A life's masterpiece at Soos Creek Botanical Garden

Maurice Skagen has devoted countless hours and nearly 50 years of his life to creating Soos Creek Botanical Garden.
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Maurice Skagen has devoted countless hours and nearly 50 years of his life to creating Soos Creek Botanical Garden.

The scream of a peacock from the aviary signaled my arrival at Soos Creek Botanical Garden, as well as the uncommon nature of this enterprise in South King County, just off Kent-Kangley Road in Auburn.

The 22-acre home of Maurice Skagen, 75, and his partner, Jim Daly, 71, is former farm and dairy land that they've transformed over 40 years into a grand "stroll garden," now open to the public Wednesday through Saturday. 

The garden embodies the story of Skagen's horticultural devotion and his connection to the land his Norwegian ancestors settled more than 100 years ago. In addition to resident native plants, thousands of trees, shrubs, vines and perennials collected by Skagen are displayed in 11 themed gardens connected by ambling paths that fork to a tributary of Soos Creek.

The garden's focal point, two "opposing borders" 500 feet long and divided by a grassy expanse, was inspired by the writing and work of British garden design maven Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932). The palette of plants in Skagen's Carlmas Long Borders harmoniously blends color, shape and texture — an impressionist painting by nature.

The first time I met Maurice Skagen — a retired Tacoma Community College librarian —  he was on his knees tending to several of 2,000 ferns spanning 47 different species and donated by a local nursery. The nursery stipulated planting all the ferns in the garden rather than selling them at the fundraising plant sales. These days Skagen is assisted by volunteers from TWIGS (Task Workforce for Integrated Ground Support) and two salaried employees, including head gardener Ione Tufts, but for decades before his retirement in 2000, Skagen labored on his own in the garden after work and on weekends.

To my 21st century sensibility, converting acreage that once supported livestock and agriculture into a botanical garden is more evolved than the ubiquitous warehouses and urban sprawl of Kent and Auburn — something unimaginable to Skagen's Norwegian great-grandfather, Ole Oie.

In 1890 Oie arrived in the Northwest from Oie, Norway via North Dakota and Minnesota. He bought 160 acres from the Northern Pacific Railroad on the Soos Creek Plateau, an area that conjured up his homeland. Oie and his family became part of a thriving vibrant community where it was possible to make a respectable living running dairy farms, raising poultry and pigs and growing raspberries and other specialized crops.

By the mid-1960s, when Skagen began to garden on five acres of land purchased in 1905 by one of Ole Oie's sons, the Scandinavian farming community of his youth had all but vanished as farmland was sold for industrial use. With Daly, Skagen bought another 17 acres that once belonged to the Oie family. While pursuing an MBA at the University of Washington, Skagen considered the nursery trade as a profession. His master's thesis explored the profitability of growing nursery stock as liners, which he tested by propagating woody plants such as rhododendrons, azaleas and conifers. Skagen ended up a librarian, but a selection of his thesis material formed the original plantings in the garden.

Skagen began the garden in the 1960s by removing the native alders, but he left other native flora — western red cedar, Douglas fir, vine and bigleaf maple huckleberries, skunk cabbage and bleeding heart. He and Daly raised cows for beef, an experiment that didn't last long but provided fertile conditions for the garden. In 1968, they built their two-story house. A patch of boggy land close to the house became a pond and native water lilies were collected at an aunt's property on Orcas Island. Today other water-loving plants such as gunnera, Darmera peltata and Japanese iris, form a lovely fringe around the giant pond.

Skagen's late aunt, Nettie Hoffman, was an early gardening inspiration. She knew plants and had an eye for color. In her garden beds, she combined old-fashioned perennials such as dianthus, candytuft and basket-of-gold with lilacs, peonies and snowball bush (Viburnium opulus "Sterile). At first, Skagen followed her sensibility in his garden design, but gradually realized that his garden would require a different vision. Twenty-two acres was a different scale than his aunt's one to two acre gardens. He steadily added to his horticultural knowledge by reading widely on gardening.

