Photography by John Granen
Text by Rebecca Christian
Produced by Barbara Mundall
In math and physics, chaos theory deals with the notion that apparently random phenomena in fact have underlying order. In Dulcy and Ted Mahar's much admired garden in Portland, Oregon, it's the same. Dulcy's "creative chaos" in the couple's half-acre-plus garden has in fact evolved with much tender tweaking behind the imposing Georgian Colonial home they bought 22 years ago, mainly for its expansive yard. Her approach: "I break the rules. I go buy things because I fall in love with a plant, and then I walk around until I find a place to put it."
The result is more organized than you'd guess: The ravishing old-fashioned garden shows an English influence in its cottagey borders of perennials. Surrounded by trees, it's a country garden in the city, a creation that pays homage to gardens the Mahars have visited in England and France.
"I love the creative process," says Dulcy. "I'm not artistic, in that I can't produce a painting, but gardening is so forgiving of mistakes. If you make them, they are easy to erase. It provides a way of expressing yourself, of surrounding yourself with beauty. Nature gives you a direct path to that. Plus, it's a habit that's nonaddictive, doesn't make you gain weight, and doesn't get you thrown in jail."
The Mahars' garden focuses less on flowers than on foliage, mostly in the form of shrubs and ornamental trees. Dulcy loves the lush look that foliage gives and the way it ties things together. There are several beguiling little spaces in the garden where one could write a love letter or have a good cry: a pond, a woodland area, a fire pit, several pathways, a greenhouse, and even a pet cemetery. There's also a knot garden,where boxwood marches in a symmetrical design. "It's a touch of formality among the chaos of unrestrained plants," Dulcy notes, "and no-care except for pruning."
In the land of Mahar, lightheartedness rules. In fact, the animal-loving couple's mutt, Ernie, won their hearts via a "letter" ghostwritten by a veterinarian friend. "I love whimsy, and I collect things," Dulcy says. "Sometimes I fear I'm over the top. Your taste changes over the years. I started out folksy, then I wanted to be more sophisticated, and now I've gone back to what I like, even if it's not sophisticated." A recovering gnome addict ("they were multiplying dangerously"), Dulcy puts her tongue in cheek as she currently "horrifies" the local gardening community with a flock of pink plastic flamingos that visitors suddenly come upon in a secluded shady spot.
Dulcy, who has a day job at a federal agency, is also well-known in Portland for the witty gardening column she has been writing for The Oregonian for 20 years. (She's never missed a week, even while living with cancer for the last seven years.) Hand-watering is as therapeutic for her as chemo. "There's a peace you get by putting your mind in neutral while you're still doing something," she says. Ted, who is a retired newspaper reporter and film critic, is not a gardener, but, says Dulcy, "never asks how much it costs or where I'll put it. He's very faithful about going with me to nurseries, especially if they have a resident dog or cat."
Lately, after a subtle-hued period, Dulcy has fallen back in love with color, inserting flowers that provide it--"hydrangeas, iris, lilies, and dahlias, which I used to think of as old-lady plants. Now that I'm an old lady, I like them just fine!"
A brief flirtation with white flowers didn't blossom into a romance. She says, "I tried a white garden, but it didn't work very well because I found that white needs to be bracketed by lots of green. There are so many shades of white, and the birds helped me plant it, and suddenly I had pink things in it."
Dulcy has changed her palette many times. "I started out with more primary colors," she recalls, "and now I'm striving for the best of both worlds--a pastel garden in spring turning to a hotter colored garden in late summer and fall. That can work here because we have such a long season.
"When I go to someone else's garden, I often wonder why I've done what I've done, but I think at times a somewhat limited palette is more restful." Among her many favorite flowers are the 'Ann Folker' hardy geranium, for the way "she embroiders herself among other plants," and the 'Sally Holmes' rose. Dulcy says, "Sally is a big voluptuous girl who repeat- blooms with trusses of white single-petaled roses that have a flush of cameo pink. You can stick her in the middle of a crowded border, and she still won't get black spot."
Like many gardeners, Dulcy uses trial, error, and epiphany, looking down on her garden from her house to see an X-ray of its bones. Of a circle centered on an urn, she says, "When we put stones around the edge to make it more important, it was interesting how just the addition of paving changed it."
The couple's garden can be read not only as an autobiography but also as a love story--for nature, for life, for each other. While the arbor Dulcy ordered was a mistake because it came twice as wide as expected, it provided a wonderful excuse to plant vines, she says. "It became a cave, a grotto. In the evening, Ted and I sit in there with a glass of sherry and look out at the vegetable garden. You can imagine you're in Provence--the farmer and his wife."