Garden Q&A: Sonja Lee's garden a quiltwork of colors, textures, flavors


Who: Sonja Lee.

Residence: Bellingham's Columbia neighborhood.

Question: How did you become a great gardener?

Answer: I've always been a "dirt girl." As a child I helped my mother in the garden, planting seeds, picking weeds, making mud pies and thrilling her with wonderful finds like the "mommy wormy" (garter snake) I enthusiastically thrust in her face at age 4!

It's taken a lifetime of experimentation, reading and asking others.

Q: If your garden has a theme, how did you develop it and carry it out?

A: My garden is a cornucopia of color, texture and flavor. A patchwork quilt containing fruit trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals, bulbs, tubers, berries, grapes, veggies and more.

Folks say I have an eye for putting color and texture into play. Play is a big part of what it's all about for me. The new paver pathways and patios were designed with this in mind.

With my father in a wheelchair, access needed improving but I wanted it fun for kids, too (although I have none.) Michael Sterling of SterlingScapes and I created a design with racing stripes built into it. Most people see the design likening it to a flowing river, having no idea that it's built for speed!

Q: What is one plant in your garden that is special?

A: Dahlias. I love the variety of colors, sizes, textures and shapes. Many were gifts; some I've had for over 20 years. There are always new varieties coming along, so there's always a new treasure.

Q: What's your advice on how to grow something that's in your garden?

A: Dahlias are easy for me now that I'm blessed with sandy, well-drained soil. They can overwinter in ground with a thick mulch layer; in late spring, a freshening of composted organic matter makes them happy.

Stake them well, cut the blooms readily and they'll produce until the first frost, which is lovely! Note, though, that excess moisture or too deep a freeze will rot them over winter, so you need to know your soil and treat them accordingly. Dig and store in sawdust in a cool (not freezing) space until late spring if you have clayey, heavy or boggy soil.

Q: What is your garden nemesis and how do you cope with it?

A: Purple loosestrife is my biggest battle, as seeds get blown in from neighbors unaware of their ugly nature. I've been able to keep things under control by making sure what's in my yard never goes to seed, and by careful extraction (the roots are a nightmare, as the littlest nubbin left behind is a "go" for a new plant.) I have not been able to eradicate it so far, but the patches are considerably smaller.

Q: How many hours a week do you spend working in your garden in each season?

A: Fall and winter not much; maybe one to two hours a week. But in the height of the summer I can be out there 15 to 30 hours a week. I don't see it as "work" though; it's "play!"

Q: What tool could you not do without?

A: A V-shaped hand weeder, as it gets the longest roots out without disturbing surrounding plantings, though my hand pruner runs a close second.

Q: What's the best garden advice you ever got?

A: Try it there. If it doesn't work, try it somewhere else. Oh, and prune your apple trees in the summer, as it encourages blooms, not growth like pruning in the winter does.

Q: What's your favorite way to share your garden?

A: Pictures and parties!

Q: What's your favorite garden, other than your own?

A: Nature provides the best gardens I've ever seen, but locally I enjoy the tranquility of Big Rock Garden.

Reach Margaret Bikman at 360-715-2273 or

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