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Although this could very well be a picture of me finding a new treasure at a favorite nursery, it's actually an illustration by David Catrow for a children's book called Plantzilla.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Les Brake - The Heart of a Gardener

On our way from the banana belt of Wasilla to Willow, a full zone colder, we saw Mt. McKinley.  No big deal, people drive on this road every day.   Well it is a big deal, the third tallest mountain on the planet and the tallest in North America.  We're a couple of hundred miles from the mountain here.
 

My niece, Alison, once went along with her neighbors,  friends, and renowned photographers  Fred and Randi Hirschman on a visit to photograph a local garden.  Alison raved about the place and before my recent visit, she called the gardener and asked if we could come and visit.  Little did I know that I was about to see the exceptional garden of such a well known and delightful gardener. Alison had mentioned Les Brake's name but for some reason, it didn't register in my memory that this was the Les Brake whose garden has been featured in magazines including Horticulture Magazine, Sunset, Country Gardens, Gardens Illustrated, Better Homes and Gardens and the Home and Garden TV channel, and is considered among the state's premier horticultural attractions.  I had even read his essay, "Annual Features" in the 2000 Heronswood Nursery catalog.  (Page 167 for those of you who still have the catalog.)   I was prepared to see a nice garden; I was not prepared for the wonders in store beyond this sign.

Les Brake moved to Willow, Alaska (Zone 2!) from Odessa, Texas in 1984.  Equal parts southern gentleman, Alaska pioneer, and rabid gardener/plantsman, Les is a warm, welcoming, funny, and knowledgeable host.
Photograph courtesy of "The Frontiersman" and used with their permission.
 

 Jerry Conrad, Les' partner makes the amazing twig furniture and structures you'll see throughout the garden.  Notice the detail on the table. Yum!


 
 
So, what grows in USDA zone two you may be asking yourself.  Well, quite a bit actually!  You knew that more images of meconopsis were coming didn't you!  I was particularly fond of the combination here of  Meconopsis (either grandis, betonicifolia, or x sheldonii) with the buttery flowers of Trollius × cultorum 'Cheddar'
 



Les credits his success with the clan of blue poppies to Willow's cool nights and to copious amounts of compost.  He told a story about visiting a famous Scottish garden where he was asked if there was anything he'd like to take home to his garden.  When he said he'd like a piece of their meconopsis, the gardener reached into the soil with his bare hands and separated a piece of the plant.  This experience of such friable soil convinced Les of the importance of compost.  The adage, to make a beautiful garden, create beautiful soil is certainly apt.

 

 
A view of the lawn through the beds closest to the house.

Venturing further.

Les had been keeping a wood fire going for 19 days as there had been a lot of moose around lately and he said that the smoke and crackling sound of the fire are a deterrent to these "pigs on stilts" that had been eating his ferns (unusual food choice for them.)

Lilacs still blooming at the back of the guest cabin where garden luminaries, Ann Lovejoy, Dan Hinkley, Helen Dillon, Bill Thomas (director at Chanticleer), Tom Fischer (executive editor at Timber), Lauren Springer Ogden and Scott Ogden, Baldassare Mineo (former owner of Siskiyou Plant Nursery), and Steve Lorton (Northwest editor at Sunset for 25 years) have all stayed.
 
 
 
 
 
Looking over at the back of the house.




 Notice that the path to the pond is paved with the bark that Jerry peels from the twigs with which he makes his furniture.  That's a LOT of work!  This is one answer to the question, "What do you do here in the winter?"

It's trendy to have a water feature in one's outdoor living space these days.  Here's how it's done in Alaska!

Wouldn't you love to have this in your garden?  

Another view of the back of the house, a  swath of  lawn flanked by generous mixed borders.  Notice the roof on the porch.  I was invited out there to take pictures that you'll see later.

 Because of the shadows, it's difficult to see how deep and especially how long this border is!

After the lawn, paths lead through a wonderland of horticultural delights!
 
Jerry and Les met us at the front of the house and Les asked us to go and explore the garden on our own before he joined us.  He mentioned that people who garden in "that zone that rhymes with heaven" were a little spoiled.  I told him that I garden in a zone that rhymes with hate and I'm even more spoiled!   He said that there was one plant in his garden that he thought would not be familiar to a gardener from the Pacific Northwest and sent me searching. 
 
