If you were to guess where some of the country’s most spectacular annuals are grown, Alaska probably would not immediately come to mind. However, if you were ever in Juneau in the summer, and were to pay a visit to Glacier Gardens, that might change. The Petunias grow to inconceivable lengths there, and you would find that it is also one of the most imaginative and resourceful gardens in the country.
Glacier Gardens began as a nursery, with a fisherman named Steve Bohay who needed something to do in the summer when the fishing was lean. His nursery business grew until he needed more land, so in 1994 he and his wife bought a steep piece of land that ten years earlier had been completely washed away in a mudslide. The area was on the edge of the national forest, a temperate rainforest, and so was a muddy mix of enormous, uprooted Hemlocks and Spruces, rocks, and debris. Steve rented an excavator and set about clearing the area. He wanted to use the stream for hydroelectric power, and so one of the first things he did was to re-arrange the path of the stream to make it more efficient. In the process, he found a big flat rock that he thought would be perfect at the top of a waterfall, so using the excavator, he maneuvered it into place.
Backing up to survey his handiwork, he backed into a fallen tree, the trunk going right through the truck and ruining it. (It was on the last day of the rental, which made that especially painful) Thousands of dollars later, the budget couldn’t support the original plan of taking everything away, and so Steve had to think again. One of the upturned trees caught his fancy and he started thinking that the roots had rather a nice shape and could possibly make interesting planters. And with that thought, the most unique feature of the garden was born. Steve planted the tree upside down, and then another, and another, the roots waving in the air. If a tree “stump” was 15 feet tall, then there had to be 15 feet of trunk below ground to make it stable, so planting it was not easy in the least. He then lined the roots with old fishing net and sphagnum moss, filled the “bowls” with soil, and planted them with annuals.
Today there are a dozen or more of these upside-down tree planters throughout the property. The roots get planted with annuals several times through the growing season, so that there is always something in bloom. Steve does all the planting himself, and seems to have very green thumbs, as the petunias drip from the trees and everything is robustly healthy.
The tour of the garden starts near the greenhouses, in an immaculate garden full of Rhododendrons, specimen shrubs, and annuals and perennials of all kinds. Everything except for the shrubs get dug up every fall, over wintered in the greenhouse, and then planted again in the spring. While Steve has lots of help lifting the plants, he does ALL the design and planting himself. Not only that, but he has built all the roads himself, which is no mean feat given that the roads wind up and down, making hairpin turns as they bring visitors up 600 feet in glorified golf carts. And there are different paths for going up and going down. Impressed? Well, wait, there’s more. He built the roads using logs from the trees downed in the mudslide, laid side by side over larger logs and filled in with mud and crushed stone. This is a type of road called a “corduroy road”, and is actually very stable. And in this case, the logs used have been in such an acid environment that they have been preserved similarly to the way things are preserved in a peat bog, so there is little danger of them rotting.
Once back at the nursery, you are invited into the gift shop/coffee shop, which is in one of the greenhouses. Hanging from the ceiling are baskets of petunias whose draping stems can be measured in feet rather than inches. The whole effect is quite unreal, or would be, if you hadn’t just been standing under the roots of a large tree, and already been forced to suspend disbelief. It is all quite wonderful, and you hope to catch a glimpse of this Steve, who must be in his 60s by now and based on the work he has done/is doing, must be part machine. But he remains elusive. His philosophy, however, written on the fly leaf of the souvenir book which they offer for sale, probably tells it all: “A view is what you see with your eyes open. A vision you can see with your eyes closed.”
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