The Story of Tangly Cottage Gardening

In 1987, I took the ferry to Friday Harbor in the San Juan Islands to see my favourite local band play. While walking around town in the afternoon, I saw, over a white picket fence, a wee cottage garden filled with flowers I didn't recognize. Now I realize they were common annuals: cosmos, bachelor buttons or cornflower, and others ... but these were flowers my dear grandma did not grow and I had never noticed them before. My companion and I had espresso on the patio of a darling cafe, and there on the table was a bouquet. I think of it as That Bouquet.

I was fixated on it. Sheer joy. Particularly appealing were a cup and saucer campanula (bellflower) and again the cobalt blue bachelor button. I photographed That Bouquet and had the photo on my wall for years, where it became tattered and torn but was testimony to the moment when I realized that there were new plants in the world new to me and that I had to find out about them.

In August 1988, I attended a speech and slideshow by Ann Lovejoy at Seattle Tilth. (You can read her weekly column at As I looked and listened, my world changed. Since buying my Gram's house in 1980, I had tried to maintain her garden, and had changed little, growing mostly annuals and vegetables as she had. Ann's lecture and gorgeous slide show told me all about "making beautiful dirt" ... with forty years of composting, Gram's garden had some lovely soil ... but Ann also spoke of perennials. I remember writing the names down phonetically ... You can imagine how "Oenothera" came out! Ann said, "Just ask for the pink evening primrose." My head swam!

I felt overwhelmed but exhilarated, and as soon as I got home, I started ordering collector's plant catalogs. The first one I got was from Skyline Nursery in Seattle, which listed the plants only by Latin names with no photos! A far cry from the seed catalogs I was used to! I had to get a plant dictionary (Wyman's used, in a second hand shop; now I rely on Botanica) and look up each name while I placed my order. I think I waited till the next spring to order plants. The first box that came was from Herb Senft of Skyline Nursery and on the top was a bonus plant ... a Pacific Coast iris in bloom!

In 1990, I attended my first garden show, the Northwest Flower and Garden Show. By then, miraculously, I had absorbed the ability to understand and spell many Latin names. And as I walked down any street, I looked carefully at each garden and could now identify many of the plants. Over the years, I attended every Northwest garden show except for two that I missed while relocating to the beach, and heard Ann Lovejoy speak each year, along with Penelope Hobhouse, Rosemary Verey, Piet Oudolf, Adrian Bloom, Helen Dillon and Dan Hinkley.

When we moved to the beach and into Tangly Cottage, Heronswood and Forestfarm, along with Robyn's Nest, Canyon Creek and Joy Creek provided most of my exciting and unusual plants.

See published articles about Tangly Cottage Gardening.


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