A tour of a secret garden

Alan Love made over 1000 colored bricks to decorate his backyard garden in the Mendenhall Valley.

Alan Love made over 1000 colored bricks to decorate his backyard garden in the Mendenhall Valley.

At the top of an average, wooden fence on Glacierwood Court, the tips of raspberry bushes peek out, the prelude to a secret garden.

Four years ago, Juneau resident Alan Love took the gravel-covered backyard of his new home in the Mendenhall Valley, close to Riverbend Elementary School, and turned it into a picturesque garden. He said the previous owner had been fighting a losing battle with moss in the back, hence the gravel, but Love saw the gardening potential of the fenced-in plot.

“I did some sketches, I set some stakes in and began building,” he said.

Part of the reason Love began was his wife, Lesley, who is a botanist; she got her graduate degree in plant ecology from the University of New South Wales in Australia, where the two of them met. Love, originally from Juneau, spent over a decade in Australia before returning. He said he didn’t do much gardening growing up, “unless pulling weeds count.” His family had a vegetable patch, and like most children, his favorite part was harvest time.

Love taught chemistry at the University of Alaska Southeast before retiring, so he now has more time for projects. Love decided to create a garden for himself and Lesley that they could garden with relative ease, such as having raised flowerbeds so they wouldn’t have to bend over often.

Love got creative, so instead of replacing the gravel in the backyard with grass, he transformed the place with raised flowerbeds in a sea of multi-colored bricks. He bought brick forms made out of Teflon to shape them, and created the pigments with iron oxide.

On the process, he said: “Get two 80-pound bags of concrete and dump them in a cement mixer and experiment with how much pigment you want to put in, and after you’ve made a few batches you’ll get that figured out.”

Thinking back on what was the first thing he planted in his garden, Love said, laughing, “It probably died.”

Pointing to the marigolds in the flowerbed closest to the back porch, Love said those were probably grown first. He demonstrated with his hands how big the lobelias that were situated with the marigolds had been. In early September, only their skeletons remained amongst the marigolds.

One of the few flowers still thriving so late in the season were the eye-catching red lupin, which Love got from a local nursery, Glacier Gardens; they don’t occur in the wild, Love said. Mixed with the red lupin in the raised flowerbed were wild, blue lupin grown from seeds Love gathered from Eagle Beach.

Also from around town is the glass for the awning over several of the different, raised planting beds. The thick, light blue glass with wave patterns on its surface comes from Douglas Island Bible Church. Love said the windows didn’t meet code, so he was given the glass panels that would have been discarded and used it for his garden.

On the multitude of raspberry bushes lining his fence and sneaking into the street, Love said, “If I let them keep growing I’d need a 15-foot ladder to pick them next summer.”

He said he will be reworking the raspberry bushes next year. He and Lesley were picking two-and-a-half quarts a day of raspberries when they were at their growing peak, and have made 36 jars of jam. For the branches that grow over the fence and out onto the sidewalk, Love said people are welcome to pick those raspberries.

Love said his neighbors don’t really know about his garden, though the local children will sometimes throw a frisbee or ball over the fence and will come by to collect their things and look around the garden at the same time.

It’s little wonder since it’s clear that Love has put extensive work, creativity and passion into his garden.

A garden of his size takes hard work and planning to maintain.

Love said one of the biggest challenges of gardening in Juneau is the short growing season.

“It’s already fall here,” he said. “I should be planting my fall bulbs. Nowhere in the country is it fall yet.”

To other Juneau gardeners, he advised, “Try everything. Find out what works and stick to that.” Lesley had to adjust to the change of environment from Australia to Alaska.

Love’s lettuce is grown under a cold frame for protection from the harsher side of Southeast Alaska’s weather. He said he starts some plants inside, and then moves them into the garden once the soil has thawed.

He has a small green house just for herbs, which he started in his second year of his garden project. Love grew basil, oregano and thyme this season, which he uses for cooking, and has previously grown parsley and sage.

Before the small green house is a big one, filled with gardening supplies and a spot for Green Zebras, which are light green tomatoes with light green stripes running along their surface.

By his lettuce, the stems of carrots could be seen peeking out. With a satisfied smile, Love pulled one and said, “You can’t buy a carrot like that in the store.”

• Contact Clara Miller at 523-2243 or at clara.miller@juneauempire.com.

Alan Love checks on his  lettice growing in a portable greenhouse in his backyard greenhouse.

Alan Love checks on his lettice growing in a portable greenhouse in his backyard greenhouse.

A dahlia blooms in Alan Love's garden in the Mendenhall Valley.

A dahlia blooms in Alan Love’s garden in the Mendenhall Valley.

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