After living their entire lives in Alabama, and with a little encouragement from some friends, Phillip Oliver and his husband made their dreams a reality by retiring and relocating to the Pacific Northwest. They found the perfect property in Vancouver, Washington, with a landscape that was a blank slate, empty and ready for the many beds and borders Phillip was eager to fill the space with. While some might think building a brand-new garden in a new climate would be a long and arduous task, Phillip transformed his new landscape quickly. “The previous owner had maintained a flawless lawn,” he says, “and he would probably be disgruntled to find that we’ve removed about 95% of it.”
Garden at a glance
Size: ¼ acre Location: Vancouver, Washington Zone: 8b
Conditions: Mostly sun with some areas of shade; part clay, part sandy soil enriched with organic matter
Age of the garden: 6 years
Another factor that contributed to the easy transition was the excellent soil. “We recently learned that the woman who lived here in the 1950s used to haul wheelbarrows of humus from a pasture area up the street,” he explains. “I know from talking with other gardeners in the area that the soils here are generally hard clay, but the ground is easy to dig into in our garden, and I never hit any rocks.”
Now that he’s gardening in his dream climate and working with a site primed and prepped for gardening excellence, one of the few challenges Phillip faces is finding space for all the plants he would like to grow. While he continues to grow many of the plants he enjoyed in Alabama, his planting possibilities have expanded greatly because he’s now able to incorporate rhododendron (Rhododendron spp. and cvs., Zones 5–9), fuchsia (Fuchsia spp. and cvs., Zones 6–9), New Zealand flax (Phormium spp. and cvs., Zones 8b–11), and other plants that wouldn’t survive for him in the South. Phillip also has a long list of favorite plants that he enjoys collecting, many of which can have a large footprint, such as heirloom roses (Rosa spp. and cvs., Zones 3–9), camellia (Camellia spp. and cvs., Zones 7–10), and various other trees and conifers. If all of these choices and planting possibilities weren’t hard enough, this accomplished gardener took a part-time job at a local garden center. He’s a kid in a candy store with temptation right under his nose every day he’s there.
From his many years of gardening and his experience adjusting to a new climate, Phillip has learned a lot about plants and landscape design. There is just one thing he hasn’t mastered: restraint. He says, “I just don’t know when to stop, and my desire for plants finds me cramming more and more into tight spaces. And I’m sure my fondness for trees is going to leave us with more and more shade as time goes on.”
Kaitlyn Hayes is the digital content manager for Fine Gardening.
Photos: courtesy of Phillip Oliver
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- Turning a Large Property into a Multifaceted Garden
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