Slope savvy

Juneau gardeners create hillside havens with rocks, dirt and grit

Posted: Sunday, June 03, 2001

When Alice Nott moved into a house above Twin Lakes 30 years ago, she looked out her window at a steep hillside thick with brambles and dreamed of something more.

Nott wanted a garden - and not just a shrub here, a tulip there, a rhubarb yonder. She wanted a paradise to rival the picture-perfect Edens in gardening magazines that make readers want to leap into the pages.

"My dream was to look out any window and see beauty," Nott said.

As it turned out, nothing would stand in her way: Not the salmonberry bushes that had long since bullied other flora to the sidelines nor the naysayers who told her no respectable plant would grow in the sticky clay surrounding her home. After attending a three-day gardening class in Juneau, Nott was a woman determined to muscle her dream to life.

 

Splashes of color: Jeanette St. George points to grape hyacinth in her garden. St. George bought the property in 1999 and enrolled in a gardening class to better maintain the property.

BRIAN WALLACE / THE JUNEAU EMPIRE

"I was so inspired, I was shot through with adrenaline, and I just went for it," Nott said. "As you work along with other gardeners, you find out a lot of things are possible in hard or difficult places to grow things. You just have to adapt to the situation."

But adapting would not be easy. The 5-acre lot was all hill, and it was steep. Nott and her husband, Gary, would have to pack everything in and out on their backs. The couple first ripped out "tons and tons" of salmonberry bushes, which they hauled to the dump or dragged into the forest behind their home, she said. Then Nott temporarily laid tarps over the bare earth to further thwart the relentless shrubs.

"Once you have salmonberries, they will shoot their runners beneath the ground and come up on the other side of your cover. We constantly worked at keeping the weeds down," Nott said.

Then came the real challenge. Nott thought the only way to successfully garden on a hill was to create flat areas by terracing the slope. So the couple scoured Juneau for suitable rocks - ideally heavy, flat slabs they could wedge into the hill at an angle, so the weight of the slope would help anchor them, she said. When Nott's husband wasn't home to pack the rocks up the hill, she would do it herself, slowly dragging the boulders on burlap inch by inch up the slope.

"My husband used to say, 'You're always lusting after rocks.' And that's true," said Nott, laughing.

It took the couple about eight years to build the garden's bones, lugging up not only boulders but hundreds of buckets of pea gravel for the paths.

 

Secured by rock: Succulents and creeping jenny scramble over rocks, which the Notts wedged into the hillside to terrace the slope.

BRIAN WALLACE / THE JUNEAU EMPIRE

Nott spent many more years composting organic matter to make the clay more palatable to plants. Terracing the slope and improving the soil meant the hill was less likely to slide, she said. Her garden stayed put several years ago when rain storms washed out nearby Wire Street.

"You're making a good durable condition for the plant roots to anchor down that soil. When you have roots sinking down, you don't have much erosion," she said.

Although the hillside posed physical challenges, the bonuses were worth it: The slope soaks up more warmth from the sun than flat lots and the drainage is excellent, Nott said. Plus, the height of the land lends drama to the landscape - drama many gardeners try to create on flat lots by building berms, she said.

"A flat garden is beautiful, but it's a challenge in a different direction," she said.

Half a lifetime has passed since Nott first looked askance at the wild slope and thought she could do better. Today a tapestry of plants surrounds the house, just as she planned all along. Peonies, creeping jenny, primroses and lilies flex their toes in the rich, black soil, while the white flowers of arabis erupt from their beds, heralding spring to passersby on Egan Drive. Locals might have noticed the swath of hot pink thyme that riots near the slope's bottom in summer or the spires of magenta flox visible from the road where drivers can see the garden, like a painting propped on an easel.

Although the garden is Nott's dream come to life, she is no longer here to enjoy it. The couple moved to Nebraska in 1999 for family reasons, and she aches for her paradise lost.

"It's not the garden, it's the soul of a garden that I miss," said Nott, who is starting a new garden from scratch on a piece of flat land. "I will always want to dig in the earth because it's part of my soul."

The Juneau property was entrusted to new owners Stacie Kraly and Jeanette St. George, novice gardeners who look with awe at the Notts' creation.

"It's a bit of an overwhelming responsibility in many ways, but we love it," said Kraly, a friend of the Notts.

"Every day I look at it, I thank Alice and Gary," said St. George, who sees the garden as a gift. "There's no way in my dreams I could do this."

Kathy Dye may be reached at kdye@juneauempire.com.



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