 Was it a test?  The only plant with which I was unfamiliar was Nomocharis pardanthina, a cool lily family member.  In looking at the interweb, I found that Far Reaches Farm  has it for sale and found this article on the Pacific Bulb Society's website.


What a beauty!  Love it!
 
If I were a better blogger, I'd present the garden in a much more orderly fashion but even now, I'm still so excited by what I saw that I'm jumping from one area to another!  Past the garden you'll see in a minute is this incredible moss garden.
 
 
We in the northwest are  lucky to be able to grow moss so well!  There are botanical gardens in other parts of the country that  would love to have such a  glorious moss carpet!

 Throughout the garden there are places to sit and enjoy the beauty.  However, like most gardeners, I don't think that Les spends much time sitting in his garden.
Les opens his garden annually for the Wasilla Garden Tour and has opened it at other times to raise funds for a variety of worthy causes.
 


People are sometimes puzzled to hear that, in addition to moose, rabbits can damage the branches of deciduous trees.  No, it's not flying bunnies like in the Monty Python movie.  When the snow is so deep that it's surface is level with the branches, they make yummy bunny food!

 Splendiforous use of foliage color contrast to punctuate this part of the garden. 

Here's the euphorbia responsible for that!

The Thalictrum were mostly  still budded but here's a brave soul that was open.  Imagine the garden with a pink and white haze of these blooming over it.  Delicious!


We weren't the only ones enjoying the garden!

Les explains that it's not like a Disney movie around here.  They've seen bear eating baby moose and eagles tearing apart sitting ducks. Nature is what it is.  While we were here all seemed peaceful.


Walking not far from the house in the opposite direction that we'd just been.

 
From the roof, one gets a nice perspective.  I'm not a fan of heights but when Les invites one to his roof, he goes!

 Notice the "water feature" in the background.

I asked Les if he was ever tempted to move to a more temperate climate.  He said  that his mother taught him that a gardener will make a garden wherever he finds himself.  It is not the geographical conditions but the condition of the heart that inspires one to garden.

Certainly, here resides the heart of a gardener!

While there is indoor plumbing, I had to see the interior of the outhouse

the walls of which are covered with Jerry's intricate twig work!  I didn't have my cell phone with me and my camrea's zoom lens couldn't take in  the whole interior.  You get the idea, like the garden, this was faboo!
 
 
So, what does Les do in the winter to keep himself out of trouble?   Well, he makes and covers his garden with these ice luminaries and holds another open during the Christmas season.  For many this has become a holiday tradition.
 Photo by Les Brake and used with his permission.
 Read an interview about how to do it here.

Photo by Les Brake and used with his permission.
 
 What a joy to see this garden and to make a new gardening friend!  Thanks again Les and Jerry for sharing your garden with us!


P.S. Les just sent these pictures of the garden in peak bloom.


Zone 2 friends, zone 2.







 
 


36 comments:

  1. Wow. The nature in those pictures is so similar to the Finnish nature! Lovely, blue poppies and such a beautiful garden. Happy Thursday, Peter!

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    1. The climates in both places are similar. Happy Friday, Satu!

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  2. Gorgeous! This garden is just amazing so beautiful.

    I loved reading about the challenges and joys of gardening in Alaska. The blue poppies, the twig furniture--it's all just stunning. Thanks for sharing this.

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    1. It really was a treat to see it in person and to meet Les and Jerrry! Les moved from Texas so if you'd ever like to live in a really big state, perhaps you could follow suit?

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  3. Oh My, oh my, oh my! What a fabulous treat your niece arranged for you. (She loves you very much.) I don't know where to begin in exclaiming over it all! I actually bought a single Nomocharis on my last trip to Far Reaches. It's a single-stemmed, very delicate thing. They had quite a few large patches of it blooming in the lath house when I was there, with lots of lovely speckles. I need more. Les's patch is wonderful. I'm curious about the photos Les sent of the garden in peak bloom -- Was it not there yet when you went, or was it past? You were indeed very lucky to see Mt. McKinley, I've heard that it is even shyer than Mt. Rainier. Hey, do you think you could talk Alison into hosting a Fling up there? Wouldn't that be a fabu thing? You've made me forget my hunger for your Fling posts. This is an absolute treasure.

