Coming upon Ryan Huff's yard in northeast Bend is like spotting an oasis in a desert. Smack-dab between long stretches of asphalt and sidewalk is his corner lot of lush reprieve.
Long tendrils of grass arch over street curbs; pink cosmos, yellow rudbeckia and spiky dahlias sway on their stems. Tall grasses grow up around a stop sign and foliage creeps over the sidewalk. Huff's garden was mentioned with others in a profile of the High Desert Garden Tour in July. The space was so impressive we went back for a more in-depth look.
Huff's garden is a diverse mix of edibles and roses. The multiple layers of foliage tucked into each bed creates an eyeful of color and texture that Huff says is achieved by picking foliage that is variegated, spotted or of an unusual color, like the chartreuse green sweet potato vine, black mondo grass or an electric blue mystery grass he found on a clearance shelf.
Huff, who graduated with a fine arts degree in painting, approaches his garden with the thoughtfulness of an artist. With splashes of color and lots of texture and shape, Huff's garden is clearly an extension of his aesthetic sense.
Starting in the easement and spanning the entire space between property lines, the yard is alive with blooms pocketed between green foliage, assorted heuchera and hostas, tall grasses and fruit trees. Concord grape vines trained along the ground produced 47 pounds of grapes last year; next to the grapes is a raspberry bush, where neighborhood kids congregate to eat berries by the mouthful.
“I look at a garden like a composition. There are different layers and levels, and there are a lot of things you can do creatively that can change that composition to draw more interest to different area as far as creating focal points, textures, layers. It's like picking up a paintbrush and doing a painting, except you're doing it with plants.”
Huff grew up working in the garden with his father, mother and grandmother. Their farm was 30 acres of hills, forests, meadows and orchards in Polk County. At age 5, Huff would take walks through the acreage with his dad, who would quiz him on the names of trees, wildflowers and shrubs. Walking through his own garden, Huff names each plant and offers the spelling as well. Many of the plants in his garden came from his family's land and represent a familial history.
“I remember my grandma going out and picking her moss roses when I was 5 years old ... I was able to get a cutting from (her rose) and get it started here.”
Huff has 74 roses, all planted in the own root form, scattered about his property. They offer huge blossoms of layered color and fragrance from June through September. “When I choose roses, I like old garden roses. Fragrance is important. ... I don't have a theme. I just like them.”
His family garden was multi-purpose, as Huff describes it. “It was for beauty, of course, but for eating purposes, too.” Today, Huff has incorporated fruit trees, including plum, peach, Asian pear and apple, into his garden, as well as edibles like licorice, elderberry, purple cabbage, kale and grape vines.
Huff also likes to pair unusual plants together. In the backyard a yellow tangutica clematis spirals up into the limbs of a juniper tree, a mallow plant is situated near a pink hibiscus and a fern from the Valley and a greenish-white hydrangea are tucked around the giant leaves of a Japanese fuki plant.
Huff says there's nothing better than coming home after work and walking outside to do some weeding to decompress. Huff installed irrigation in 2009, and the yard then began to take shape. The backyard is enclosed with a fence, and paths of grass carve through tall trees and garden beds. On a small peach tree, a perfectly ripe peach hangs ready to be plucked. Huff and a group of friends constructed a garden shed complete with white trim, shingle siding and a metal roof. A raised bed filled with vegetables is situated alongside a chicken coop. Several sitting areas are tucked into the foliage around the backyard, and an arbor made of plum vines, which Huff cut from a tree in the front yard, arches over a grass path.
In several places along the fence, large mirrors Huff found at Habitat for Humanity hang to create an expansive feel. “I took some old cedar boards and screwed them on top of the gold 1970s frame that was around (the mirror). I saw the idea in a Gardens West magazine.” Huff says the Canadian magazine offers great tips for gardening in Central Oregon. “It's right up our alley. Anything you can find in Gardens West works here. It's not like picking up a Sunset magazine, where everything works in Northern California and Seattle.”
Going beyond the zone
Huff mostly chooses plants that are labeled zone 5 for his garden, but he's had great success incorporating plants from his family farm in the Willamette Valley and other plants that are zone 6 and 7. Huff advises experimenting with plants to see what can work instead of always going by the label. “One of the things that I found pretty quickly when I got started working in my garden is that it's really important to do your research. In the Valley you just go to the nursery and get something and plant it.” In the High Desert, Huff said, he had to learn his landscape so he knows where there's extra moisture or dry areas and where trees and fences offer protection from frost and wind.
He has found several plants that are similar to different variations that thrives in the valley. The Japanese fuki. a broad-leafed, low-growing plant serves as a nice substitute to gunnera, which has leaves that can be 5 to 6 feet wide and grows in the Valley. “Gunnera is a little bigger, but (fuki) works here because it's a zone 5.”
Huff says he also plans for every season when planting so there is always color and interest in the garden. He visits nurseries during the off season to find seasonal plants. “People forget we have four wonderful seasons here in Bend, and there are some really neat fall plants and winter plants. ... It's good to consider what your garden is going to look like in the off season.”
To avoid a brown garden in the winter and spring, Huff has incorporated things like red dogwood grasses and false holly. Rose hips also add a bright bit of color. “Manzanitas are great winter plants. They have pink flowers in February or March.”
Even though Central Oregon has cold winters, Huff says he enjoys working year-round in his garden, cleaning, raking, pruning and weeding. “I have no problem working on projects in off seasons and even planting up into the fall. ... In the winter we still have so much sun. Once you're working in the garden and raking and your body gets going, it's comfortable. It's a great time to work in the garden.”
Working in the winter also helps to lessen the burden of spring cleanup. In the summer, the biggest piece of regular maintenance Huff deals with is the grass and edging garden beds. Because the beds are so packed with perennials, Huff says, weeding isn't really a problem. “The weeds need sun, and when you've got a full bed of perennials, the sun isn't getting down there to germinate the seeds.”