, except for the plants, which enjoy their cool root runs, friable soil and water retention on the upper sides of log or rock. The garden is informal in character and is only viewed by wandering through on paths which have been deliberately designed to arouse one’s interest in what might be around the next bend.” This ultra-informal motif is underscored, in many parts of the garden, by the use of cedar rounds covered with black fish-net.

Mrs. Miller was an avid plant collector, ordering from nurseries around the world. Old records indicate purchases from B.C. nurseries no longer in existence: Ed Lohbrunner and Layritz Nursery in Victoria; Alpenglow Gardens in Surrey; and Royston Nursery on Vancouver Island.

To tie this extensive collection together, she used “weavers,” plants that are themselves low key but create cohesion and movement through the landscape. These are primarily native plants: evergreen huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum), red huckleberry (V. parvifolium), salal (Gaultheria shallon) and Oregon grape (Mahonia). Mrs. Miller took pleasure in creating habitat for wildlife, decades before it was a popular practice. So these berried shrubs have a functional role as well as an aesthetic one. Other workhorses include barren strawberry (Waldsteinia fragarioides) and barrenwort (Epimedium x perralchicum), which form large swaths of weed-free garden.

Within this framework were tucked treasures, local and exotic, but always with attention to theme and composition. Our western wakerobin (Trillium ovatum) anchors a collection of exotic wakerobins, including T. decipiens.

In addition to her private life, with its emphasis on her garden, Elisabeth Miller was extraordinarily active and philanthropic in the Seattle horticultural community and beyond. She spearheaded such public projects as Freeway Park, the Seattle Chinese Garden and the plantings along the Hiram Chittenden Locks. The Millers founded, and funded, the Miller Library at UW’s Center for Urban Horticulture. A truckload of her favourite groundcovers even found a home in Vancouver’s Stanley Park, a gift to gardener Alleyne Cook in exchange for young rhododendron plants.

Thanks to well-planned endowments, Mrs. Miller’s legacy endures. Her garden is in good hands, continues to evolve and serves as a laboratory for horticultural study; her generosity to many horticultural non-profits continues to benefit a wider gardening community.

Because the Miller Garden is located in a quiet residential community, it is only open to 500 visitors yearly, by appointment only. Tours are available between March 15 and November 15, at 10 a.m. or 1 p.m., on Wednesdays or Thursdays. Reservations are accepted by phone (206-362-8612) or email beginning on February 1. The reservations are filled within a day or two. If you miss this reservation period, try later in the year, as spaces open up due to cancellations. For details, visit the website.

With more than 30 years experience in horticulture in B.C.—in wholesale, retail and at VanDusen Botanical Garden for a decade—Carolyn Jones brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to GardenWise and www.gardenwiseonline.ca as staff horticulturist.