The bees love Enid Roberts’ garden. Humming happily, they crawl and swarm over thick clumps of thyme, between tall salvia stems and across a swath of pale pink deutzia blossoms. They’re not the only creatures in paradise here: Robins perch on a birdbath fat-bellied with worms, and bigger birds swoop in from the surrounding forest. Because Roberts, along with her husband, Harold, has created a five-garden oasis on a 30-acre wooded waterfront property on Totten Inlet just south of Olympia, opening it up to visitors and garden clubs, and beginning her own local garden club. And the most impressive thing is that she’s done it in just six years.
“We had a home in Cooper Point, but I didn’t have enough land to garden,” explains Roberts of why she and her husband bought their current property, called Dawnview Gardens, in 2007. “It was less than three-quarters of an acre. I’d gardened it out in a year.”
Born and raised in Olympia, Roberts — a retired kindergarten teacher — has been a gardening enthusiast all her life. So when she and Harold finally moved into the 30-acre property on Totten Inlet in 2009, she set to work, beginning with having two giant berms built on either side of the front gate, encircling the inner property like arms.
“We moved all the rhododendrons up there,” she explains. “They were all around the house, completely overgrown and blocking the view.”
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Now, the low rambler has a crystal clear view across gently sloping lawns over to sleepy Steamboat Island. Between the house and the front gate, though, a driveway sweeps past five different gardens, all created or extended by Roberts and all a unique blend of her own design and those of gardens elsewhere in the world.
THE ENGLISH GARDEN
After living at Dawnview for a year, studying the terrain and drainage, Roberts began with an English garden. Inspired by garden tours she’d made to England and France, as well as hundreds of books and English garden designers Gertrude Jekyll and Rosemary Verey, Roberts set Harold to building patios, had truckloads of soil and horse manure brought in, and had low brick walls and gates installed.
The result is stunning. Its paths radiating from a central statue of Bacchus pouring water from his wine urn, the garden emulates traditional English cottage style with perennials crammed with ferns and the odd small evergreen, and succulents and thyme filling the cracks. Other fountains, birdbaths and statues dot the beds, the water mixing with the bees’ buzzing in the still, sunny air; ornamental cherries anchor the vertical space. On one side of the central brick patio is a wisteria-shaded pavilion, on the other is a greenhouse to shelter red geraniums and begonias.
And among the peonies, columbine and iris are the roses — mostly David Austins. They give off a heady perfume and are a lush, healthy testament to Roberts’ decision not to use chemicals in her garden. Instead, she chooses plants wisely.
“I’m an artist,” says Roberts, who designed all her gardens. “Balance is critical to me. The English garden is a perfect example of the right plant in the right place.”
THE NORTHWEST GARDEN
In 2011, Roberts began on the Northwest garden. It took a couple of years, partly because of all the hardscaping: removal of big trees, excavating and installing drainage pipes, putting in concrete paths. (Roberts is a firm believer in making gardens accessible, especially to older folks who get pleasure from them.)
Thanks to lots of steer and horse manure, the plants have completely filled in. Cascading down from a laburnum walk, where yellow flowers drip lushly over a wooden pergola, the paths wander through rhododendrons, mountain laurel, camellias, hostas and even a quaking aspen. Cherries, apples and plums fill with fruit in summer, with the occasional twisted filbert and spruce to mix up color and texture. Ajuga and lupines add touches of blue, and roses are everywhere: Ethel, Strawberry Hill, Lady of Shalott. An Italian three-tier fountain trickles over a flagstone patio, while a big overturned stump shelters the “Wolf’s Den,” a favorite hiding spot for grandchildren and Roberts’ King Charles spaniel.
But Roberts also likes making gardens fun. Whimsical touches are everywhere, from a boomerang-shaped patio to an eggplant solemnly growing in an Italian urn and a chainsaw-carved cedar dolphin leaping out of a stump.
“My garden is my joy,” Roberts says. “I’m not working when I’m out here — I’m having fun.”
BERRIES, VEGGIES, HERBS
Roberts’ next garden was an edible one. In 2013, she created a highly functional but still aesthetically pleasing area for veggie planter boxes, a kiwi and grape trellis, blueberry and raspberry beds, and a French-style herb garden where woolly thyme drips over low brick walls, fountains trickle, pinky-white roses climb, and bees crawl drunk among salvias. Yarrow and pansies poke themselves up through the gray gravel, brightening up the now-faded heathers and hellebores in the “winter” garden.
Like most of the other gardens, this one’s enclosed in a six-foot netting fence.
“We discovered early on that deer will eat anything,” says Roberts. “And birds just love those berries.”
ALPINE ROCK GARDEN
The most recently planted garden at Dawnview is also the smallest, and first to be seen down the drive: an Alpine rock garden of gently mounded gravel dotted with drought-tolerant plants. Hot pink dianthus, small succulents, phlox, thyme, dwarf rhododendrons and conifers intersperse with large boulders, with a birch tree planted for filtered shade. Yews in pots green up the wall behind and frame a stone bench.
The only garden in place when the Roberts moved in, the Oriental garden combines the usual Japanese maples and spruce with pink azaleas and a creamy wolf-eyes dogwood. Enid Roberts added an arching bridge over a dry streambed and stone lantern, and she has plans to connect the garden to the koi pond area by the house after they’ve finished renovating.
So how do you maintain a 30-acre property, seven acres of which is garden or lawn? You get help.
The Roberts have a gardener who works three full days a week — “It takes eight hours just to mow the lawn,” explains Enid — and they hire help for big projects such as walls, paths or berms. Harold lays all the patios, a carpenter friend built the outbuildings, and Enid does the rest, working in a potting area with two sinks and its own living-room-sized garden.
Meanwhile, Enid also encourages gardening in others: A regular speaker at garden clubs, she hosts tours and will open up Dawnview to visitors this summer by appointment. She’s also a member of several garden clubs and has begun a neighborhood one — Mason County’s first, she says.
“Gardening is art, and everyone has some art in them,” she says. “Even my husband! I always tell people, it’s your garden — don’t be afraid of it. Get ideas, go to other gardens. Make it enjoyable. And if you don’t like something, pull it out.”