From barren to beautiful

Once a desolate site sitting on sand (and more sand), a Big Lake landscape is transformed into a sight of splendor

Story by Tosha Kelly • Photography by Linda Lockhart

Linda Lockhart and John Erskine have been together since 1982, and gardening extensively since they landscaped their townhouse in 1994. Currently, the couple lives on three and a half acres on Dollar Lake. "When we looked at it we saw lots of potential," says Lockhart, "but the main thing we felt it needed was landscaping."

The home on the property was practically brand new inside, but there was no landscaping to speak of, says Lockhart. "Just dead, dying weeds with a little bit of bad grass that might lead one to think it might be possible to have a lawn."

When spring came and things began to thaw, a surprise awaited. "We found that there was absolutely no soil here – just sand, sand and more sand," explains Lockhart. "It turns out that the Big Lake area is almost exclusively glacier till – what the glaciers left behind when they receded." Not exactly garden material.

"In order to have the garden we now enjoy we brought in about 50 dump truck loads of topsoil, which requires a tremendous amount of amendments to be useful – manures, composts, perlite, lime and organic plant foods – and five wonderful truckloads of leaf mould that was looking for a home after a culvert replacement at the outflow of our lake," says Lockhart. The old culvert was too heavy to move, and is now a sculpture in one of the gardens. "Old Nessy," nicknamed for its resemblance to the Loch Ness monster, peeks out between two apple trees, delphiniums and lilies.

Since the couple purchased the property in the late fall, there wasn't an opportunity to do much with the landscaping at that point. "We did dig up a small square near the front entry and I brought plants from my Anchorage garden in late October," she says. "Some of those plants are still flourishing there, including a bright pink Northern Lights azalea and a Corinne peony."

The following spring, work began on the first perennial border with a small walkway garden of fragrant herbs and flowers leading to the front door.

"Since there was not a speck of shade," says Lockhart, Amur chokecherries, Siberian and Dolgo crabapples, Colorado Blue Spruce and Siberian Larch were planted. "They have all grown very fast and now provide us with a reasonable amount of shade." They also offer year-round enjoyment. The Amur chokecherries, for example, produce lovely leaves in the spring and summer, dark fruit that the birds love and golden-orange bark that provides wonderful winter interest.

Eventually came more trees, plus mound gardens on the lake side and a horseshoe garden – the result of a truck load of topsoil that was dumped there late in the season that the couple didn't have time to move. "It has turned into an oasis of color and lush trees on the hot and dry south lawn," says Lockhart, adding that they planted everything from Japanese maple and white spruce trees to azaleas, roses, painted daisies, several varieties of trollius, and much more – even a Tancy that Lockhart has tried to kill for several years now with no success.

When the driveway was reconstructed, a driveway garden was built, eventually becoming two levels to include the fragrant garden walk, two water features and an herb garden.

The fragrant garden walk is Lockhart's favorite of the gardens. She says it's evolved into almost a "secret garden" feel with the trees rising up to provide a tunnel of green on each side. All of the plants along this walk were selected for their fragrance. "I tried very hard to have something extraordinary blooming in succession, so the garden always smells wonderful. Hardy dianthus are everywhere and the fragrance is amazing."

In this special garden, the couple also planted sedums, daylilies, peonies, roses, delphiniums, hardy oregano, violas, wooly thyme plants and even a palm tree above the water feature, just to have some fun with the garden tour that year. "Of course the palm tree isn't hardy and I have to replace it every year, but what fun! They do quite well in the summer heat. I dig them up and give them away at the end of the season."

The garden is a National Wildlife Federation Certified Wildlife Habitat and open to the public most every day in the summer. Commonly, it is the last stop on the North Root Big Lake Gardeners' summer garden tour. The couple also hosts a large event every fall for the children of Big Lake called "Pirates of Dollar Lake" on the grounds of the garden. "This last year we entertained over 450 children and their parents."

This garden is always evolving, says Lockhart. "Things that work stay, things that don't, get recycled. All gardening is a learning experience. This one has been intense."