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A garden of May delights

The Entrance Garden from The Woods at Chase Garden. Credit: Jackie Hiltz

To create a home, however humble, a place to call one's own, is a deeply human urge. As is the desire to leave something of importance behind, some evidence of what we've done with our time. In mid-life, Ione (1909-2006) and Emmott Chase (1910-2010) embarked upon a project to build a home and create a garden on a bluff in the shadow of Mount Rainier, a stone's throw from where they grew up.

For over four decades, the couple designed and conjured up a 4.5-acre naturalistic garden with mountain meadows, woodlands, and Japanese and alpine rock gardens that reflected their infatuation with the Pacific Northwest landscape and the partnership that was their marriage of 74 years. Ione Chase's vision translated into the garden's design but the two worked together to implement it. Ione's goal had been simple: to make a beautiful place to live.

Today, Chase Garden, in the Orting area near Graham and about an hour south of Seattle on the way to Mount Rainier, is something that anyone can enjoy. The landscape is at its peak for viewing in May, and admission is free on Mother's Day for mothers. (This story has been updated since it first appeared to correct information about the admissions on Mother's Day and Father's Day; admissions details below.)

In some ways the Chases' marriage was a traditional one with carefully circumscribed spheres. Ione was a homemaker, a "nest builder," as she put it, and Emmott was the breadwinner. She loved to sew and garden; he loved guns and hunting for elk in the foothills of Mount Rainier. She believed a woman's role was to refine a man. Yet they never had children, and there was satisfying overlap in their passions: they enjoyed hiking and camping in Mount Rainier National Park, summers at the cabin they built together in British Columbia, and the evolution of their garden near Orting.

Emmott and Ione were high school sweethearts who had gone to school in the logging community of Kapowsin in Pierce County. After graduation, Ione studied art history at the University of Puget Sound for two years and then completed a pattern-making course in Long Beach, California. Emmott followed in his father's footsteps and worked at the electron division of Puget Sound Power and Light Company, a career that spanned 47 years. When Ione received her certificate in 1932, Emmott brought her home but not before marrying her in Yuma, Arizona, on the drive back. Then in their early twenties, the two set up their first home in a company house in Electron, overlooking the canyon that sheltered the power plant southeast of Tacoma.

In 1943 they bought 12 acres of land located on a bench 200 feet above the Puyallup River valley and not far from where Ione had played as a child. It had been logged in 1908 but had a forest of small second-growth Douglas fir, cedar, hemlock, and bigleaf and vine maple that enchanted Ione. The views down the valley and up toward Mount Rainier were grand. At the time of its purchase for $425, the property itself was probably nothing to look at but Ione and Emmott could imagine its potential.

The Chases did not begin serious work on the land until 1956. They started by clearing out big stumps, alders, and cedars. They used dynamite on the stumps and a bulldozer to gather piles to burn. In this process, Emmott described his wife as a "human dynamo." He recalled going to work and returning to find that Ione had a pile of debris 10 feet high. The blackberry thickets were removed and the weeds covered with layers of newspapers and six inches of sawdust. After two years, the mulch was rototilled into the existing soil.

Although 15 years had passed in Electron before the Chases began their lifework near Orting, their life near the power station was a kind of apprenticeship for what they would create together in mid-life. In Electron, Ione built stone walls around their company house, which in the spirit of home improvement, the two of them "practically tore apart and put … together again." She had a large garden that she was continually expanding and enhancing. In addition, they built a cabin accessible only by boat on Quesnal Lake in British Columbia.

Meanwhile Ione thought deeply about the kind of house and garden she wanted. She immersed herself in books about architecture and gardens at the local library while Emmott would "BS," as Ione said, with the fellows at the gun store. The simplicity of Japanese architecture and Zen gardens especially intrigued her. Over the years she compiled a folder of notes and magazine clippings about what she wanted. Other than her marriage, she considered the act of creating their home and garden in Orting as the most serious thing they did.

In 1957 a young architect, K. Walter Johnson, hired by the Chases, took Ione's "stack of papers" and drew up a plan for their house: an understated, one-story, Japanese-inspired house with the main entry oriented to the west, living areas on the south and east and bedrooms on the north side. Theirs was a simple house that blended into the landscape and focused on views of the valley and once planned and planted, the garden.

By 1959 the house was completed with the Chases doing much of the finish work. The focal point of the living room is a fireplace crafted from rocks carefully chosen from the Puyallup River and arranged by Ione. She liked to say that 50 was her favorite age, because upon crossing that threshold, you could say anything you wanted. Ione was 50 years old when they moved into their new house.

Landscape architect Rex Zumwalt of Tacoma designed the area around the house informed by Ione's interest in Japanese aesthetics. His plan included hardscaping features like a covered lanai, terraces, a wooden deck, a reflecting pool, bridges, and stepping stones and placement of native shrubs and trees such as vine maple and mountain hemlock.

The Chases adapted Zumwalt's design to their vision and set about pouring the concrete for the pool and terrace and bringing in suitable rocks to create paths and as sculptural focal points. Ione's "plan" for the garden evolved "as we went along" but it began with rocks, all of which the Chases brought to the property; they discovered many on the hill that sloped up to their home in the hamlet of Electron or in the Puyallup River valley. Working with rocks was a fascinating challenge to her. "I studied rocks until I felt like I had rocks in my head," Ione recalled late in her life. She loved pondering which side of a boulder to expose, how deeply to bury it for greatest effect in the landscape. With Emmott providing the heavy lifting, she could afford to be picky.