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    1. She's very special to me! I have a soft spot for anyone named Alison. Les's pictures of the garden in bloom were taken a couple of weeks after I visited. An Alaska fling would be awesome!

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  4. holy smokes. that's amazing. glad you got to see it, and that you shared it. nice nice nice.

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    1. Glad you liked it! I felt very fortunate to have been able to see it!

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  5. I'm sorry did you say Zone 2? That's insanity! He's the real deal and I feel like a fake.

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    1. I kept saying "zone 2" under my breath the whole time I was wandering around. You, my friend, also have the heart of a gardener and there's nothing fake about that!

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  6. A garden zone to rhyme with faboo
    Who knew
    It was 2?
    (moan ... sorry. couldn't resist!)

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  7. Thanks Peter what a delightful garden, they sure know how to make it all work! I love their twig furniture and garden adornment, tastefully done.

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  8. I love, love, love this garden, although I don't know how I could survive in a zone with such a short season - maybe, if I had a really big greenhouse...

    I don't think of zone 11 as heaven - eight has always seemed that to me. I'm in 10, which rhymes with zen so I guess I need to chill out about it.

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    1. There are greenhouses there but they usually aren't heated in the winter as it would be prohibitively expensive to do so. Plus you'd have to dig them out of the snow!

      Zone 8 is great but Zone nine would be really fine! Aeoniums, agaves, and leucadendrons happily growing in the ground sounds pretty good to me!

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  9. The Aerial view really gives a nice feel for the garden as a whole...reminiscent of Old Germantown in that way. Your niece surely knows how to make your visit memorable.

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    1. I'd not made that connection but your right it does resemble Old Germantown in that way! We'd have as much fun doing nothing but Alison really went out of her way to make sure that I saw lots of great gardens!

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  10. It certainly does look amazing Peter, and so lucky to have seen it in the flesh! So green and lush, and yes almost unbelievably Zone 2! Perhaps because of twig benches and structures, or the trees this garden has reminded me of Bella Madrona...and this is the Alaska version of it.

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    1. It was amazing. Alaska gardens are very special but I've become hooked on being able to garden nearly year round. On the other hand, not being able to garden for months forces people to use their creativity in other ways.

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  11. My love for Alaska just got even bigger! Amazing!

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  12. What a privilege! My favorites here - those beautiful blue flowers (I've already forgotten their names) and the furniture. Oh, my!

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    1. Blue poppies are one of the holy grail plants of the garden world. They need cool nights and not too hot days to thrive. We can grow them here. I suppose it's our payback for not being able to grow really large tomatoes.

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  13. Wow, that garden! The twig work! Holy smokes! I am gobsmacked over here.

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    1. I had the same feeling when I saw it myself!

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  14. Really impressive garden, as it has to all grow and bloom in, what, two months? That's a real garden. If he thinks the people in seven are lazy, he can't even imagine the ones in nine b.

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    1. I don't think any gardeners are lazy but we do get spoiled with how fast perennials become substantial. For instance, I could plant a columbine from seed one year and expect a blooming clump by the next. In Alaska, the same thing might take about five years. Most things germinate fairly well for us in the ground too and the palette of plants with which we can work is so much larger here. I'm still tempted to go back sometimes because the people and place are pretty special!

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  15. Amazing! Love the blue poppies and the moss garden. Also the water feature - it must need one big mother of an electric pump.

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    1. I know, right. I wouldn't want to pay that electric bill. Actually, when Les first moved to the property, there was no running water so he irrigated his plants by scooping water out of the pond one bucket at a time. That's one dedicated gardener!

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  16. An amazing garden, especially considering the zone 2. I wonder if he provides some mulches or cover or only grows tough plants. The Meconopsis are sensational!

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    1. I think a little of both. He's an avid composter which also helps ameliorate the effects of the cold.

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  17. Wow. I don't know which I like more, the garden or the willow wood work, but together they are wonderful!

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  18. Meconopsis, Nomocharis and views to die for, this garden is definitely in Paradise!

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Thanks so much for taking the time to comment! I love to hear your thoughts.