Labor of love

  • Story by Debra Smith / Special to The Herald<
  • Wednesday, May 19, 2004 9:00pm
  • Life

Sometimes during the long and tedious bus ride to work in Seattle, Mariano Ortiz daydreams about his garden.

He envisions the shape and size of a new planting bed, the garden ornaments he might decorate with, and the way he’ll arrange irises, peonies, lamb’s ear, sedum or some other beloved plant.

When Ortiz, 47, finally arrives at his Arlington home late in the evening, he usually heads to his garden, sometimes planting and pruning until it’s too dark to see the hole he’s dug for a bulb.

Six years of dreaming and hard work have turned what Ortiz and his wife, Traci, call “a backyard full of dirt” into a carefully cultivated garden with nearly 200 kinds of perennials.

Michael V. Martina/The Herald

Traci and Mariano Ortiz’s Arlington backyard didn’t have a single tree or plant in it when they purchased their home in 1998 (see inset photo at far left). They have transformed the yard into a bountiful garden with hundreds of plants, seating areas, signs, birdbaths, trellises and a steppingstone path. The bright blue umbrella table and Adirondack chairs at left provide just one of the attractive respites they have created here.

“Work is sometimes stressful,” said Mariano Ortiz, who works in customer service at an international bank. “At the end of the day, sometimes we walk the garden and it’s real soothing. It’s hard to believe we created this – it’s so big there’s no turning back now.”

Except for a few climbing roses peeking over the wooden fence, the backyard garden is hidden behind their ordinary suburban house. Rounded planting beds – etched out of what was rich pastureland and mounded with mulching mix – sprout dozens of bearded irises, ornamental grasses, rhododendrons, azaleas and lilacs.

An eight-foot tall sunburst of New Zealand flax grass is the centerpiece of the garden. Tiny pink roses twine around an arbor and trellises. While the garden is filled mainly with perennials, there are also lavender, sage, mint, rosemary and thyme. The mixed smell of herbs and roses wafts sweet and pungent.

This house is the first the couple has owned during 13 years of marriage, and when they purchased the new home in 1998, Mariano Ortiz was eager to garden, although he had little experience. He browses through magazines for ideas but mostly follows his instincts.

Michael V. Martina/The Herald

Mariano and Traci Ortiz have transformed their back yard, which didn’t have a sinlge tree or plant in it when they bought the home in 1998, into a beautiful garden. They have included hundreds of different plants, seating areas, signs, bird baths and bird houses, trellises and a 146 stepping-stone path among other features.

He did almost all the work himself, cutting the sod and muscling wheelbarrow loads of dirt, mulch and rocks into the backyard. He constructed pebble pathways lined with steppingstones that lead visitors to several sets of wooden lawn furniture he’s painted bright blue – his favorite color – and he’s created a dry riverbed filled with rocks pulled from his father-in-law’s land in Acme.

Traditional rules of gardening are often ignored. Mariano Ortiz sometimes layers smaller plants behind larger ones, for instance.

“If you’re interested, you’ll look behind,” he said.

While the couple often has a plan when they visit the nursery, they are just as likely to buy plants on a whim.

“We’re not professionals,” Traci Ortiz said. “When we first started it was like, oh, let’s look at this tag – this looks like it’s going to bloom a cool color so let’s take it.”

The grouping of plants at times reflects this eclectic spirit with Mariano Ortiz favoring unique plant combinations and texture groupings such as a Japanese crimson queen maple with yarrow. He enjoys experimentation and will often uproot and move plants several times.

“The different colors, plant combinations and leaf textures is what makes the garden,” he said. “Some of the combinations I do are just trial and error. I try to visualize what might work together and after a while you get better at it.”

The couple estimates they’ve spent at least several thousand dollars on plants, and Mariano Ortiz says he keeps costs down by taking freebies from neighbors, scanning the newspaper for free plants, and buying plants that are self-seeding or that can be divided.

The choice of garden art reflects their easy-going style. Both are cat lovers, and they’ve immortalized past and present felines by hand-painting their names on street signs topped with birdhouses. Stone birdbaths, hand-painted signs and twinkling wind chimes are scattered throughout.

Mariano Ortiz’s work in the garden has slowed in recent months after a doctor diagnosed him with leukemia last summer. He’s been in remission since February.

“Before, I could spend all day working out here. Now I come out for an hour or two, and I don’t attack the work as hard as I used to. I have to take breaks,” he said.

The garden is an continuing hobby and the two have plans for more planting beds, a water feature and perhaps a gazebo.

“It’s peaceful out here,” Traci Ortiz said, looking east over the backyard fence toward the Cascades. “You don’t have to live on a farm or travel a hundred miles to get away. It’s nice and quiet.”

Debra Smith is an Everett freelance writer. You can e-mail her at features@heraldnet.com.

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