Over time the Chases enhanced an intact young woodland and created a mountain meadow, a rock garden, and other beds highlighted by native trees and shrubs. All of these garden spaces were connected with meandering, curved paths, some with Ione's beloved rocks as stepping stones, others with pea gravel, effortlessly linking one to another and to unfolding views of the river valley and the mountain. In their youth Emmott and Ione had hiked nearly every trail in Mount Rainier National Park.

Their deep knowledge of and intimacy with the contours and flora of the Pacific Northwest informed Ione's vision and her selection of plants for the garden. Emmott's work with Puget Sound Power and Light gave him access to heavy equipment and many logging roads in the area, where they were free to gather natives for their garden. The clumps of bear grass (Xerophyllum tenax) hail from under the power lines at Stampede Pass. The colonies of white-flowered Anemone deltoides were discovered along a logging road toward Mount Rainier while the couple was looking for a grizzly bear after an alleged sighting. The western hemlock grove (Tsuga heterophylla) on the southeast edge of the front lawn was planted in the 1960s with small trees collected from a logging road outside Enumclaw.

But the land also had its own share of native plants, which the Chases preserved and encouraged. "The Woods," the area of native trees, understory, and ground covers above the house, was Ione's "church" and also Emmott's favorite part of the garden. Along with vanilla leaf (Achyls triphylla), evergreen and yellow wood violets, star-flowered false Solomon seal (Smilacina stellata), the Trillium (Trillium ovatum) were there when they moved in, but Ione coaxed them to multiply by collecting and scattering their seeds and patiently waiting: Trillium take seven years to bloom. To accompany the resident natives, she planted Oregon wood sorrel (Oxalis oregana), Synthyris reniformis, maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum), and fawn lily (Erythronium oregonum).

Ione loved native plants, but she was no purist and was a self-described "plant fool" through and through. She scouted out plants that were similar to the natives or would mesh well in her design. She and Emmott consistently made the rounds to several local and northwest nurseries including Wells-Medina, The Plant Farm (now defunct), Windmill Nursery (Sumner), and Siskiyou Rare Plant Nursery (Oregon). And as any true gardener, she propagated plants she had and incorporated starts from friends and visitors to the garden. The heather beds planted along the driveway and slope next to the woods originated from just a few plants of Erica carnea 'Springwood White' from a friend that Ione divided and replanted until the banks were a white carpet of heather.

In the 1970s Ione began creating one of the more unique features of the garden: tapestries of ground covers that suggest the mountain meadows she hiked in her childhood. While Emmott was a charming storyteller and at ease in front of other people, Ione was introspective and observant. As with rocks, she scrutinized plants and was always imagining possible combinations and identifying exotics as good substitutes for native plants.

As an accomplished seamstress, she loved the drape and feel of fabric. Her power of observation and an aesthetic developed from years of sewing must have guided her as she selected perennials that she planted in great drifts in the 3/4-acre meadow. Originally there was more variety — primroses, Iris, Arabis, woolly thyme, but the more vigorous ground covers — Phlox subulata, Lithodora, and Ajuga — have triumphed. While beauty was one of Ione's criteria for plant selection, another was utility.

Chase Garden is at its colorful peak in May when the meadow and many of the rhododendrons, magnolias, and dogwoods, are in bloom. Because they vacationed at their remote cabin in B.C. during mid-summer, Ione focused on spring bloomers and plants that didn't need extra water during the dry Pacific Northwest summer. Currently at the garden, a perennial bed is in the works, which will extend interest through the summer and into fall when the maples begin to color up.

A garden is living art that is never done and always changing. In 2001 at the age of 91 and after 40 years of work, Ione observed, "The garden is finally starting to take shape … finally come together." And, yet, she continued, there is "still more to be made." Ione passed away in 2006 at age 97 and Emmott in 2010 at 99, their ashes scattered in The Woods as they wished. Thanks to the Garden Conservancy, a non-profit organization headquartered in New York that saves and preserves exceptional American gardens, Chase Garden will continue to evolve in the spirit of its creators. When Emmott died, the Garden Conservancy assumed ownership of the property and now operates it as public garden.

In April I spent a day at Chase Garden doing research for this article. It was classically spring: chilly with occasional downpours punctuated by bouts of sunshine. While indoors reading interview transcripts, thumbing through photographs, and talking to head gardener Jeannette Matthews, I sat at a round table in the room where the Chases once watched television and Ione had sewed. Four large windows face out to the river valley and Mount Rainier, invisible that day. As Matthews and I talked, I spotted a bald eagle flying toward us, one talon grasping a large stick. It swooped over the lawn and as it approached the windows, soared up and over the roof.

Later that afternoon a giant double rainbow appeared against a backdrop of dark gray across the valley. I like to think of the bald eagle flying to its eyrie beyond the woodland garden as a symbol of our basic urge to create shelter and home, and of the double rainbow as a symbol of the human desire to experience and create beauty, however transient. Ione and Emmott Chase found a piece of logged land in the Puyallup River valley, "their little corner of the earth," as Ione called it, and as she had aspired, left a "mark as least as lovely as I found it." And then some.

If you go:  Admission, free for mothers on Mother's Day (May 13), when it is open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.; others over the age of 12 are $5. Otherwise, the garden is open Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays from April through October, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Admission, $5 per person; free for fathers on Father's Day (June 17). Details and directions here.

This story has been updated since it first appeared to correct information about the admissions on Mother's Day and Father's Day.

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