Talk Dirt To Me

Gardening in Alaska presents big challenges, whether it's the extra effort in finding plants tough enough to survive our Zone 2-4 climate, communicating with like-minded Alaska gardeners, or keeping up with the latest trends, issues and solutions. We'll try to help with that. We'll also tour gardens from Homer to Anchorage to Wasilla to Willow whenever we get the chance, and post the best garden photos around. Presenting a forum about cold-weather gardening and for cold-weather gardeners is what we are all about. We hope you'll join us on the Talk Dirt garden blog.

Photographer and gardener Fran Durner (fdurner@adn.com) writes the blog.

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Willow Garden Tour

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Verna Pratt and Kathy Zwick at Les Brake's garden. Fran Durner photo.Verna Pratt and Kathy Zwick at Les Brake's garden. Fran Durner photo.Willow is only a pleasant hour and a half drive from Anchorage, and most years, we Anchorage gardeners venture north in a sort of pilgrimage to pay homage to Les Brake and his extraordinary garden.

Gallery: More photos of the tour

Mari Wood at the Beeson garden. Fran Durner photo.Mari Wood at the Beeson garden. Fran Durner photo.But on Saturday, as a bonus, six other of the area's gardens were open to the public for the annual progressive Willow Garden Tour. And what a bonus it was!

Friends have their photo taken on the shore of Honeybee Lake during the Willow Garden Tour on Saturday. Fran Durner photo.Friends have their photo taken on the shore of Honeybee Lake during the Willow Garden Tour on Saturday. Fran Durner photo.At the Beeson garden on Honeybee Lake, large quarry rocks set the backbone for the landscaping where planting were separated by species. Delphiniums, peonies, dahlias and astilbes each had their own bed. Annuals filled containers. A sweet path wound down to the lake where the water was so clear, you just wanted to take off your shoes and wade.

Nickel La Fleur admires Kathy Mailer's delphiniums. Fran Durner photo.Nickel La Fleur admires Kathy Mailer's delphiniums. Fran Durner photo.Walking into the Mailer property, on the other side of the same lake, you felt like you were entering an English country garden, with borders of delphiniums and foxglove towering overhead. Kathy Mailer is a member of the English Delphinium Society where she got seeds to start her plants. Mixed in were ligularias, columbines and campanulas and a gorgeous pink maltese cross that was also started from seed. A kitchen garden was situated closer to the house as well as a fabulous detached greenhouse with a sitting area and bookcase in addition to the row of tomatoes in front of the window.

Nickel takes in the mock orange's heavenly scent. Fran Durner photo.Nickel takes in the mock orange's heavenly scent. Fran Durner photo.The tour group was ready to picnic on the shore of Long Lake at Willow Garden Club president Dorothea Taylor's naturalized setting. The walk down her long driveway through a birch forest underplanted with ferns, watermelon berry and devil's club was calming and peaceful. A huge blooming mock orange by her front door smelled heavenly!

A line up of watering cans at the Daly garden. Fran Durner photoA line up of watering cans at the Daly garden. Fran Durner photoAfter lunch, we crossed the Parks Highway to the Willow Fishhook Rd towards Hatcher Pass and the Daly shade garden where hostas, ligularia and seating areas pulled people in.

Jerry Freeley does not have a problem with moose raiding his vegetable garden! Fran Durner photo.Jerry Freeley does not have a problem with moose raiding his vegetable garden! Fran Durner photo.On to Jerry Freeley's extensive vegetable garden where we were amazed to hear that he did not have a problem with moose freeloading in the open space! Jerry said the ungulates just walked right through the garden and headed straight to the berry bushes. Sure enough, they were the only plants behind protective fencing!

Upended trees are a brilliant way to creatively recycle. Fran Durner photo.Upended trees are a brilliant way to creatively recycle. Fran Durner photo.At the Albino Hare Garden and Gallery, Bill and Silva Timinski show off their collection of over 3000 heart shaped rocks bordering the raised beds of mixed plantings. Upended trees, roots in the air, formed an arbor entrance to the garden. Primulas were still blooming here and it was the first time I'd seen phlomis, which I mistook for a different variety of monarda.

Eryngium 'Miss Wilmot's Ghost' and echium in Les Brake's garden. Fran Durner photo.Eryngium 'Miss Wilmot's Ghost' and echium in Les Brake's garden. Fran Durner photo.Last, but certainly not least, we ended at Les Brake's tour de force. His garden never looked better, though with all the great weather this summer, he said everything was two weeks ahead. Favorite combinations there was a deep russet euphorbia with a silvery pulmonaria - the combination was startling, pushing both to extremes. Spikey Eryngium 'Miss Wilmot's Ghost' paired with a delicate blue echium. The extreme colors of the euphorbia and pulmonaria set each other off. Fran Durner photo.The extreme colors of the euphorbia and pulmonaria set each other off. Fran Durner photo.

The most startling discovery on this tour was how pest free the gardens were. No aphids or sawfly larvae disfiguring the columbine, no leaf borers, no problems with delphinium defoliators and no slugs! Willow's isolation and the practice of starting plants from seed contributed to some of the most healthy plants I totally coveted.

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