Garden tours in Britain and Japan in the late 1970s and early 1980s exposed Skagen to international garden aesthetics and plants difficult to find in the United States. The design of Stourhead in southwest England and some of the Japanese gardens he toured encouraged strolling along paths, where different vantages unfolded to reveal botanical surprises. He brought home plants from his travels, including yellow tree peonies and conifers from Japan and Sorbus from Britain — and ideas for re-imagining his garden.

Skagen knew he couldn't create a garden on the level of Stourhead with its centuries of history and scores of gardeners. But he did aim to reinvent his garden as a space traversed by meandering paths and to create landscaping from his house all the way down to the creek.

In Great Britain, he became smitten with the work of garden designer Gertrude Jekyll, whose genius in creating huge artful borders served as inspiration for the Carlmas Long Borders. As a trained and talented painter, Jekyll appreciated and used color theory like no other garden designer.

For his opposing borders, Skagen has embraced Jekyll's color scheme — cool colors sandwiching hot oranges and reds. The chartreuse flower sprays of lady's mantle, the golden yellows of both dwarf Japanese yew and Japanese false cypress and the grey-green foliage and blue-violet flowers of Munstead lavendar are a few of Skagen's selections for the cooler areas of the border. The rich burgundy of Japanese barberry planted throughout the beds blends well with both cool and warm colors. In late spring, the mid-border pops with blooming deciduous azaleas and in summer explodes orange and red with cannas, crocosmias and dahlias.

Even so, Skagen insisted as we walked the border, "I can't get it right." He pointed to one example of a misplaced rose. Another flaw, as he sees it, are his paths, which lead behind the borders on either side, leaving the best view of the garden's overall effect from the grass. Listening to Skagen, I could only conclude that he is grappling with the perennial conundrum of any creative —- the gap between what can be imagined and what is created. Perhaps the long borders don't faithfully adhere to Jekyll's principles. And yet what Skagen has created is clearly a rare feast for the eyes and soul.

While the Carlmas Long Borders are the centerpiece of the garden, paths also beckon to other lovely spaces and unique plants. The Fenzl Garden Room, with its island beds, was inspired by the work of British horticulturalists and plant hunters Alan and Adrian Bloom. As the exposure there is partly sunny, the focus is hardy fuchsias, of which there are 97 different species and cultivars. Hydrangeas bloom for summer interest. And the Eucryphia 'Nymansay,' purchased from Burncoose Nursery in Cornwall, England, shows off white blossoms toward the end of summer.

Planted throughout the garden are climbing roses, clematis and wisteria supported by the framework of towering trees. In early July I enjoyed the Kiftsgate rose draping the branches of a weeping spruce. As a collector, one of Skagen's interests is the evergreen mountain laurel. In and around the Ole and Sarah Skagen Cedar Grove, he has planted over 100 Kalmia species and cultivars that bloom clusters of showy cup-shaped flowers after the rhododendrons and azaleas.

The Cedar Grove, with its large western red cedars, harkens back to the Norwegian settlers to whom Skagen feels connected and whose story he wishes to preserve. Encouraged by his father's cousin, Hazel (Oie) Hartnett, he has established a heritage center on the property that documents the life of the early settlers on the Soos Creek Plateau. Skagen also hopes to preserve the garden for public enjoyment, sparing it from bulldozing and subdivision. He and Daly have created a nonprofit foundation that controls the garden, but stipulates their continued residence on the property.

Soft-spoken and humble, Skagen set out in the 1980s to create a botanical canvas guided by the artistry of a world-renowned garden designer. He yearns to keep alive the voices of a generation on the verge of being forgotten and hopes to someday develop Soos Creek Botanical Garden into a nature preserve for the pleasure of people nearby. And so it is touching that he seems genuinely surprised by his own success. "I can't believe we have a tour group coming all the way from Chehalis," he told me.

I'm glad there's a peacock in the aviary to tout the wonders of Soos Creek Botanical Garden.


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