Garden Tour: An Acre in Paradise

Hosta and Japanese fern growing near ceramic pot
This Portland, Oregon, garden consists of a collection of distinct "rooms" that invite strolling.

Virginia Israelit is a plant collector of the first order, but what she really seems to specialize in is not the gathering of exotic foliage but the gathering of people -- people who become friends, and not just friends, but friends with each other.

Left: Terrace steps lead down to a grassy amphitheater. Tall columns of cedar define the curving border, punctuated by two columnar junipers.

In this world of six degrees of separation, it seems that every seasoned gardener knows Virginia, or knows someone who does. Her passion for planting is doubly driven, she says: "The challenge of the hunt and the fun of the network."

Left: Virginia and Arnie garden on a little more than an acre in Portland, Oregon. Says Virginia, "Arnie has been a very good sport about all of this."

Indeed, what made Virginia the plantswoman she is today, and what made her garden, is not just an incredible array of savvy plant material, but an incredible collection of people. "When I began gardening," she says, the big turning point was the people. I had some great guides helping me, and it made it so much fun to learn." So she shops nurseries with the plant explorer from Seattle, has long chats with the famed English lecturer, consults with the Irish author, and has the New York curator over for dinner. "They opened doors for me around the world. And everywhere someone is into gardening."

Left: The terraced stairway is lined with Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola' and Iris pseudacorus 'Variegata'.

Virginia began her garden innocently enough 13 years ago with the aid of a friend, landscape designer Michael Schultz. "I wanted a garden to cut flowers," she says. "And I had heard about this word 'perennials.' So I said, 'Let's plant a few of those.'" It was only a little corner of her yard, a kind of cottage garden with a few old English roses. "I only wanted white and pink and blue. No yellow, no orange, no red. It was very boring."

Left: Virginia's garden is a mix of grand and formal -- the lawn circle and grass terraces near the house -- and the naturalistic landscaping on the perimeter's higher elevations.

But she had gotten the bug. "Michael had thought that after that little area that would be the last he heard from me, that it was a whim." But from this first patch of posies, she -- and Michael -- marched on, bit by bit, around the property. "After that we didn't draw any plans," she says. "We'd sit out in the garden and say, 'What should we do next?'"

Left: The Israelit home is settled into the side of an old volcano, a site dotted with underground springs. The waterfall is recirculated natural runoff.

"Initially we spent a lot of time together -- dinner with friends, talking about gardening," Michael says. "But gradually she matured more and started doing things on her own. I'd help create the rooms, but she'd change the furniture and the wallpaper." Says Virginia, "He was a very good tutor. And the biggest compliment was later when Michael would sometimes just stop by, saying he just wanted to see what I'd planted lately, what combinations I'd come up with."

Left: Stone steps are swathed in tiers of textured foliage. Tiny-leaved boxwoods, large-leaved blue hostas, and shiny-leaved rhododendrons line the path.

Michael focused on keeping areas structurally different, making defined spaces with identities all their own. And Virginia would go off on eclectic garden hunts, finding new garden mentors along the way and tracking down the latest horticultural grail. "It is definitely a plant collector's garden," Michael says. "She is an avid collector -- and there is this need to shop." It got to the point that Virginia had to get an import license to bring back her many plants from various English expeditions. And then, of course, she had to enlarge her garden.

Left: Adirondack chairs on the side terrace rest in the shade of what Michael calls "the Pearthenon," a circle of pear trees that form a kind of green arbor.

"I'm looking at willows and bamboos these days," Virginia says. "And I want to find the reddest red-twig dogwood there is." Ah, yes -- the thrill of the hunt. "You see something where the leaf is so incredible or the bark is so amazing...." Her voice trails off. "But then I always loved flea markets."

Left: By the pond, the massive leaves of a gunnera peer out from behind a variegated willow, 'Hakuro Nishiki'.

When she's not collecting, she's touring gardens, attending shows, and going to seminars. "I really like taking classes. Cooking, sewing, knitting, drawing, welding -- I've done it. This gives me an opportunity to keep on learning. Because you can never learn it all. And I stay out of trouble when I'm gardening."

Left: The garden is not just a collection; sometimes it is a place to dine.

Virginia's garden is an eclectic and exotic mix, the garden rooms transition smoothly, and the plant material is highly sophisticated. But her garden is not a set piece. It is used. People really live in this garden. And it is, of course, a conducive setting for a gathering of friends, or maybe a celebratory space to study a glass of Oregon pinot noir.

Left: 'Prinses Irene' tulips and euphorbia share bronzy tones.

How would Virginia describe the garden? "I don't know," she says. "I have no idea. Probably whimsical. Because I don't want it to be that serious. I don't know as much as the serious people, and I don't want to take it that seriously. I want it to be fun."

Left: The exotic clematis is 'Madame Grange'.

"You can lose yourself out there in the garden," Virginia says. "And it's exciting, something to look forward to. I'm a person who need projects -- I could never afford to redecorate the house every year, but I can move plants from one place to another and that's my project for the year."

Left: Hellebores, a 'Snow Queen' hydrangea, junipers, rhododendrons, and potted plants lead visitors to the front door.

"But really, my garden is a group of friends," she says. "A plant reminds me of who I was with when I got it, or who gave it to me, or who recommended it. On any given day, my garden makes me think of somebody."

Left: Another seating area by the greenhouse is sheltered by a vine arbor of grapes and potted wisteria.

Left: A purple-leaved Ensete 'Maurelii' banana and Trachycarpus palms herald the entry to the garden.

Left: Pink and lavender fringed tulips brighten a border in the amphitheater garden.

Left: Blue-green hostas and Japanese painted ferns provide subtle color in a deeply shaded area.

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