There was no garden to speak of in 2008, when Ken and Marge Crouch found the 1.7-acre Camas property that would someday become their oasis.
“There was nothing here,” Ken said. “There was no curb appeal.”
Today — after years of hard work, mixed with ingenuity, resourcefulness and natural gardening skills gleaned from local gardening experts, nursery staff and western gardening books Marge picked up at Powell’s Books in Portland — the couple’s land is a peaceful refuge teeming with hardy native plants, fruit trees, flowers and wildlife visitors, with ample space for the couple’s six grandchildren to run and play amongst the greenery.
“It’s so peaceful and quiet here, especially at night,” Ken said.
Now retired — Marge had been a fifth-grade teacher and librarian in the Camas School District since 1993; and Ken spent 20 years in airline catering business and 20 years as a district manager for retail convenience stores before retiring in 2017 — the couple say they garden for exercise as well as for the serenity that washes over them when they’re busy weeding, planting and plotting their next garden addition.
“I’ll go out to garden with an audiobook and can’t believe I’m out there five hours later,” Marge said. “It really does give you a peaceful feeling.”
Now, the Camas couple is sharing some tricks of the trade — as well as providing ample inspiration — to people interested in creating their own natural backyard oasis. The Crouches’ “Hill of a Garden” is one of 13 featured in this year’s Clark County Green Neighbors’ Natural Garden Tour.
A self-guided tour traditionally held the third Sunday in July throughout Clark County, the Natural Garden Tour showcases gardens that “thrive without the use of synthetic chemicals and include a wide variety of natural features and innovative gardening techniques.”
That certainly holds true for the Camas couple’s garden. Ken and Marge java-filled their garden with drought-tolerant native plants, groundcover, flowers and fruit trees that thrive without the use of chemicals.
“We have a well, so we don’t want chemicals in our drainage system,” Marge said. “And (natural gardening) is a fun challenge to see how we can work with nature.”
The couple also has found ways to keep their gardening expenses down, getting plants from neighbors and friends who are thinning out their gardens; gleaning bark chips from local companies hoping to offload the excellent path-making material; finding free plants being given away on sites like Craigslist; and heading to local plant sales like the Two Rivers Heritage Museum in Washougal’s annual May sale and those hosted by the Washington State University Master Gardener Foundation and Center for Agriculture, Science and Environmental Education (CASEE) in Hazel Dell and Brush Prairie.
Ken is skilled at upcycling materials for the couple’s garden, using the top of a free table off Craigslist to create an artistic climbing wall for some clematis and crafting the table’s legs into a fly-shaped piece of garden art the couple calls “Fly Guy;” turning felled cottonwood trees into fences and an intricate arbor made of tree-bark curls; repurposing olive oil bottles as path liners and upright garden art pieces that catch the sunlight; using the vintage metal springs from a baby crib that held all four of the Crouch children as a climbing frame for some gorgeous trumpet plants; and turning old metal end caps from his former job with grocery retailers to hold pinecones his grandchildren collect from the property so Ken can create a few more pinecone-studded walking paths.
Though the Natural Garden Tour is typically held in-person, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the tour online in 2020 and 2021.
Ken and Marge said they had hoped the 2021 tour would be in-person.
“We went on the tour three years ago, and again two years ago and were accepted (as one of the featured gardens) in 2020, when it went virtual,” Marge said. “We were really hoping that it would not be virtual this year. I can’t wait until it’s in-person again.”
An in-person tour of the couple’s garden comes with several benefits the online version simply cannot provide — the sounds of birds chirping and wind blowing through the trees; the fresh scents of a thriving garden; the up-close look at the artwork the couple’s grandchildren have created; the stories that come around every bend in the garden; perhaps a peek at the couple’s lovely rescued chocolate lab, Hank, who has been enjoying the garden’s many cool, shaded spots this summer; or even one of the resident deer who have their very own path through the Crouches’ garden.
Still, the virtual format has not kept natural gardening enthusiasts away. The Clark County Green Neighbors program reported more than 8,300 video views for the 14 gardens, three backyard wildlife habitat gardens and two demonstration compost sites featured in the 2020 Natural Garden Tour.
“Participants admired a variety of plants and learned about water conservation, composting, inviditing wildlife into the yard and many other techniques that help us live in balance with the ecosystem,” Green Neighbors reported on its tour website at clarkgreenneighbors.org/en/natural-garden-tour.
To take a virtual tour of the 13 gardens featured in the 2021 Natural Garden Tour, including Ken and Marge Crouch’s garden, visit https://bit.ly/3jyFpBJ