Sweet disorder

An English garden in Turnagain

Story by Mara Severin • Photography by Kevin Hartwell

“Fortunate gardener, who may preoccupy himself solely with beauty in these difficult and ugly days! He is one of the few people left in this distressful world to carry on the tradition of elegance and charm… he must not be denied his rightful place. He deserves to share it, however humbly, with the painter and the poet.” – Vita Sackville-West

I visited Judith Hassinger’s idyllic English garden on a rainy, sodden day in August. After a glorious summer, the timing seemed unlucky. But as I rambled among her roses, I began to change my mind. The heavy, wet blossoms, the grey sky, the deep greens made deeper by the rain – all conspired to transport me away from Alaska and to evoke the climate that Judith’s garden celebrates. Everything looked saturated, over-ripe and lush – exactly the way an English garden should.

Judith grew up in a small community in Western Alaska where her family all worked vegetable plots. But it was her Aunt Mary whose interests went beyond the dinner table. “As a little girl I would watch her through the window, tending to her flowers,” recalls Judith, who was fascinated. “I like to say that she planted the seed in me.” It’s a seed that would blossom into a passion.

Judith took inspiration for her garden – particularly the “white” garden in the front of the house – from the gardens of Sissinghurst Castle in Kent. Created by the renowned garden writer and poet Vita Sackville-West, the gardens are among the most famous in England. “That’s what I do when I travel,” says Judith. “I look at gardens and visit nurseries.”

Sackville-West describes the principles behind the gardens succinctly: “There should be strictest formality of design, with the maximum informality in planting.” Judith dismisses a common idea that a white garden in Alaska is too reminiscent of snow. “I find it to be so different,” she says. “The whites and greens and creams are so lush. It’s my favorite part of the garden.”

The back garden, by contrast, is an explosion of color – shades of violets and fuchsias rub shoulders companionably. Containers filled with green, red, yellow and wildly variegated perennials lend a note of heartiness and a hint of the glories of fall. Raised beds for vegetables and a greenhouse – all managed by Judith’s husband Larry who’s well-known for his beautiful tomatoes – are a practical note among the luxury. It calls to mind another Sackville-West quote: “It isn’t that I don’t like sweet disorder, but it has to be judiciously arranged.”

For dedicated Alaskan gardeners, much of the work takes place indoors. “I spend so much time reading, planning, looking at calendars,” says Judith. She loves Pinterest as a planning tool and a source of inspiration. “Once the holidays are over, I’m looking at my seed and bulb catalogs and in early, early Spring I start deciding what to plant.” In February, Judith routinely takes a trip to Seattle for the Northwest Flower and Garden Show. “It’s both wonderful and depressing,” she says with a laugh. “Wonderful because it gives me so many ideas. And depressing because I come back home and there’s still snow on the ground.”

Alaskan gardening is an “ongoing learning experience,” says Judith, and you can’t be afraid to make mistakes. And after 18 years of managing the same land, she declares that every summer is different bringing with it unpredictable results. Some years, she says, “you can get things to grow but you can’t get them to bloom.” Last summer, on the other hand, was a “fabulous growing season.” The coleus, the gladiolas and the zinnias “did the best they’ve ever done for me,” she says, crediting not just the sun but also the season’s warmth. But good or bad, most Alaskans can agree that the summers are too short. “In the summer time, I’m always in the garden,” she says. “Always.”

It was a quick visit for me – a mini-vacation – but for Judith Hassinger, her garden is “a full-time job.” In late August, when I thought the gardening season was winding down, Judith was starting her white foxgloves – planning to enjoy the beauty of their towering spires in early summer of next year. In September, she will have planted the tulips and daffodils that, in early spring, provide an early shock of vibrant color to color-starved Alaska.

“It’s my art,” says Judith of her garden. And, like all artists, she turns to it for love and necessity. “Digging in the dirt brings me a sense of serenity and peace and makes all the day-to-day hustle and bustle fall away,” she says. “And creating beauty and then sharing it brings me a lot of joy.”