Beer-swigging snails and rose-hungry porcupines

Juneau couple builds garden from the ground up

Posted: Monday, July 21, 2003

Six years ago, Tom and Nelda Stewart built their house on the side of a muddy slope north of Auke Bay.

After years of care and hard work, they've transformed the soggy hillside into a home for fruit trees, herbs, shrubs and perennials.

While working to shape the land at their home at 13930 Glacier Ave., the couple has competed with soil erosion, horsetail weeds, dandelions, banana slugs and a porcupine with an appetite for roses.

Nelda Stewart, 38, is a lifelong Juneau resident who works as a lobbyist during the legislative session. Her husband Tom, 43, works for the state Department of Transportation. They have two children - Anthony, 11, and Nicholas, 7.

Between work, rest and carting the kids back and forth to baseball and soccer games, the couple said they try to spend about an hour a day working in the garden.

"It's been a process over four years," Tom said as he strolled past a cluster of purple fox glove plants with Nelda. "Every day it was nice we tried to get out here and do something. ... We didn't realize what we had gotten ourselves into."

After having a contractor build a series of terraces that run in front of the house leading down to the road, the Stewarts laid down a gravel path that winds its way through the garden.

The garden is filled with decorative and edible plants such as rhubarb, strawberries, primrose, irises, lady's mantle, and apple, Hawthorne and Japanese maple trees.

Despite terracing the garden to prevent water erosion, Tom Stewart said little streams began popping up all over the property. They solved the problem by installing drains that direct the water to the side of the property and down to the road.

"It takes the water that runs off the terrace and brings it over to the ditch," Tom Stewart said. "So instead of it all flowing down on top of the lawn and making it a soggy mess, it pulls it off to the side and it drains off."

After getting the water runoff under control the Stewarts began an unending battle with horsetail weeds and dandelions that pervade the area.

The plants stay relatively free of banana slugs though because of a home remedy, Tom Stewart said: "Cheap beer."

"Just put cheap beer in a plastic container and they'll go for the beer and then they drown," he said.

Nelda said they've had fair luck with most of the plants they've tried growing, except for some of the roses.

About two years ago, she said they tried to grow a variety of roses next to the deck of the house, but a pesky porcupine had different plans for the plant.

"One of them crawled over the top of the deck rail there and came down and he was just sitting there grabbing at it and we were like, 'Hey! Get out of there,' but he just kept going for it and eating it," Tom Stewart said. "He clamored up on the deck rail because we had fenced it off with chicken wire, so he couldn't get it from the base. He was a determined rascal."

Nelda Stewart says her favorite perennials in the garden are the pink peonies that grow up near the house.

"But they're a short bloomer," she said.

For just a few weeks at the beginning of July, the peonies flower in the Stewart's garden and then disappear until the following year.

"It's just so full," she said. "I'm just amazed and it feels like such a success to me. That's one thing about gardening, you start something ... and just stick it in the garden and it watch it grow and it seems like an accomplishment."

The Stewarts' garden was opened to the public last month. They participated with 13 other gardens in town in the Southeast Master Gardeners Association's Juneau Garden Tour.

"It's one of the best educational things that we do," said Jim Douglas, a tour organizer. "People cannot visualize what you're talking about until they're standing right in the garden."

Like the Stewarts, Douglas said most of the gardens in the tour are landscaped by their owners.

Nelda is thinking of becoming a Master Gardener. She would have to take a three-week course on gardening and volunteer 40 hours of volunteer time troubleshooting gardening problems in the area and working at the community garden.

Those interested in taking the course must have gardened in Southeast for at least two years.

Douglas said gardening is an artistic outlet, and the tour gives others a chance to get new ideas.

"Gardening is like choosing clothing, or shoes or a hairdo - it's a very personal thing," he said.

Timothy Inklebarger can be reached at

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