She and her husband, Rand, are transplants from Indiana.
They came to Camano Island in 2007, dreaming of a longer gardening season, year-round hiking and waterfront living.
They are not disappointed.
“From gardening in the Midwest to now gardening in Puget Sound is like going from black and white to glorious color,” Gail Nilsson said. “It's been a fabulous experience to become familiar with the hundreds of flowers, blooming shrubs and evergreen shrubs that thrive here.”
In Indiana, evergreen meant only conifers and boxwoods.
“I'd never heard of salal, of nandina, of pieris,” Gail Nilsson said, asking: “Why didn't we live here 30 years ago?”
Once they were settled in their southwest-facing view home on the southern end of the island, the Nilssons hired Everett-based landscape designer Zsofia Pasztor with Innovative Landscape Technologies.
Today, just 2 ½ years since they started their garden renovations, the glory of their sunny, sloped paradise — once just weeds and lawn — has landed them on the third annual Camano Island Backyard Wildlife Habitat Garden Tour on June 26.
Perched on a half-acre of wide, open high-bank waterfront, their garden will be one of nine on the tour certified by the National Wildlife Federation as a backyard wildlife habitat.
Creating a welcoming environment for birds, bees, butterflies and other wildlife was a natural fit for the couple.
Gail Nilsson, a 62-year-old retired certified public accountant, took backyard wildlife stewardship classes when she wasn't luxuriating in the bountiful year-round stock at local nurseries.
In October 2007, the Nilssons had 1,700 plants installed.
Though most of them were small, coming out of 4-inch pots to keep costs down, that meant waiting awhile for a bountiful garden.
“I was disappointed at first because it was so sparse,” Gail Nilsson said, likening their newly planted garden to a moonscape.
Today, however, the garden has exploded into full size with many once-tiny plants now 3 feet high and wide.
Because of their patience, the Nilssons now don't have to divide all their perennials and move everything around to give plants proper spacing.
Groupings of perennials such as Autumn Joy sedum, coreopsis and large-leafed lupines are set to put on a stellar summer show, along with an impressive array of ground covers.
Seemingly endless swales of thyme, sedum, ajuga, brass buttons, violets and kinnikinnick cover the garden beds, all thriving.
Even finicky bunchberry, a creeping dogwood ground cover that typically prefers a shaded or woodland garden, is flourishing in the garden's full sun, along with a large mound of oxalis.
Trees and shrubs in the Nilssons' hillside garden are just getting established, including hydrangeas and rhododendrons.
But there are some large specimens to see here, too, including two mature ceanothus shrubs, pruned into graceful tree shapes, their purple spays of flowers humming with bees.
Just beyond the home's back patio, there is a slightly nibbled rose hedge, the sacrificial lamb of the garden, a treat for the local deer, who seem to be leaving most of the other plants alone.
The Nilssons also peacefully coexist with myriad birds.
Gangs of resident hummingbirds shoot around the yard in what appears to be a constant party, especially in the columbine.
Goldfinches populate thistle socks in the back yard. Suet feeders, native plants and intentionally left-behind seedheads accommodate woodpeckers, Stellar's jays, grosbeaks, nuthatches and flickers.
Rand Nilsson, 64, a retired attorney, relishes the opportunity to learn all about the local birds and wildlife.
“There's a cedar waxwing,” he said excitedly on a recent morning walk through the garden. “We don't usually get those.”
The Nilssons' hillside location presents some special challenges, including hot western exposure, invasive blackberries and a constant battle with erosion.
To keep mulch from washing down the hillside, Pasztor recently put in strategically placed Filtrexx GardenSoxx, large mesh tubes of compost and soil that absorb water and help stabilize certain areas.
They weigh up to 50 pounds and can be torn open slightly to make planting holes for groundcovers and other smaller specimens.
“They are lot easier to handle than concrete blocks,” Pasztor said of the Soxx. “They can be planted, so they turn into a natural cliffside that we see in nature. It's unbelievable what you can do. They are really just magical.”
There's one more thing the Nilssons don't take for granted — their invaluable view, a massive panorama of sparkling blue water, Whidbey Island and the Olympic Mountains beyond.
“Down here,” Gail Nilsson said, “it's like living in paradise.”
Sarah Jackson: 425-339-3037, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Zsofia Pasztor, Innovative Landscape Technologies, Everett; 425-210-5541, www.innovativelandscapetechnologies.com
Filtrexx GardenSoxx: Learn more about compost-filled GardenSoxx, available from Cedar Grove Composting in Everett. See www.cedar-grove.com under “Products and Pricing” or call 877-764-5748. Soxx cost $12.50 each and weight 35 to 50 pounds.
About backyard wildlife habitats
In 2005, Camano Island became the 10th residential community in the nation to be certified by the National Wildlife Federation as a community wildlife habitat with more than 740 properties certified as backyard wildlife habitats.
Backyard habitats must provide four essential elements for wildlife: food, water, shelter and places to raise young. Learn more at www.nwf.org.
About the tour
What: The Camano Island Backyard Wildlife Habitat Garden Tour will feature nine residential gardens certified by the National Wildlife Federation as backyard wildlife habitats. Gardens, all within 15 minutes of each other on the southern third of the island, range from small to large, simple to extravagant and deeply forested to waterfront.
When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. June 26
Where: Pick up maps starting at 9:30 a.m. June 26 at the Camano Multipurpose Center, 141 East Camano Drive, a blue building south of Camano Plaza.
Information on native plants, wildlife, composting, as well as challenges faced on particular properties, will be available for visitors. Master gardeners will be on hand to answer questions. The event is organized by the Camano Wildlife Habitat Project, a program sponsored by Friends of Camano Island Parks. Relevant native plants will be available for purchase at Orchards Nursery in Stanwood.
Information: Call 360-387-2236 or see www.camanowildlifehabitat.org.
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