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"The Evolution of my Sunnyside Boulevard Oasis," by the Whistling Gardener

Tropical plants in Steve Smith’s yard. Photo courtesy of Sunnyside Nursery.
Tropical plants in Steve Smith’s yard. Photo courtesy of Sunnyside Nursery.

This column is being reproduced with the permission of Steve Smith, The Whistling Gardener, and owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville.

Forget for a minute that I am a professional horticulturist and have worked in the field for over 50 years… try to think of me as just an ordinary home owner that moved into his house 30 years ago and inherited a rather neglected landscape. This is the story of one of my gardens - how it became what it is today and how it is evolving into what it will be tomorrow.

In the front of my house - out in full sun facing west - is a circle drive, which when I moved in back in August of 1989 contained a rather pathetic looking lawn. You can well imagine what most lawns look like in the month of August. It was mostly brown, fairly weedy, and nary a shrub or tree to break up the horizontal surface. Surely, I thought, I could do better.

So I put some water and fertilizer on it and at least made it presentable for a couple of years. Then, in 1992, I found myself in the tough position of having way too many roses left over in the nursery and I wondered how on earth I was ever going to get rid of them. That is when I had the epiphany to take out the grass and plant a rose garden.

It was a beautiful rose garden, if I say so myself, very formal. Picture 100 roses arranged in concentric arcs mirroring the curvature of my driveway. In the center, for a focal point, I planted a weeping giant sequoia (which is now 30 to 40 feet tall) and I am pretty sure I also had an incredibly ornate birdbath as well.

I would irrigate my pretties in furrows, which took all day but I only had to do it once or twice a month. I pruned and fertilized and sprayed them during the season and hilled them up with mulch in the winter. It was all a labor of love, but also a source of major frustration because it seemed like every spring, just about the time they would come into bloom, we would have a rain storm and all the blooms would get trashed.

After ten years of being tormented by Mother Nature, I finally went postal and tore them all out.

For a couple of years after my meltdown, I planted large tropical plants like red bananas, Brugmansias, taros and cannas - which I had to dig them all up in the fall and greenhouse them for the winter. Needless to say, the novelty of this ordeal quickly wore off and I started replacing the tender tropicals with hardy shrubs, trees, and perennials that had a tropical look but could be left in the ground year round. Thus was the beginning of what you can see today.

If you drive by, you will see a large golden leafed Catalpa on one end under planted with the most exotic looking hardy ginger (Hedychium Tara), which is just about to come into bloom.

On the other end is a Paulownia which I coppice down to three feet every year, which causes it to erupt into rampant growth in spring reaching 20 feet tall by fall, sporting leaves 18 inches across. It is absolutely Jurassic looking.

There is also a Magnolia macrophylla that has the largest leaves of the genus and flowers that are a foot and half across. Scattered throughout the composition are several golden and purple smoke bushes (they are trees at this point), a large clump of Darmera, Fatsia, Aucuba, golden Himalayan honeysuckle, several large masses of zebra grass and Japanese forest grass, a colorful perennial called Painter’s Palette and not to be overlooked, an epic clump of Musa basjoo, also known as the Japanese fiber banana.

There is a lot going on in this 700 square foot garden and as you drive down the boulevard, it truly looks like an oasis.

What I have always found entertaining is to watch the transformation from winter, when it looks like a nuclear waste zone that you can see right through, to this time of year when it is an impenetrable mass of vegetation. It is a miraculous change that I find absolutely mind-boggling. But wait, there is more…

Now that the trees have matured I have been able to limb them up and in literally this last week, carve out a secret path inside of this garden where I can plant yet more exciting treasures. I already have a stash of a dozen or so waiting in the wings to be added to my jungle. I can hardly wait!

Please, drive by if you can and experience the wonder of this little oasis. It brings me immense joy and I hope it will do the same for you.

Sunnyside will be hosting a free class, “Gardening 101 - Part 2,” Saturday August 18, 2018, at 10:00 am.

Steve Smith is the owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville, WA, and can be reached at

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