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Oh, my aching muscles...


A Great Gardener & Garden
By Marty Wingate

The vision of an English style garden drew Monte and Diane Powell to a derelict piece of land along South Dash Point Road in Federal Way.  It's not the first thing that most of us would think of when we saw land that had been used as a dumping ground by the highway department, but the Powells were inspired by the private gardens they'd visited in England, where owners opened their gates to visitors.

The result of their idea is PowellsWood, a three-acre landscaped garden in the English style including big, deep perennial borders and a woodland walk, all surrounded by natural areas and a busy road--the latter is unnoticed as you wander around the property.

The property was surplussed by the water district--where Powell was the naturalist--in the early 1990s, and bought by a developer.  When a deal with the parks department fell through, the Powells stepped in and bought the 20-acre property, and a further 20 acres, from the developer.  And then the work began.

Local landscape architect Ned Gulbran drew up plans for the garden, and the former head gardener Richard Hildner did much of the initial planting.  But Monte Powell is a Master Gardener, and interned at the Royal Horticultural Society Garden Harlow Carr, and so had a strong hand in the day-to-day gardening.  Today, head gardener Avril Steele carries out day-to-day responsibilities, but, although Powell hasn't had the chance to get his hands dirty everyday in the last couple of years, he is still a gardener.

Recently, Monte Powell took time to talk about the garden and its development.

What did you find when you started working on the land?

The soil was in terrible condition.  Parts of it were so bad that weeds wouldn't even grow.  The highway department had used it to dump, and we found the usual glacial till soil plus road rubble.  There were pieces of old curbing that might weigh 300 pounds.  There was asphalt, and, of course, an old car or two.

After clearing the land, what did you do?

We were able to test mulches from different sources, including Cedar Grove.  That lasted two years, and I ended up with hundreds of yards of great mulch.  It made all the difference in the plants.

I've taken garden classes in England, and one of the teachers said to me at the end of a class, "If you get nothing else right, get the soil right."  That was the turning point for me--I got the soil right.

How did you create the stream that runs through the perennial border from the bridge to the pond?

It's manmade.  I had drainage coming from next door and runoff from the road.  I dug a channel and put in a liner, and covered it with river rocks.  I made pockets along the way for iris and other water-loving plants.  The stream flows into the pond where I have water lilies and other plants, and then it's pumped back up to the bridge.

If the pond overflows, it's engineered to flow down into the natural area and on out into the Sound.  The pond never quite runs dry in the summer.  It's amazing to take the dirty water off the road and run it through here--it becomes crystal clear.  It's a great biofilter.

Did you have any other drainage issues?

I realized I had poor drainage in the lower part of the garden when I saw the rhododendrons looking bad--they were a little droopy, and I realized they were waterlogged.  I dug them out and installed French drains that sent the water to the lowest spot, then I raised the bed 6 inches, and replanted the rhododendrons.  They're doing really well now.

What's the difference between private English gardens and ours?

Well, most of their gardens are a lot older than ours.  They have a lot of structure in the gardens, but at the same time, really great plant combinations.  And the color combinations are great.  They're just really crazy plant collectors--the gardens are really packed.

How has PowellsWood developed?

This garden really gets going when the weather warms up.  And besides a great summer, we have a really strong fall.  There are lots of asters, and other interest.

Monte's favorite plants

Plants with a purpose are tops on his list, especially hedge plants because they are friendlier than fences.  PowellsWood includes hedge plants such as the Leyland cypress (xCuprocyparis leylandii) and Portuguese laurel (Prunus lusitanica), both of which are kept clipped to 15 feet.

Perennials with more than just flowers are an asset.  Powell includes many ferns in the garden, but one of his favorites is the Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum var. pictum).  And black mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens') also adds color.  And the native Douglas iris (Iris douglasiana) makes a good show in May with little attention.

Powell was obviously influenced by his visits to England when he chose one of the many cultivars of the graceful, stately European beech (Fagus sylvatica) as a favorite.  The foliage of 'Tricolor' starts out dark bronze with a pinkish edge; in late summer the leaves turn a sage green with a creamy edge.

Visit PowellsWood

PowellsWood is open April through September, Tuesday-Thursday from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. and by appointment.  Entrance fee is $5 for a self-guided tour; guided tours are available by appointment. Mother's Day weekend, it is open Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. The fall festival is held on September 9 and 10 from 10 a.m.-5 p.m.  Special event weekend entrance fee is $5. 

Garden clubs and other organizations are welcome to hold their meetings and events at PowellsWood, where they can enjoy the gardens and have full access to the Garden House, which includes a kitchen and restroom.  Contact the garden for rates.

PowellsWood is located at 430 S. Dash Pt. Rd., Federal Way; for more information: 253-529-1620,,

PowellsWood is located at 430 S. Dash Pt. Rd., Federal Way; for more information call: 253-529-1620

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