Life and Death in the Rocks

Life and Death in the Rocks

Stepping through the gate into Terry Terrall's garden along Ashland Creek is like falling into a rabbit hole and discovering a brand-new world. Mounds undulate, rock walls climb, slopes rise. All are thick with plants — small plants, mixed with smaller plants, interplanted with tiny plants.

To view this garden, one steps carefully along narrow paths of varying width. It's exciting and engages all the senses, especially the sense of balance. In spots, one misstep means a petite alpine plant could bite the dust, and they are much too cute to die that way.

But if they did, Terrall would leave them in place, for his purpose is to create a natural space where the full circle of life is displayed.

"Nature is messy, and this garden is designed to replicate a natural alpine area," Terrall says. "Death is OK. It is part of everything."

His philosophy is that the plant returns its nutrients to the soil naturally. While they are decomposing in place, they hold soil in place, provide shade or recover miraculously. That doesn't mean they aren't missed. He sadly points out several plants, gifts from other rock gardeners, that thrived until last December's long freeze.

Bones and antlers are scattered around the garden. When a tree died, Terrall cut its top half and laid it in the garden as if it had fallen. The 8-foot trunk remains rooted in place and has become a home for a chickadee nest. That's how life and death are interwoven in this world apart. A red-tailed hawk has a nest in a tall poplar. A pair of mourning doves reside in a nearby deodora. It's a story unfolding.

A lot of the plants have been nurtured from seeds collected on hiking and backpacking trips and now, after 18 years and a good deer fence, the garden reproduces itself. It seems every crevice has a plant, many whose names are lost to Terrall, who removed most of the plant tags that once identified nursery-grown plants. Succulents crowd columbine. A salvia with huge leaves emerges from a cluster of species daffodils, their tiny trumpets dwarfed and somehow more precious.

The garden has many microhabitats: raised beds, rock walls, slopes and sunny and shady spots.

"Some plants live in one place but not another," he says.

His gardening is as much an act of discovery as it is of creation. He gets to know his plants by hand watering, using a hose.

"Many parts of the garden don't get much extra watering," says Terrall. "I know (plant) needs, but I don't want to shape them. I don't want to give them any more water than they need."

Weeding this garden is not a problem, Terrall says. He pulls up unwanted plants and lays them down in place, again so the nutrients can return to the soil.

"The key to weeding is to prevent them from going to seed."

In the evenings, he enjoys sitting quietly in the garden, watching the wind blow in the poplars as he did when he was a boy at his grandmother's house. "This is my way of going into nature without anyone around. It's restorative," he says.

A long-time domestic violence counselor with his wife, Mary Ann Terrall, he often gets ideas to share with his clients while sitting contemplatively.

"They come out of this place," he says. "What I've created has been very creative for me in helping violent men treat others with respect."

Among those who like to visit the garden are a broad variety of pollinators, including wild bees, both large and small.

"I am so impressed with plants' abilities to express themselves to the insect world and attract pollinators," says Terrall.

Once, he noticed a number of bumblebees hanging around the garden. Then his attention was taken by an evening primrose slowly beginning to open. These extremely fragrant flowers bloom at night and are gone the next day. As he tells it, the initial stages of blooming were very slow. Suddenly, the petals reached a tipping point and popped fully open. Within moments those bumblebees were into the flower. He now realizes that the bees hang around the garden, waiting for those flowers to open.

"It's the last thing on their agenda," he says. "It'd be a good way to end your day, wouldn't it?"

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