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Backyard garden brings a taste of fantasy to Fairbanks

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Posted: Saturday, October 20, 2012 11:30 pm | Updated: 1:27 pm, Wed Apr 10, 2013.

FAIRBANKS — Now that winter has settled its icy self on Fairbanks, it’s hard to imagine that recently there was an idyllic oasis on Rosie Creek bursting with life.

The gardens of Susie and Greg Zimmerman are not visible from the road, but visitors entering their property are transported to another world.

Greg broke ground on the land in 1979. The couple met in 1981 and by 1985 the gardening project had begun. “Having this bit of land triggered something,” Susie said.

Susie said her mother’s idea of gardening was to raise rhododendrons, but Susie has gone way beyond that, teaching herself as she went, learning from gardening shows on television and gardening magazines. She also devours all the plant catalogs she can find. “It became a passion for me,” she said, gazing lovingly at the view from her deck. “It just took a while.

“Neither one of us saw this coming,” Susie said. While Greg knew how to build the house, an amazing confection in the style of “Disney goes to Tuscany,” Susie had little knowledge of gardening in the beginning, but has progressed so much that she was asked to manage a plot at the Georgeson Botanical Garden.

“Every year it gets a little better but there have been a few setbacks. I’ve made a lot of mistakes.” Foremost was buying things that don’t thrive in our zone. “I wasted a lot of money,” she said. “My mother always said patience is a virtue and that is true with gardening,” Susie said.

“Some things take four to five years. This didn’t happen quickly.”

In the beginning the Zimmermans hauled in 37 yards of topsoil and seeded the yard with grass. “We’ve been removing the grass ever since,” she said.

Today she has a wonderful core of perennials and adds new and delightful annuals each new growing season. She is now able to grow things such as dwarf goats beard and primroses that she previously couldn’t, crediting climate change for that.

If something doesn’t work for her she moves it or gives it away. “If it doesn’t add to the picture I take it out,” she said.

Part of the garden’s attraction is the birds it draws. “I love birds,” Susie declared. “I have all kinds of habitat, partly for the landscape effect and partly for the birds.”

She denies having any grand plan and explained she is simply creating a setting that looks appealing and inviting. Natural elements such as rocks are mixed in with junipers and flowers. Fish ponds and bird baths bring in the water element, while wind chimes add lovely sounds.

Color is an important factor, with Zimmerman choosing new schemes each year. This summer featured apricot and chocolate. “I see these things in my mind but it’s not there yet,” she said. “I want to make every area a satisfying picture that pleases the eye.”

Asked to select a favorite plant, Zimmerman was stumped. “It’s not possible. It’s draba in early May, primroses later, then trolius and columbines, then lilies. At some point it will be Angelica gigas. When the sun shines on a certain thing we’ll say let’s make that the plant of the week.”

Eyeing her ornamental corn, Zimmerman said she will grow it again but in a different spot. “Live and learn,” she said. “Every year I say next year I’m going to get it right.”

It’s obvious Zimmerman spends an inordinate amount of time on her hobby. “Every minute I can I work on this; I have to keep the castle up.” She has the time now that she and Greg are both retired from the Department of Transportation.

While the back yard is the incredible fantasyland, the front is more utilitarian and is where Susie keeps her vegetable and fruit garden of carrots, potatoes, leeks, squash, strawberries, raspberries, beans, salad greens and herbs.

“I love it here. We rarely leave in the summer.”

Of all the things Zimmerman has learned her advice to share is don’t buy more plants than you can take care of. “Sometimes I’ve gotten a little carried away. Oh and they say if you haven’t killed a plant three times you’re not trying hard enough.”

This column is provided as a service by the UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences and the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station.

Nancy Tarnai is the school and station’s public information officer. She can be reached at ntarnai@alaska.edu.

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