Debra and Larry Wolfson in their Ashland garden. Jim Craven 5/14/2008 - Jim Craven

Ashland Spring Garden Tour on tap

Water pours down in glass-like sheets over four finely crafted rockwork steps, flanked by understated, drought-resistant native plants surrounding a patio where the owners retire each warm evening with a glass of wine and maybe a book — and enter into something of a paradise.

Over the last three years, Larry and Debra Wolfson have reshaped a previously overgrown, virtually inaccessible (and steep) backyard on Ashland's Almond Street.

The yard is now a showpiece, and will be featured during this year's Ashland Spring Garden Tour, hosted June 1 by the local American Association of University Women.

Built in 1910 and known as the McCoy house (after a prominent banker of that day), the sturdy Craftsman structure (and its much smaller twin, built atop the lot) is the perfect place to relax, hang out, soak in a hot tub and throw a summertime party.

Giant cedar, fir, chestnut and pine (one a Christmas tree planted by previous resident Lyle Matoush, a noted artist and art teacher at Southern Oregon University) shade the margins of the peaceful, terraced yard, while most of the other plants are new.

Two limestone benches made of century-old foundation stone invite you to rest amid Japanese maples, a smoke tree, lilac, rhodies, azalea, blue fescue grass, black-eyed Susan, rosemary, sunrose and dwarf manzanita — all planted to meet one big condition: that it be a water-saving garden, says Debra.

"It turned out way beyond our expectations. It was an odyssey, with me collecting lots of magazine pictures over the years, so I could give ideas and rough sketches to the landscape architect (Seth Barnard of Solid Ground Landscape)," says Debra, adding that because of the slope and limited access, Barnard considered it one of his toughest jobs.

The fluid layers of sedimentary rock were shaped as waterfalls by stone mason Jesse Biesanz of Ashland, and their fine, detailed work contrast with 125 tons of bounders couched on the slope by Barnard. Stone steps wind through the yard and, only at the top of the stairs do you get to see a vista of the Cascades emerging from in front of the house.

"We wanted to be outside and have a yard we could enjoy. We come out here at 5 o'clock with a glass of wine after being in the house and we hear the water — it's wonderful," exudes Debra, an art quilter.

"It's a peaceful place," says Larry, who builds furniture in his studio above the property.

"It feels like you could be here forever," says Sherrie Morgan, co-chairwoman of the popular annual tour. "It's the best rock work I've ever seen."

Deer wander through the largely deer-proof vegetation and find they don't like to walk on rock — another deer-proofing strategy — so their time-on-target is minimal. For her small garden of veggies (the real treat for deer), Debra constructed a fenced-in area at the top of the yard.

In the front yard, accenting the strong Craftsman-style porch, are dainty plantings of drought-tolerant perennials, a Japanese maple, daylilies, lavender, heather and camellia, with walkways lined by more limestone foundation rocks, pulled out during the home upgrade before standard blocks were laid in. The entire yard is grass-free.

The home was restored with architect Richard Wagner and builder Robert Davis, with Davis doing the concrete stair work in the yard — and all collaborating to make sure the yard harmonized with the structures, says Debra.

Other gardens on the tour are:

  • The Bitzer Garden, featuring a large Garry oak, which has been named a "tree of the year." Includes circular knot-type garden, perennial beds, small pond, shed with cottage garden plantings. Music by owner's recorder group.
  • Segner/Miller Garden, with considerable slope, nicely laid-out paths, patios with beautiful stonework by Biesanz, grasses, shrubs, maples, deer-resistant perennials. The unfenced garden is minimalist and meticulously maintained.
  • Macrory/Temple Garden, a valley garden, large planting beds, rolling lawns, pool, garden sculpture, lilacs, roses, daylilies, lavenders, grasses. Sunny and colorful. Has patio deck, shaded pool house area.
  • Nelson Garden, a little gem, has sloping front yard with rock work by Ken Cobb, charming plantings, colorful annuals in pots. Waterfall, pond, Japanese maples, perennial plantings, lots of flowers.
  • Duncan Garden. Rock walls by John Duncan, small, clever water features, rhodies, maples, shade trees, pruned manzanitas, attractive patio, shade trees.
  • The John Muir School Garden, on Walker Avenue. Planting beds with flowers, vegetables, rammed-earth wall, a compass rose "to remind us of our connection to all the earth." Students, who work and play in the garden, will guide.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at

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