Stillie Garden

At home in the garden

Bonnie Stillie's colorful garden makes the best of a short but spectacular summer

Story by Michelle Theriault

The bed and breakfast that Bonnie Stillie runs out of her Delta Junction home is called "The Garden," and for good reason. Behind the Stillie home, on 80 acres near the Tanana River in interior Alaska, Stillie grows a wild profusion of flowers, herbs and vegetables.

It's a harsh climate for gardening – in the winter the temperature can reach 60 below. But the reward for long frozen months is a garden that, like an Alaskan summer, is as spectacular as it is fleeting.

Stillie grew up in the Midwest, and was already an avid gardener by the time she moved, with her husband and four children, to Delta Junction. Extreme winters and short, vibrant summers presented new limitations, but new opportunities as well. Her first foray into Northern gardening was a wildflower bed that could be seen out the dining room window. She added poppies, then New Zealand delphinium. Columbine came next. After that, the garden "just exploded to a whole new level." The climate forced her to acquaint herself with a new cast of hardy floral characters: veronica, linaria, lavatera, gypsophilia deep rose, trollius. Now she has multiple greenhouses, a root cellar and a finely tuned planting schedule that starts long before the snow melts.

Bonnie Stillie

The routine is the same each year: In frigid February, she starts seeds inside in the basement under grow lights. "It gets me through my winter doldrums," she says. She leafs through seed catalogs (favorites include Summer Hill Seeds, Harris Seed and Hazard Wholesale) and even trades rare seeds with people she contacts via Internet forums. By April she's moving more than 60 trays of plant starts out to a greenhouse, and by May the greenhouses are stuffed with plants. "I can hardly walk through either one of them," she says. Stillie follows local Delta gardening legend by waiting to put the plants outside until after May's full moon. "I look for plants that are hardy and can withstand a light frost and survive," she says. She's had good luck with pansies, poppies, lobelia, calendula, carnations, asters, sweet peas and lupines.

Flowerbeds dot the property, but the focal point is a rock and water feature behind the house. A small pond is surrounded by river rocks, vivid flowerbeds and gravel walking paths. One leads to a bench that looks out over the gardens, with fields and forest beyond. Red-hued rocks that line the walking paths are courtesy of Bonnie's husband Rick Stillie, who hauls them from a secret stash an hour away. The entire garden is a family affair, and has even played host to two weddings: Bonnie's daughter Abbie and son Nathan both got married on the property. "It was such a beautiful spot we decided it would be a nice place to have the wedding," she says.

Bonnie Stillie

It's a challenge to put a garden together in a remote area, but Stillie improvises. She makes the two-hour drive to Fairbanks for pallet loads of potting soil. On visits Outside, she packs her suitcase with bulbs to bring back to Delta Junction. A root cellar makes it possible for some of her favorite perennials to survive the winter. The garden also acts as a magnet for local wildlife, including robins that bathe in the pond.

For Stillie, the garden is a place of quiet in the midst of a busy life. "It's kind of an artistic expression," she says. "It's nurturing and bringing forth something." Stillie says she still marvels at the way the seeds she starts in the dead of winter transform into the showy flowers of July. "All the creativity that God puts into small things," she says. "I love seeing what they can turn into."