An Artistically Balanced Garden

A Northwest gardener mixes lively vignettes with restful spaces for a rich, colorful landscape.

Linda Ernst isn’t exactly single-minded when she’s gardening. But she does have one goal from which she never wavers: “Beauty everywhere,” she says, laughing. “I’m always thinking about creating something beautiful.” It’s an ambitious goal, but one look at the lush landscape surrounding the Portland, Oregon, home she shares with her husband, Greg Dermer, makes it clear she’s achieving it.

Linda attributes her success to gardening know-how she’s gained over time and an artistic sensibility that helps guide her design choices. A longtime glass artist, she has a keen understanding of how to combine colors, textures and forms to create attractive vignettes and focal points while also allowing for negative spaces, such as a bit of lawn, to give the eyes a rest.

Chartreuse lounge chairs provide a vibrant focal point for one of Linda Ernst’s garden rooms in the side yard. Vignettes of potted plants and a sculpture on a pedestal play supporting roles.

Create Focal Points

To break up the gardens, Linda and Greg, who helps with hardscaping and other non-plant-related tasks, made distinctly different rooms—a bit of a trick on a lot that’s 75 feet x 100 feet, or about a lot-and-a-half by Portland’s standards.

They converted an 85-foot-long section of lawn adjacent to the driveway into a colorful expanse of several adjoining outdoor rooms, including a cozy patio near a garage-turned- art studio. There are two eye-catching chartreuse chairs on the patio, situated next to a fi re pit. There’s a statue, too, one of the many pieces of art Linda uses throughout her yard to create focal points without competing with the surrounding plants.

Clematis ‘Allanah’

Purchased from a local artist, the statue sits on a section of tubular steel that Greg, a metalworker, fashioned into a simple but elegant stand. Though the artwork varies widely throughout the gardens, Linda uses that same stand design for several pieces because she likes its clean lines and the cohesiveness that comes with subtle repetition.

The Ernsts frequently dine outdoors under the canopy of a mature mimosa tree in their backyard.

As she did elsewhere in the garden, Linda chose 24-inch pavers edged with basalt gravel for the patio and a walkway that connects the rooms. The path is big enough to maneuver a wheelbarrow down.

Build Vignettes

Linda likes the idea of creating vignettes to help unify areas of a landscape; they offer gardeners a way to organize the many plants they buy and maintain a sense of harmony. “Vignettes allow you to pick a color or theme and work around that rather than polka-dotting plants around the garden, which can look unfocused and busy,” she explains. Linda sometimes thinks of the strategy as organizing things on a mantle: If a bed gets a little blah as the season wears on, she just tucks a blooming potted plant into the scene to liven things up.

A grouping of comfortable chairs creates an inviting sitting room.

While the chartreuse chairs on the patio offer a pop of vibrant color for that room, the area is quite shady. So Linda spices things up with a vignette of pots that can be changed as flowers and foliage fade. Though she often creates vignettes within garden beds, in this spot she likes to use groupings of shade-tolerant plants in containers. Some of her favorites are coleus, canna lilies, ‘Sweet Tea’ heucherella, fuchsias, petunias, monkey flowers (Mimulus) and ‘Aureola’ hakone grass.

Vignettes can also be used to accentuate a corner or the entrance to a path. Linda’s favorite vignette is best viewed from another sitting area near the garage. Grouped around a blue bowl on a steel stand, the vignette features a continuous display of blooms and striking foliage from late spring through fall, thanks to her deft use of succession planting.

A blue bowl on a rustic steel stand serves as a birdbath and provides an elegant, ever-changing focal point, while the surrounding plantings deliver a continuous display of flowers and foliage.

Incorporate Negative Space

Like most gardeners, Linda finds it hard to not buy plants that she doesn’t need. But over the years, she’s noticed that the gardens she likes best often include a significant amount of negative space, calmer areas consisting of simple ground covers or turf. She uses this technique in several places, including the side yard where, after following a paver path through beds packed with an artful mix of flowers, shrubs and trees, you arrive at a small expanse of lawn.

The cool patch of green is meant to give the eyes a break, says Linda. “The more I look at other people’s gardens,” she says, “the more I realize the importance of what painters would call negative space. You don’t want everything to be so busy and full that the eye can’t see it, so it’s important to have the contrast that something restful—like a little bit of lawn—offers.”

Vibrant blooms in the Ernst garden appear to shine even brighter when paired with equally electric, colorful works of art.

Beyond the garden rooms that wend their way along the side of Linda and Greg’s property is the backyard. This is where they spend time dining and relaxing at an oversize table beneath the canopy of a mature mimosa tree. Designed with a contemporary feel, the room includes a mix of narrow planting beds edged with steel or natural stone and a sleek water feature bordered on two sides by a wrap-around planter. Linda especially loves how the new dining courtyard has expanded the couple’s outdoor living space. “And the fountain gives us, and the neighborhood birds, year-round pleasure,” she says.

Linda’s gardens have evolved many times in the 21 years since she and Greg bought their house. “I was new to gardening when we moved in,” she says, “and I’ve come to see the garden as living art, art that’s in slow motion and surprises me every year. You can’t control it, and there’s a lot of serendipity.”

Photos: Josh McCullough