Near the center of the garden, the design is its most geometric with straight lines and matching sculptures.
// Photos by Joshua McCullough
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Plants are earthy sirens. Instead of calling sailors at sea, they grab gardeners at nurseries. Look at me. Take me home. Plant me.
Craig Quirk and Larry Neill of Portland heed the call.
“I’m a plant collector,” confesses Quirk, a veterinarian. “I spend all day with fauna and come home and spend it with flora.”
Quirk and Neill had amassed such an impressive collection of the rare and the beautiful in their garden that they often welcomed tours of plant enthusiasts. But no garden is ever really “done,” so they sought Laura Crockett of Garden Diva Designs in Portland to help in planning its next evolution.
Crockett falls short of calling herself a horticulture hoarder but describes her plant-purchasing habit as “an addiction.” She knows the thrill of the hunt and the wonder of nurturing a small green thing into a glorious showpiece.
“It’s all very interesting,” Crockett says. “But eventually you want less of a botanical garden, ‘Look, here’s a cool plant!’ and more of a people connection.”
A successful garden, she says, is one that nurtures the gardener as the gardener nurtures it.
When Quirk and Neill, a purchasing agent, bought their house almost 20 years ago, the backyard had a formal box hedge, a vegetable garden and a rather unglamorous area Quirk describes as “a compost heap of chicken wire and junk” best avoided during the summer months and just about any other time of the year. The house felt disconnected from the garden. They added floor-to-ceiling windows and glass doors on the main floor, and they worked with Portland master gardener Lucy Hardiman to create the more natural setting they longed for. About four years ago, they connected with Crockett. They knew they wanted more hardscape, more tropical plants and areas for entertaining and dining. Quirk, Neill and Crockett spent several months off and on planning the garden, often attending garden shows, lectures and tours together for inspiration.
“I’m not a big reader,” says Quirk of garden books. “I need to experience things.”
Crockett says that during the planning stage, she works to understand what it is her clients want for and from their gardens.
“I ask about their childhoods; I ask about their early relationship with their garden,” she says, responding with a laugh when told that the description of her process sounds like psychotherapy. “I listen to those stories, and I find out how to echo or re-create some of those feelings in the new garden space. The clients, on some subconscious level, recognize those spaces and they’re drawn to them.
“If you create a landscape that has no connection to the emotional response of the client,” says Crockett, “they aren’t going to go out there.”
Quirk and Neill enjoy working in the garden on evenings and weekends. They wanted a place that invited lingering with friends in mild weather, and also offered an ever-changing view during months of wet weather.
The resulting garden includes winding pathways that allow discovery of plants, garden sculptures, bubbling water, a glowing blue glass fire feature and a dining pavilion beneath a majestic sequoia tree. A sunning terrace near the house is the spot for morning coffee on clear days. A low green wall serves as a backdrop for “the textural garden,” says Crockett, visible from the house for a “winter composition.” Tucked behind the wall are perennials. Rectangular concrete pads lead the way.
No part of the design came about haphazardly. Loosely grouping plants of similar colors invites closer inspection.
// Photos by Joshua McCullough
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Crockett, oddly enough, encouraged Quirk and Neill to buy still more plants.
“Many times what collectors fall prey to is one of these and one of these and one of these,” she says. “The intention was to add more quantity of plants so you would have a pool of plants rather than just a throw pillow of color.”
All those rare and wonderful plants are now, she says, “showcased properly so they aren’t just a mishy-mashy, mumble-jumble.”
In late summer, the tallest flowers rise hip high on slender stems that undulate in a breeze. Deep reds, burgundy, bright oranges with almost embarrassing flashes of pink, greens from a secret-forest moss to a pale frosted sage are layered and blended like colors in an oil painting. Hidden behind them are Neill’s honeybee hives.
Elsewhere, blue and green tumbled glass dots pathways winding around a raised concrete pond and fountain. Standing amid the living flowers are blown-glass blooms. Nearby are cut bamboo stalks painted brilliant orange, bowling balls and ceramic monsters.
Neither Neill nor Quirk grew up thinking of gardens as places of respite. Neill was raised on a sheep farm near Corvallis, and Quirk’s dad drove a bread truck near Eugene.
“We didn’t do ornamental,” says Quirk. “My dad was the harshest pruner you’ve ever seen.”
But as a young boy Quirk started gardening “mostly vegetables and indoor plants.” The carnivorous Venus flytraps fascinated him, and his passion for plants took root. Observant visitors might spot among the succulents tiny plastic people who appear to be running in terror from mammoth flesh-eating plants.
“It has a whimsical quality,” Neill says of the garden.
A fanciful ceramic “rug” by Clare Dohna decorates a seating area. Enormous concrete leaves formed from actual gunner plant leaves are tucked into the green foliage. A cut metal chandelier by Gina Nash casts delicate flora and fauna patterns on the walls of the pavilion, where effervescent dinner party conversation is visually punctuated with soap bubbles.
“A bubble machine,” says Quirk, pointing to a black box in the limbs of the sequoia, “like Lawrence Welk.”
Quirk and Neill may be sophisticated professionals, but their garden maintains a boyish playfulness.
“If we can, as designers, help that emotion come out again,” says Crockett, “we’re doing a good job.”