The floriferous garden of Barbara Blossom Ashmun

When I was falling head over heels into gardening many moons ago, I spent hours glossing over gardening books. At the time, I worked at the local public library and I always had a stack of books checked out and I kept our interlibrary loan department busy as well with my endless requests. I remember one of the books in our library was "The Garden Design Primer" by Barbara Blossom Ashmun. For the novice gardener trying to find their way and make some sense of their landscape, the book offers an encouraging and gentle hand with lessons on putting plants together for harmonious effects as well as offering plant suggestions for specific areas.

Barbara started her own garden in Portland in 1986 and she has also written several books of essays about her experiences. The books ('Married to My Garden' and "Love Letters to my Garden') are wonderful, inspiring and funny and especially a good read during those winter months when most of us are cooped up inside.

Now, fast forward a few decades, and I am getting to meet Barbara and visit her astounding garden in Portland. By Portland standards, this feels like a huge garden (I believe she said it was 2/3 of an acre), especially the back which sweeps down a slight slope and seems to go on forever. But I am getting ahead of myself. There is also lots to see in the front as well.

A section of the front border

Like many gardeners here in this area of the country, Barbara replaced her front lawn with a mixed border that provides a barrier from the street. In her recent book "Love Letters to My Garden", she writes: "My garden is a blend of today, yesterday and tomorrow, of this season, past seasons, and future ones." That is such an eloquent statement that perfectly describes the ever-changing entity of gardening. Like most beginning gardeners, she started out with some plants that did not thrive (she says her soil is very wet) and replaced them as she learned more and more about gardening and what plants work best in certain environments. Today, the mixed border contains Red Twig Dogwood, Rosa glauca (and a few other roses), boxwood and various shrubs surrounded by perennials such as geranium, hellebores, hosta and numerous other plants that I am forgetting. A massive silver willow tree anchors the side, a tree that Barbara says she kind of regrets planting but one that is just too huge to try and take out now.

Stepping through an clematis-covered archway on the side of the house, a pathway leads us past some hydrangeas and other shade-loving shrubs and then you round the corner where you are presented with an eye-popping view of the perennial beds just waiting to be explored.

To the right is a glorious Japanese maple 'Fireglow'  surrounded by hebe and low-growing shrubs and perennials. This area is next to a flagstone patio that was recently installed when a sweetgum tree had to be cut down.

Wandering among the perennial borders, Barbara shares her experiences with plants and quickly tells us which ones to avoid. With an infectious laugh, she would say, "You don't want that!" I've tried to be careful about keeping aggressive plants out of the garden but in a weak moment, I recently snatched up a False Spirea (Sorbaria sorbifolia) at work and, after Barbara's advice, this baby will be dug up and put in a pot.

Clematis 'Romantica'

"The Sunbathers" - a terra-cotta sculpture by Katy McFadden, is a focal point in a lower border.

Barbara grows the most beautiful specimens of Red Twig Dogwood 'Hedgerow's Gold' (Cornus sericea) that I have ever seen. She says that her soil is very damp and she had problems in the beginning with some plants drowning. She wishes that she had raised her beds by several feet and I can identify with that sentiment. But an impatient gardener doesn't usually have time for such antics.

As we made the loop around the lower part of the garden and headed back to the patio, I had to ask her the question that everybody always asks me - "How much time do you spend working in your garden"? This garden obviously requires a great deal of work. She said "Every day!" And she enjoys every minute of it!

Books mentioned in this post:

Text and photos by Phillip Oliver, Dirt Therapy


  1. How exciting to get to meet and see the garden of someone you admire. I can see why you admire her garden. I will have to get some of her books. I like a good garden read.

  2. P.S. I agree about that false spirea. I planted it in my garden and by the next year it was already running. I can imagine what it might do in your climate with no winter to really keep it in check.

  3. Hi, Phillip, this is lovely. Do you recall what mulch or whatever she uses for her pathways? I can't tell by the photo. My garden terrain is similar to hers in that it slopes downhill and has several winding pathways, and I have a heck of a time keeping the mulch from running downhill in heavy rains.

    1. C.C., she uses wood chips. Her garden is densely planted so perhaps that helps with holding the mulch in.

  4. My kind of garden: lush and flowery. I'm trying to imagine what "too wet" soil is like, but the plants look quite happy anyway--that Clematis!!!!! The dogwoods are beautiful.

  5. I can totally see why you find this garden inspiring. To my eyes, it shares planting philosophy with your own. I love it when the plant's size, shape and color are considered first and foremost, so blooms are just the exclamation point, and the garden is still fabulous after they fade. In the picture just above the "Sunbathers" there is a stunning golden-rusty conifer. Do you happen to know what it is?

    1. Chavliness, it is Cupressus macrocarpa ‘Donard Gold’ and it is planted in a large container.

    2. Thanks! I will look around for it. Simply magnificent.


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