Garden Retreat

Story by Anna Mason • Photography by Latonia Gaston

Carroll Samuelson was sketching ideas for her current garden before she even bought the house. At that time, the property didn’t have a garden at all, just a steeply sloped 1-acre backyard that went mostly untouched by its owner. Today, that expansive, lopsided space has been transformed into a beautiful, wonder-filled garden.

Carroll didn’t always have space to keep a garden like the one she has now, but she has always loved them. “I was influenced from my earliest childhood,” she says. “We lived in Pasadena, California, near two very large public gardens. I would ride my bike to one or the other after school, and I would sit and sketch for hours. I think my eye was set on wide, graceful curving paths and places to sit and things to look at.” Before buying her current house, the ‘log palace’ as her friends call it, Carroll lived in a townhouse with a miniature garden.

Her current home, however, has all the space she needs. “I had a sketch of exactly what I wanted the garden to look like before I moved in,” says Carroll. She moved in 16 years ago, and she’s been working on her garden ever since. “It’s a labor of love. When I got the first part of it under control, I could have just stopped there, but I couldn’t.” Carroll didn’t hire a designer to plan her garden, and does most of the work herself, calling on a handyman only for the more physical tasks. “He takes a step back one day while we’re working, and says to me, this is starting to look exactly like you said it would!” says Carroll with a laugh.

The garden is the entirety of the backyard, and on a 1-acre lot that’s a lot of room to grow. “I believe in defined entrances and exits to a garden,” says Carroll. “When you pass through the gate at the entrance, you experience a sort of transport. The rest of the world stays outside, and inside it’s peaceful.” The garden is mostly perennials, and Carroll doesn’t grow fruits or vegetables, preferring to buy them at local farmers markets. “I stick with things that I know will grow,” she says. “It’s not cheap to experiment with plants.”

Choosing to stick with plants she knows doesn’t mean Carroll always plays it safe. “I’m not afraid,” she says. “Bringing in a bulldozer and a rock the size of a VW bug are bold moves.” That rock is a centerpiece of sorts, sitting between diagonal paths and providing an anchor for everything around it. Carroll sets the garden décor up the same way every year, knowing what works where and keeping it that way. She knows what to expect from her garden usually, but this summer the weather made things unpredictable.

A growing season full of record high temperatures and seemingly never-ending summer days threw all the normal rules for gardening in Alaska out the window. Carroll has Ligularia in her garden that has grown to eight feet tall this summer, when it normally doesn’t grow higher than six feet. Even at eight feet tall, it’s still blooming. To keep all of her garden from drying out, she starts watering the lawns at 6 am, one sprinkler at a time, and hand waters all of the planters. The warm summer has given her garden a lot more color this year, with bigger and more abundant blooms on many plants. Bigger flowers like peonies and daylilies bloomed out early, while lots of things are still blooming. Carroll says her geraniums loved the heat this summer and this is the happiest she’s seen them.

Her advice for any gardener is to stay on top of it. With hot summers like this past one, you can’t skip even one watering. “Stay on top of the weeding, stay on top of the watering,” Carroll says. “A little bit every day.” If a plant isn’t doing well, try moving it to a different place in the garden that it might like better, she suggests. “Too much sun, shade, improper soil pH, and wind exposure are just some of the factors that can keep your plants from flourishing.”

One of the best places to sit and just enjoy the garden is the pergola in the lower garden. “When you sit there you’re looking out over the lower yard and when the sprinklers are going and coating everything in a fine spray of water it’s just beautiful,” Carroll says. “I can’t really put into words how much joy this space gives me. This garden has brought me the most wonderful visitors, including Master Gardeners and the Wildflower Club, that I wouldn’t have otherwise gotten the chance to meet.”