Secret garden revealed

Aprivate garden opening this weekend is poised to become the next gem in Puget Sound’s collection of public gardens.

The newly formed nonprofit Soos Creek Botanical Garden in Auburn is anything but a new garden. The 22-acre site reflects 45 years of work by owners Maurice Skagen, 74, and longtime friend Jim Daly, 70.

Through the years, and influenced by trips to Japan and England, Skagen and Daly have created a series of strolling gardens linked by paths and greenways.

But along the way, Skagen, the main gardener, created a botanical garden with the thousands of plants he has collected. Walking the garden’s pathways is an exercise in awe. It’s hard to believe that a garden this large and varied was built by two people. The highlight of the garden, two long borders bisected by a grassy walk, rivals the popular border at the Bellevue Botanical Garden.

Daly, who often is busy building bridges and signs, and Skagen realized about a decade ago that their hard work might one day become a subdivision. “I didn’t want a bulldozer coming through,” Skagen says.

The men have created a nonprofit foundation that now controls the garden but they will continue to live in their home on the property for the rest of their lives. The arrangement is similar to the one Ione and Emmott Chase set up with the Garden Conservancy concerning their Graham/Orting-area garden.

Skagen and Daly have turned over the day-to-day management of the garden to an already existing group called TWIGS (Task Workforce for Integrated Grounds Support). TWIGS provides a small army of volunteers who propagate, design, build and maintain the gardens and structures.

The garden has long been open to interested parties for touring by appointment, but it has taken TWIGS two years to prepare the garden for regular hours (currently Wednesdays and Thursdays.)

The property was homesteaded by Skagen’s ancestors in the 1890s – Scandinavian pioneers who purchased the land from Northern Pacific Railroad. “They arrived with $5 in their pockets,” Skagen says.

Skagen, who was a librarian at Tacoma Community College from 1964 to 2000, began his garden in 1968. At that time there was little more than native trees and other plants on the property. Trilliums filled the forest and skunk cabbage lined Soos Creek.

Today, a new entry garden ushers in visitors from the pasture-like parking lot. The high point of the sloping property is a heritage flower garden sporting roses and peonies in full bloom. One pink-and-white rose is as big as a salad plate, lording its size over a diminutive variety with blooms no bigger than a penny.

Nearby a Magnolia macrophylla waves its large leaves and white flowers in a breeze. Big-leafed plants are a common theme throughout the garden.

Attached to the house is an aviary holding bright yellow and orange Asian pheasants, blue peafowl and a small barnyard’s worth of colorful chickens.

Below the house is an Olympic-sized pond filled with flowering water lilies. Next to it is a moisture-loving Gunnera plant with leaves large enough to shelter a small crowd. Nearby and only a little smaller is the northwest native umbrella plant (Darmera peltata).

Below the pond begins the 500-foot-long opposing borders led off by a group of tropical banana trees. Sloping down the gentle grade the undulating borders shine with a high number of yellow and chartreuse foliaged plants. The long sunny expanse gives a sense of formality while still seeming wild with a multitude of colors and foliage types.

The border romp rolls down to a pair of large Douglas fir trees. They give way to an ancient looking cedar grove filled with a large collection of Kalmias (mountain laurel) flowering in a variety of colors, Pieris and stands of Solomon seal (Polygonatum.)

The property finally winds down to Soos Creek itself. Along the way visitors will pass both native and ornamental plants such as hardy geraniums and Japanese maples. Daly built a bridge along a fallen Douglas fir that spans the salmon bearing creek. Skagen says the log was there when his father was a boy.

Skagen says the final evolutionary stage of the garden is into a nature preserve. Not that he’s giving up non-natives. “I’m beginning to notice and appreciate them more,” he says of native species. He attributes that appreciation to the people of TWIGS. The volunteers have worked hard to rid the property of invasive species such as English ivy.

Like any garden with varied plants Soos Creek changes dramatically season to season. Fall brings New England worthy color. Winter is populated by blooming Hellebores, Viburnum and Erica, while deciduous trees with interesting bark become easier to see: striped snake bark maple, pink coral bark maple, papery white birch.

The start of spring is marked by cherry blossoms followed by quince, Forsythia and Cornus mas. Colorful bulbs rise throughout spring.

One of Skagen’s non-gardening projects involves an on-site history center devoted to the farming life of the early settlers on the Soos Creek plateau. Historical photos, maps and text are displayed on well-lit walls.

Future plans for the garden include a vegetable demonstration area – already taking shape with 15-foot tall bean poles and stands of red leafed lettuce. A neighbor horse with a small bird perched on its back keeps watch.

Saturday’s grand opening will feature News Tribune garden columnist Marianne Binetti and a bird release. On Sunday, Richie Steffen, curator of the Elizabeth C. Miller Botanical Garden, will speak. Events begin at 1 p.m. both days. There will also be a plant sale.

Skagen and Daly are getting used to the TWIGS volunteers, new philosophies and the slow metamorphosis of their garden. They appreciate the camaraderie of the friendly crew that in turn appreciates the years of work they’ve put in to their garden.

TWIGS volunteer Judi Alvau says the property offers a garden destination in the area between Tacoma and Seattle that until now hasn’t had much. Best of all, it has something for everybody.

“If you really want to look at stuff you can be here all day. And we have people who do that,” she says.

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541