Sisk Garden
Sisk Garden Sisk Garden
(click to enlarge image)

Harmony in Homer

Story by Tosha Kelly

Photos courtesy of Brenda Adams

It's easy to see why Len and Gari Sisk love to escape to their second residence in Homer – it's where a little piece of paradise awaits them. Punctuated by a breathtaking panorama of Kachemak Bay, their enchanted garden sets the perfect scene for enjoying nature's beauty and lazy summer evenings.

An array of styles live harmoniously in this coastal sanctuary – from bold blooms to graceful grasses to pathways of slate. There's also a beach-theme garden as well as rock, butterfly, bird, sun and bog gardens too.

This multi-faceted gem is not only lovely and inviting, it's also an award winner – thanks to the rich design and planting direction of Brenda Adams, owner of Gardens by Design.

The Sisks and Gardens By Design were honored with the prestigious Merit Award for Design 2007 by the Perennial Plant Association. "I really didn't think it would go to somebody in Alaska," Gari says. "I was blown away."

Working with the Sisks, Adams says the style they wanted to achieve was "sophisticated but welcoming. A place that drew you in and gave you a comfortable place to sit and enjoy the spectacular view."

Several special design elements are at play in this garden, explains Adams, "including garden art, a water feature, a fire pit and gazebo — and because the Sisks wanted so many features in a small space, we combined the fire pit and the gazebo."

The main goal was to create a garden that was not only beautifully designed, but also made good use of local and organic materials, Adams says. All the plant materials were purchased from Alaska nurseries and the slate, used for the pathways, was found in Hope. The green boulders in the rock garden came from across the bay, in Seldovia. To protect the garden and set it apart from the driveway, they raised the bed with 4x4 stained timbers.

Since the Sisk's property in Homer is their summer getaway, the main focus was to keep it low maintenance. "I have quite an extensive garden in Anchorage and I don't like that it's high maintenance," says Sisk. To achieve this, two layers of Typar were underlaid to restrict indigenous weeds. "In Alaska we have weeds with both extensive root systems and/or spread via rhizomes, so suppressing them is critical," says Adams. "Also, Typar is a preferred technique to the use of any toxic substances — especially so close to the bay."

To retain moisture and suppress weeds introduced by birds and wind, shredded bark mulch was used on the sun, butterfly and bird gardens. Beach sand was used as mulch in the beach garden and pebbles in the bog garden to help prevent the plants from "floating" until they got well established, Adams says. In other parts of the garden, additional creative approaches to mulching continue, including chips of rock in the rock garden, and chips of slate under the Spruce trees.

With Alaska's climate, it is crucial to know your environment when planting a garden. "The property borders a vast saltwater bay, so wind and salt tolerance were a must," explains Adams. "Because water is delivered in Homer, they wanted plants that would sustain themselves from the average rainfall. Therefore, with the exception of the bog garden, drought tolerant plants were used throughout."

The Sisks also planned ahead for party crashers, since moose tend to be common visitors and love to graze in this area. They didn't want a fence around their garden, so instead they chose to keep the number of plants that moose favor down to a minimum.

Deep maroon, soft yellow and magenta repeat throughout the season in a variety of shades and tints, with splashes of soft blue and violet to accentuate the primary hues, says Adams. "Every color imaginable is in that garden," Sisk says. "The bloom succession is quite phenomenal; every time I go, there is something blooming."

First to appear in the early spring are the sun and rock gardens. "Tulipa 'Negrita' and Narcissus bloom in the sun gardens, while Dodecatheon, Lewisia 'Little Plum,' Armeria maritima 'Rubrifolia' and soft yellow Aquilegia hybrids begin to show in the rock garden," Adams explains. "It's at its best in spring, with its delightful combination of Armeria with Phlox subulata 'Emerald Blue'."

Adams says the beach-theme garden is compelling all season. Along with sand used for mulch, found-objects and tall grasses help set the mood. Five varieties of grasses were planted for different textures and hues. "When there is a breeze, the grasses just move beautifully, and they make a real nice whispering sound," Adams says. They combined Dianthus 'Firewitch' and Sedum kamtschaticum 'Variegatum' and by early July, its bold colors are vibrant, with the grasses softening the overall appearance. The beach garden finishes its season with mauve flower heads above purple stems, the Eupatorium purpureum 'Gateway,' says Adams.

Later in the season, Echinacea, Star Gazer Lilies and the delicate, dancing blooms of Heuchera 'Tango' appear, Adams tells. "The brownish cones of the Echinacea, the dark freckles of the lilies and the rich, chocolate foliage of Heuchera link this trio to the burgundy theme as well," she says. "Physocarpus 'Diablo,' Heuchera 'Starry Night,' the dark brown catkins of the Typha and a mass of Lilium asiatic 'Landini' emphasize that rich, dark hues are an important feature of this garden."

The bog garden is small and simple. "It is planted with Iris pseudacorus 'Sun Cascade' and Typha latifolia," says Adams. "The iris blossom is yellow with a touch of brown at the throat while the cattails repeat the deep color with their brown catkins."

Because the colors in the butterfly and bird garden are more primary, Adams says they wouldn't have melded well with the rest of the gardens. They placed this garden on the far side of the gazebo so it could stand on its own. "It contains Monarda 'Grandview Scarlet,' Lavendula 'Hidcote Superior' and Coreopsis 'Moonbeam' and C. 'Zagreb' to attract birds and butterflies for close viewing from the comfort of the gazebo."

"The way the garden turned out is exactly how I imagined it," says Sisk. "One of the great things about Brenda was that she listened to what I wanted and helped me put it all together," she says. "I like that when we go down there I don't have to be a slave to my garden."

In the future, the Sisks plan to build their retirement home on the property. "Usually, when you build a home, landscaping is the last thing you do," she says, "but in this case it will already be done!"