A garden beyond the looking glass

With Mount Rainier looming, Orting’s Chase Garden has an ethereal feel

craig.sailor@thenewstribune.comMay 15, 2013 

On a ridge above the Puyallup River Valley, the world seems to have flipped upside down. Or maybe it’s just returned to normal.

Fifteen minutes from the big-box stores of Meridian Avenue, the Chase Garden offers up scenic vistas, colorful alpine plants and shady forests that provide an alternative to the asphalt oceans of nearby South Hill.

The once private retreat of Emmott and Ione Chase, the Orting garden now is in the hands of The Garden Conservancy, a national organization dedicated to the preservation of America’s foremost gardens.

Heralded as one of America’s finest formerly private gardens, Chase is open to the public three days a week April through October. Emmott Chase transferred the garden deed to the Conservancy in 2010 just before his death at age 99. Ione died in 2006 at age 97.

Part naturalistic landscape, part manipulated terrain, the 41/2-acre Chase Garden has the feel of a Hollywood soundstage where a Technicolor film is about to be made. The almost larger-than-life backdrop of Mount Rainier leaves out-of-state garden writers in apoplexy as they realize they’re not in Kansas anymore.

The garden has a continuity about it as it moves from meadow to forest. It’s devoid of over-the-top features that punctuate so many other public gardens. It blends the natural landscape and flora of the Pacific Northwest with a Japanese-inspired design and the beloved alpine meadows of Mount Rainier in which the Chases hiked.

The entrance garden built around the couple’s home combines reflecting pools with rocks the Chases collected nearby. Low-growing wintergreen (Gaultheria) gives off a distinctive Wrigley’s-like aroma. A mountain hemlock that Emmott Chase collected when he worked for the Puget Sound Power and Light Company maintains its dwarf size.

On the other side of the house, a lawn gives way to drifts of heather. The landscape drops off into thin air, only to roll up again on the slopes of Mount Rainier, a mere 15 miles away.

The area surrounding the house is a rolling landscape of plants that either are alpine or mimic their low-growing habit: lithodora, phlox, ajuga. Deep blue gentian flowers turn to the sky.

The garden’s age reveals itself in subtle ways. A trio of towering noble firs are what’s left of a Christmas tree farm Emmott Chase planted a half century ago. A climbing hydrangea reaches 50 feet up a hemlock.

Though a variety of trees and shrubs make fall a colorful time to visit the garden, it’s at its peak now, horticulturist and head gardener Jeannette Matthews said as the sweet aroma of Daphne filled the air last week.

“It’s great when there’s a hot breeze and it carries the fragrance through the garden,” Matthews said.

A forested area provides shade for a who’s who of native plants: vanilla leaf, trillium, false Solomon’s seal, Vancouveria, bleeding heart. Nurse logs melt into the forest floor under blankets of moss. Small clusters of rattlesnake plantain, a native Northwest orchid, appear here and there.

Natives were a favorite of Ione, who designed the garden. (Emmott provided the manual labor.)

“If she found a native to do what she wanted, she would use that,” Matthews said. “But she wasn’t a purist.”

On the edge of the forested area is a naturalistic planting of bear grass, a Northwest native. Nondescript clumps of grass most of the year, they now are sending up long stalks that explode with sculptural clusters of creamy white flowers.

The natives seems to ebb and flow in the forest with one occasionally crowding out others over time, Matthews said.

“We’ve learned a lesson: Don’t name a garden bed after a plant,” she said.

The garden is managed by the Friends of the Chase Garden, a volunteer group that preserves the Chases’ vision. But one change the group is making is to add more summer color. The Chases spent August and September at their British Columbia cabin and did not design their garden with much showy interest in the summer’s high months.

But visitors expect to see color, Matthews said, so the garden has been adding more summer-blooming perennials when space opens up.

Matthews has volunteered or worked at the garden since 1998. She got to know the Chases and their wishes.

“We tried to stay pretty true to Ione’s philosophy,” she said. IF YOU GO

Chase Garden

When: 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Friday-Sunday through October. Tours are self-guided, but reservations for guided tours can be made.

Where: 16015 264th St. E., Orting.

Admission: $5.

Information: 360-893-6739, chasegarden.org.

Upcoming events

June 14-16: Father’s Day Weekend. Free admission for fathers.

June 23: Garden Conservancy Open Day (includes three other local private gardens): $5 per garden

Sept. 28-29: Fall plant sale. Free admission.

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541 craig.sailor@thenewstribune.com

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