What do you do if a big ice storm takes out your maple, native cherry, white fir and apple trees? You completely replant with a bed of tropical-hued bananas, dracenas and grasses, and mulch like crazy. That’s what Monte Powell has been doing for the last 30 days at PowellsWood, the 3-acre public garden that he and his wife, Diane, created almost 20 years ago in Federal Way on a former dumping ground. And the spectacular results of the garden’s recent makeover will be on show throughout the summer starting June 22.
“All the big trees that surrounded the back of the house collapsed,” says Powell, referring to the bad ice storm in winter 2012. “It was just open space from the house down there to the far hedge.”
A lot of gardens lost trees and shrubs in that storm, but when you have a large public display garden, the cleanup can take a lot longer. Powell and his team of gardeners and designers patched up in time for last summer’s season, but it was just “a Band-Aid effect,” says the property developer. This year, half of the entire garden needed a complete redo — and most of it has gone in just over the last month, instead of the annual Mother’s Day event. The new emphasis? Warmer-climate plants, four-season color and fewer annuals.
The final effect is as Powell intended from the beginning: a colorful, textural oasis with different garden “rooms” offering horticultural inspiration on sustainable gardening in different conditions.
But it has taken a long time, and the ice storm was only part of the challenge at PowellsWood. When the Powells bought the property in 1993 — a total of 40 acres stretching down the Cold Creek watershed — it had been kept a greenbelt in the middle of city development by the sheer fact that it once had a spring. The local water authority had pumped that water up and down to houses in the area, and salmon still ran there. But local pumping eventually sank the aquifer. The spring ran dry, and the property was sold. By the time the Powells came along, the resident had been using it for years to dump heavy trash: curbs, concrete slabs, old cars, construction dirt, scrap metal.
“It was really bad near the house,” Powell remembers. “There was nothing (growing). It would not even support weeds.”
A water department naturalist who had grown up climbing the trees in his North End Tacoma neighborhood and who eventually moved next door to the greenbelt, Powell wanted to restore the land. He got an offer from King County Solid Waste to try several types of new mulch and simply laid down thick strips of the composted matter, 8 feet wide, across what are now the gardens surrounding the house.
“It was a godsend,” Powell remembers. “Not all mulches are equal, but they all ended up good.”
Helped by his construction employees (Powell heads up his building company Powell Homes), he also planted green manure such as winter wheat directly into the mulch, then tilled it back in to improve the soil. He planted hedges of Portuguese laurel by the drive, yew by the courtyard and leylandii cypress on the far edge of the stream valley, which grew quickly to its current 12 feet. He planted Japanese cherries and European hornbeams. He salvaged rhododendrons and other shrubs from his building sites and reused old timber to construct arbors, benches and a viewing platform.
But he was too busy with his day job to do much more, so he called in his brother Craig and fellow landscape designer Ned Gulbran to lay out perennial beds. PowellsWood began to take shape.
Seventeen years planting, the public garden is a richly textured, colored and scented paradise. Beginning at the driveway, visitors walk through various outdoor “rooms,” each planted differently according to sun and terrain. The circular entry garden holds mondo grass and bright orange heuchera in the center, bigger grasses on the side.
Off to the left is the house garden, a wide bed curving around a courtyard just outside the tearoom where you can rest with tea and scones. (It’s also the site of the former spring.) This is one of the areas decimated by the storm, and new designer Rick Serazin has gone for a lime-red-chocolate tropical look, with tall hardy bananas, pink cordylines, spiky dracena, leafy lime-green box, salvias, red-tinged grasses and feathery parsley and alyssum in front.
“Things are a bit warmer these days,” Powell explains. “I noticed I could grow plants more tolerant of higher temperatures. I’m also trying to move away from annuals, to reduce labor and environmental costs, and get longer-lasting color through the seasons.”
For Serazin, the goal was variety. “It’s a fun, out-there, splashy garden, like what people request for around their swimming pools,” he says.
To the right, stone steps lead down from the entry garden past the split stump of a maple (the biggest ice storm victim) down to a gurgling stream, rain-fed but also pumped up from a lower pool. Sedges filter and clean the water as it runs over rocks, and the hum of traffic on Dash Point Road is muted behind huge rhododendrons.
Down in the valley the air is slightly warmer, from cooler breezes in summer and warmer ones in winter channeled up the creek from Puget Sound. This area also was completely redone last month, with many unusual varieties and species added. There are five kinds of mayapple or podophyllum, with large, glossy leaves. There are new types of Cape fuchsia, with tubular coral or hot-pink blossoms that hummingbirds love. There’s the umbrella-like schefflera, giant gunnera and enormous ferns looking prehistoric on the slope, delicate pink primroses and a fermiana simplex (Chinese parasol tree) that has shot up as high as the hedge, looking like something out of Dr. Seuss.
There’s even a floating island in the pool, just 3 feet in diameter among the lilies, which the local ducks like to visit.
The valley leads into the edge of a forest that stretches down the 40-acre property to where the Powells themselves live. Here the beds are shaded under Douglas firs, and Powell likes to show visitors just what they can do with their own small patch of dry shade at home: hydrangeas, ferns, white-flowering epimedium, hostas, hellebores, green mondo grass and a whole lot of vancouveria, a barberry relative with small, round, pale green leaves. Powell has left open space for big groups to congregate and built a viewing platform that overlooks the forest — logged last century, and now replete with western red alder.
But PowellsWood’s not just about offering a green, inspiring sanctuary. Monte Powell’s committed to organic gardening, protecting his watershed by refusing pesticides and herbicides. (“We use a lot of mulch, he says wryly, adding that weeding is a two-day-a-week chore for his staff.) He’s still improving the soil, adding cow manure yearly. He supports a sister garden in Costa Rica, the Children’s Eternal Rainforest, and his goal is to make PowellsWood, like the CER, an educational playground where children can learn about and connect with the environment — maybe even as soon as next year.
“We think children’s education in nature is very important,” he says. “I grew up collecting frogs and snakes, and playing in the woods. My children grew up here (at PowellsWood); they agree with me. We’re trying to move this garden from being just a restorative oasis to giving education.”
In the meantime, PowellsWood — beginning next weekend and continuing through October — offers a place of rest, and a place where gardeners can get new ideas. Most plants will be labeled, and staff members can point out new varieties.
Above all, it’s a living example of how even the worst sites can be transformed into a green paradise. An admiring letter from leading botanist and conservationist Peter Raven, proudly standing next to before-and-after photos in the garden tearoom, is testimony to the Powells’ hard work and vision.
And ongoing maintenance. Two weeks before opening, fresh loads of mulch still are being dumped, and one of the groundsmen patiently is digging out seedlings of the only invasive species PowellsWood has — plus the occasional metal car part.
“The soil is still a challenge,” Powell says. “Our biggest one.”
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 firstname.lastname@example.org/arts