Trambitases drawing tourists with traffic-stopping garden

Posted: Friday, August 03, 2001

Twenty years ago people driving past Edie Trambitas' Auke Lake house would stomp on their brakes and stare in confusion at her garden.

Huge flowers the size of dinner plates dangled from trees that looked like common alders.

"People would almost drive off the road looking at them," said David Lendrum, owner of Landscape Alaska. "People would come to our nursery and ask, 'What are those trees with those big red and purple flowers up there on Peterson Hill? I want some of those.'"

As it turned out, the mystery trees were alders festooned with dahlias - a passion of Edie's husband, Jack Trambitas, who began growing the tubers in 1980. When the wind broke the huge flowers from their stalks, he would display them in improbable places.

Jack Trambitas' hobby drew his wife into the garden and marked the beginning of the yard's transformation from a dull patch of earth to a whimsical landscape that draws busloads of tourists today.

"The big tourist buses slow down and let the tourists look at the yard," said Edie Trambitas, who spends about $1,500 a year on plants. "People from all over the U.S. and even foreign countries come here."

Anything goes in this tiny roadside garden where two life-size straw-and-burlap dummies named Edie and Jack sit on a bench holding hands, and colorful annuals burst from unusual vessels. Marigolds, cosmos and lobelia are at home in a small cradle, an old gas grill, and a tub hanging from a swingset. Five bicycles retired from road duty sport baskets of violas, pansies and petunias.

"I found all those different ideas in country magazines. Then I'd get my can of spray paint out and go from there," said Trambitas, who painted all the containers plus the bikes white and red to match her house.

Family friend Bob Chatfield gave Trambitas a chair, only to see it painted white and its seat carved out to make room for a bucket of flowers. Chatfield, who helps tend the garden, has grown wary of Trambitas' penchant for paint.

"I have a bike which I do not leave out because I'm afraid she's going to paint it white and stick it with the others," said Chatfield, laughing.

Trambitas' gardening roots run deep. Her grandfather, Wes Waydelich, moved to Juneau in the late 1800s in search of gold, but instead became Juneau's first commercial farmer. He cultivated 118 acres on Auke Bay, back then a remote area with no road. Waydelich had to transport his many pounds of fruit and vegetables to Juneau in a rowboat.

Trambitas' parents, Dora and Victor Spaulding, eventually took over the family farm, and life got easier after a gravel road was extended from Auke Lake to the Auke Bay property.

"We were so happy because the grocery stores would come and get our vegetables and strawberries," said Trambitas, who remembers helping her parents transport the produce by boat before construction of the road, now Glacier Highway.

Although Spaulding Farms closed in the 1950s, the family left a lasting mark on the area. Spaulding Meadows near Auke Bay is named for Trambitas' father, who ran some small mines there. He built bunkhouses and a cookhouse in the first meadow off Spaulding Trail, but the structures burned to the ground in the 1930s, she said.

After Trambitas married and the couple built a house by Auke Lake, she tried growing her own produce but gave up when porcupines and other critters devoured her crops.

"It was easier to go to the store and buy vegetables," she said.

But the gardening bug bit again 40 years later when her husband's first dahlias bloomed. Today nearly 10 friends and family members help tend the garden - still a tribute to her husband's passion for the tubers. Every year granddaughter Laurie Helfinstine helps plant and dig up the frost-tender dahlias for winter - an exhausting task because the collection has grown to more than 60 specimens.

"It takes all of us all day," said Helfinstine, who calls the biannual event Dahlia Day.

Chatfield, the family friend, is drawn to the flowers and to the Juneau pioneer who lords over them.

"She's definitely a character," he said. "Most unique in all the world."

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