When Nora Cohen and her husband Mickey moved into their northwest Corvallis home 11 years ago, her steep front yard was a thicket of invasive ivy. It took a team of very strong workers to remove the ivy, which had established itself decades before and was rooted down about three feet with rope-like tendrils.
But even after the ivy was removed, another obstacle presented itself. The bare front yard was steeply sloped, and needed a lot of ingenuity to become something attractive.
“I didn’t know anything about gardening,” Cohen said. But a lifelong educator who is now an associate professor with the College of Education at Oregon State University, Cohen was accustomed to tackling difficult problems in a very straightforward way. She began reading everything she could get her hands on about gardening, and taking advice from friends who knew what they were doing.
“I dreamed about plants,” she said, as she began immersing herself in the world of gardens.
She poured over garden catalogs, plotted her dreams on graph paper, and called old college buddies for suggestions. The best advice she received was that gardens are never complete – they’re always a work in progress.
“What a great idea! Nature takes its course,” she said. “Some things work and some don’t.”
What worked for her front yard was creating a series of tiers, lined with rocks, in a stair-step fashion, so that plants had a level space to grow. Then she began experimenting with plantings to see what thrived, and what got tossed out.
“I’m even allowing some spontaneous natives, like mulleins, to grow,” she said. “I think they’re very dramatic. If nature helps, and it has some attraction, why not? I’m learning to be really relaxed about it.”
Being relaxed isn’t easy, especially because Cohen’s yard seems to be a series of challenges. Just when she got the right mix of perennial flowers, thickets of hostas and lots of roses and peonies scattered about, the neighborhood deer moved in and made a Sunday brunch out of the yard.
And when a neighbor’s pine tree fell on their house this spring, and their own began leaning dangerously, they suddenly ended up with a bright and bare patch of yard where cool shade once dominated. This dramatic shift means what once worked on that side of the yard is no longer right for the space.
Despite the challenges, Cohen feels deeply connected to her yard. She also has a cutting garden on a farm she and her husband own in Fall Creek. Between the two gardens she’s able to harvest big bouquets for friends, family and co-workers during a large portion of the year.
In fact, after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Cohen turned to her garden for comfort, and found flowers helped her in ways that words couldn’t. She went to her farm and picked a large number of bouquets, and then went knocking on neighbors’ doors back in Corvallis, delivering bunches to everyone. It gave her and her neighbors a chance to connect, and even cry a little, after the events of the day.
“It’s become a tradition. Every Sept. 11 I pick 30 bouquets of dahlias and zinnias, whatever is available.”
She has planted fruit trees along the parking strip in front of her house so that passersby can enjoy fruit as they walk. The fruit from the trees and shrubs on her farm she uses to make into jam, which she often gives away as gifts. She’s made enough that she now sells the jam to co-workers, and uses the proceeds to donate to the Linn-Benton Food Share. She was able to make $400 last year for the food bank.
And in addition to the bounty she shares with friends, there’s the satisfaction of stepping back and just watching the garden through all its phases.
“There’s just always something magic.”
~ Theresa Hogue