Inside seven of Juneau’s greatest gardens

At Master Garden Tour, local green thumbs share their spaces, experiences and wisdom

It takes persistence to grow in Juneau.

Frosts last longer, our cold soils don’t drain. Sometimes it seems the sun doesn’t poke through the clouds for weeks. Not to mention the pests. Just when a gardener thinks they have it figured out, bears, deer and porcupine will swoop in and pillage any unprotected bounty.

But with some hard work, it’s possible for a garden to flourish in Southeast Alaska. At Saturday’s Master Gardener Tour, the Empire toured gardens painstakingly built by seven of Juneau’s most accomplished horticulturalists.

Southeast Alaska’s master gardeners train with Cooperative Extensions Service, a University of Alaska Fairbanks office, in a January-May course in Juneau. Their mission is to develop Southeast Alaska’s community of gardeners through education, hands-on learning, community service, and practicing the art and science of gardening.

They shared insight, tips, tricks and commiseration for the benefit of the novice and experienced alike.

Nan and Phil Mundy

The garden outside Nan and Phil Mundy’s Sunny Point home had to be completely rebuilt three years ago. A sewer line burst and repairs called for a 14-foot hole to be dug below half of their garden.

Margaret Thorpe from Landscape Alaska redesigned their garden with wide gravel paths between beds. Nan is a self-described “plant collector” whose garden is made up of different varieties she’s bought around town.

She goes for variety of colors, textures and height in each garden. The bold fuschia of a snapdragon and the purple of a primrose compliment each other. The bright blue from four foot high Himilayan blue poppies, a variety that grows well in Juneau, are the highlight of her garden.

Always add gravel to a soil mixture, Nan says, something she didn’t do initially when building her soil, and “fertilize, fertilize.”

Kim and Dan Garnero

Multiple environments — inside, outside and greenhouse — can help an enterprising vegetable grower make the most of their space. Kim and Dan Garnero, a couple of expert vegetable growers, have all three. It allows them to control the heat and exposure to provide each group of vegetables what it needs.

Some edibles, like rhubarb, beats and potato, do great outside in Southeast’s cold, wet climate. Others like leaks, celery and lettuce do well when they’re protected from the elements in a hoop house or transparent shed. Kim and Dan grow their tomatoes, cucumber and basil in a greenhouse attached to their Mendenhall Valley home. Those plants aren’t well-suited to Southeast’s climate and do best inside.

Their rhubarb plants were the biggest of the tour at about 6 feet across. Each are around 30 years old. Kim thinks they’ve maxed out their size at this point. Her advice to novice growers?

“Talk to other gardeners,” Kim said. “We’ve learned a lot.”

Mark & Carol Stauffer

The Stauffers’ Montana Creek home benefits from southern exposure. When they first moved in, Mike said they had just a ton of lawn in front of their home. It’s since been redesigned into a grand-piano-shaped garden. Rocks and wet-climate plants like astilbe, columbine and iris are spread throughout.

Mark Stauffer designed it and hired out the work to put in the rocks and gardens.

“I tried to take advantage of the natural curves,” he said.

Mulch helps him keep weeds down. It’s key to plant things that grow in the wet. The wild iris that grow in the ditches below his home also grow around Juneau in places like Cowee Meadows.

Susie & David Blumenshine

Experimentation is a key to developing a garden, Susie Blumenshine said. A couple of unique features at her Mint Way spacious back yard highlight what a little creativity can bring the Southeast garden.

The Blumenshines cleared trees from the southside of their yard last year to let in more light. They turned one of the stumps into a unique planting surface: turned on its top, with the remaining root structure creating a table, the Blumenshines covered the stump with chicken wire and added moss to it. It created a perfect planting surface for the white blooming saxifrage.

Rhubard leaves encased in cement are sprinkled throughout the garden as ornaments. Susie has made and sold the decorations for several years and uses the proceeds to fund a girls’ trip.

Janice & Jerry Taylor

The Taylor kids are grown and out of the house, so the parents, Janice and Jerry, don’t need as many vegetables as they used to. They fill more of that extra space in their southern facing garden with 300 dahlias — tall, softball-shaped flowers of every color — which won’t bloom until later this year.

Dahlias are “very weather tolerant, they’re very rain tolerant,” Janice said.

The couple has been gardening together since the 1970s. One of their dahlias, Jerry Taylor said, comes from an off-the-shelf variety he bought in 1974. Jerry Taylor stakes the dahlias up with rebar, he said, as they can sheer off from the ground in heavy rain and wind.

It took the Taylors a long time to develop a garden they love.

“Keep at it, because it takes a long time to build up your soil and get to the point where you are really producing something you want to produce,” Janice Taylor said.

Ellen Combs

Ellen Combs’ back yard, lined by a rainbow-painted wood fence and anchored by a 1970s Volkswagen bus, is the most eclectic of the tour. Her gardening philosophy?

“Just plant. And if it returns, woohoo!” Combs said.

A moat winds through a spacious garden area, colored with iris, with the old bus in the middle, which Combs uses as a wood shed. In the back, she’s fenced off her vegetable garden. Even with the fence, a bear got into her yard a few days prior to the tour.

Combs recommends a variety of potato called Peruvian blue, a blue meat tuber which she’s had success growing.

James & Theresa Walden

The last stop on this year’s garden tour was James and Theresa Walden’s Engineers Cutoff home. It’s the most natural looking of the bunch. James Walden combined both wild and cultivated plants in his garden for an organic feel. It’s both low maintenance and creates the feeling of blending in with the home’s surroundings.

“I like to mix what grows naturally with stuff I get from other gardeners around town,” James Walden said.

Hop plants crawl up the sides of his wood shed and garage, and potted plants hang from the windows, creating the cozy feeling that plants are overtaking their home. Japanese butterbur, four-foot tall plants with massive, round leaves, line the divide between the encroaching forest and the home.

James Walden said a good gardener needs to be a good collaborator. He visited the other master gardener’s homes last weekend and is already thinking of asking for some transplants from their gardens.

“It’s garden envy when you go to the other gardens,” James Walden said.


• Contact reporter Kevin Gullufsen at 523-2228 and kgullufsen@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @KevinGullufsen.


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