Fall into color

Two South Hill gardens open for tours

craig.sailor@thenewstribune.comOctober 23, 2013 

When the days get short in October, the trees and shrubs in Julia and Ernie Graham’s garden don’t go quietly into the night.

“I love the fall and I deliberately plan and plant for that,” Julia Graham says as she walks the paths on her one-acre hillside garden in Puyallup. Her husband, Ernie, is in charge of the fruit and vegetable garden.

Like a fireworks show finale or a song’s crescendo, the Graham garden reaches its peak before quieting down for winter. On Saturday, the Grahams, along with another nearby South Hill family, are inviting the leaf-peeping public to tour their gardens as a fundraiser for the nonprofit Chase Garden in Orting.

The Grahams bought the property in 1988 when it was little more than mowed weeds, blackberry vines and junipers. Today, it’s a veritable arboretum of mostly Asian and native plants.

Arching around one corner of the home is a long arbor covered with Vitis coignetiae, the crimson glory vine. The vigorous climber, which has leapt onto the home’s roof, lives up to its colorful name in fall.

A golden catalpa tree (Catalpa bignonioides “Aurea”), with its dinner plate-sized leaves, grows next to the Grahams’ pool. The chartreuse spring growth greens up in summer but turns lemony yellow in fall. Also on its way to a yellow transformation is a grouping of Little Honey dwarf oakleaf hydrangeas contrasted with black mondo grass.

The hydrangeas are growing in the newest part of the garden – a renovation born of necessity after the 2012 ice storm destroyed a stand of native vine maples, themselves a dependable riot of color in the forests and gardens of the Pacific Northwest.

Vine maples are distant North American cousins of the Japanese maple and the Grahams have no shortage of those. Acer japonicum “Green Cascade” has finely dissected leaves that become a palette of color in the fall: gold, purple, red, orange and yellow.

Another small tree or large shrub that displays a variety of simultaneous colors is Disanthus cercidifolius, the redbud hazel. Yellow, purple and red leaves can appear on the same branch.

Some maples turn solid colors. Acer palmatum “Shishigashira,” the lion’s mane maple, dependably turns a dark orange in the Graham garden.

But Julia Graham’s favorite tree in her garden is the 20-foot-tall Acer palmatum dissectum “Seiryu.” Its finely cut foliage turns, as she describes it, neon orange with hints of apricot.

“It literally makes everything pale by comparison,” Julia Graham says.

Other colorful maples in the garden include Acer japonicum “Aconitifolium” maiku jaku and Acer palmatum “Katsura.”

But maples aren’t her only dependable source of color.

Cotinus, the smoketree, is a deep mauve in the summer but turns fire engine red in fall. Its name comes from masses of puffy spring blossoms that look like clouds of smoke from a distance.

Ernie Graham’s food garden is not without its own color display. He has a small grove of blueberry bushes that look like exploding red piñatas in fall. A nearby row of espaliered apple trees are hung with red fruit.

Back in the ornamental section of the garden, fall color doesn’t just arrive on the backs of leaves. Beautyberry bushes (Callicarpa) are hung with almost unreal-looking metallic purple berries. A nearby path is flanked by beds of Sedum “Autumn Joy,” which produces large flat crimson flower heads above fleshy green leaves. The heads dry to a dark brown and last through winter.

One tree in the Graham garden, the paperbark maple (Acer griseum), does double duty with color. It’s trident shaped leaves turn brilliant red in fall while its peeling russet colored bark glows in the sunlight — a year-round feature of the tree.

Julia Graham uses a balanced 5-5-5 fertilizer in her garden and amends the soil with Cedar Grove compost when she plants. Though her garden gives off a mature and polished look, she is far from done with it – and never will be.

“I’m always learning. I garden by serendipity. Some things I plan don’t turn out and some things I do on the spur of the moment do,” she says.

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

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