An Everett yard becomes a place of bounty

Want to plant a home vegetable garden but don’t know where to start?

Mary Ann Pliml and Andy Sudkamp’s garden is a good place to find inspiration.

In four years, the Everett couple has transformed a grassy sliver of a city lot into their personal Eden. See it as one of six gardens on the annual Gardens of Merit tour Saturday in Everett.

“Our garden has undergone a pretty radical alteration,” Andy Sudkamp said.

No kidding.

When they purchased this 1923 north Everett bungalow four years ago, the yard was typical. Today this place is a yard farm.

“What we really want is something blooming, something to eat and a whole lot to enjoy with friends and family everyday of the year,” Pliml said.

Ten kinds of fruit grow here and so do pounds of vegetables that keep them fed year-round. They baked cranberries into a pie at Thanksgiving and feasted on roasted root vegetables with Christmas dinner.

Even with this spring’s cruddy weather, they’re eating squash and fava beans while we’re paying purse-emptying prices at the grocery store. All in a back yard that’s 70 by 40 feet and on a shoestring budget.

This yard is as beautiful as it is bountiful. They’ve landscaped part of the back yard into an outdoor living room where they sit even in winter, warmed by a patio heater.

There’s a bog garden with carnivorous plants that eat the hornets, a basalt rock water feature, a drought-tolerant front yard, a green roof on the tool shed and a shade garden with ferns, just to show the north side of the house need not be boring.

The couple estimates they’ve squeezed in 400 kinds of plants.

Both are seasoned gardeners. Sudkamp earned a botany degree and teaches biology at Everett High School. Before that he worked 15 years for a nursery in southern Oregon.

Pliml worked for the National Forest Service and lived in rural Minnesota, growing an extensive subsistence garden. She also ran a dog training business and creates stained glass. She now works for Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville. Sudkamp called her a Renaissance woman.

Don’t be intimidated by their plant resumes. Anybody can grow a garden, they said. It’s a great feeling to walk into their yard any day of the year and eat something, to grow enough food to share with the neighbors, to eat the most amazing-tasting asparagus grilled moments after picking.

“Novices can do this,” she said. “They only have to begin. Once they do, they won’t be novices for long. It only takes a spark to get it going.”

Reporter Debra Smith: 425-339-3197 or Read her blog at

You, too, can grow food on a city lot and a budget. Some ideas from Mary Ann Pliml and Andy Sudkamp’s Everett garden.

Make a plan: First sketch out the yard and label what’s there, Sudkamp said. Make sure there’s an out-of-the-way spot for utility items such as the compost heap and the trash bins.

Then think about structural elements such as sheds, raised beds, trees and paths.

The couple wanted to visually break up their long, narrow back yard and separate the garden room from the raised veggie beds so they planned a trellis, a screen made of bamboo and plants.

They came up with some creative solutions for the eyesores in their yard too. They used wood fencing to cover the front of an ugly metal shed, for instance.

Move it: One of the first things they did was rip out an ailing camellia they didn’t care for and move a Japanese maple they did.

Don’t hesitate to grab a shovel and move plants. They’ve moved some in their yard two or three times, searching for the right plant combination.

Transplants need more supplemental water until they’re established.

Build raised beds: Soil in raised beds warms faster and drains better. It’s easy to create a cold frame for winter gardening by adding a sheet of twin-wall polycarbonate, available at greenhouse supply stores for about $15.

The couple said they built two cold frames for $50 and that price included the wood and the polycarbonate. The lid is attached with a hinge, so they can prop open the lid on a hot, sunny day or remove it.

Go vertical: Make use of the space along fences and walls, especially those that face south. They grow raspberries on a trellis built in a narrow strip between the house and a walkway to the back yard. In the back yard, peas, beans, grapes and hops grow up trellises. Cucumbers and pumpkins can be trained to grow up a trellis.

The simplest way to make a trellis is to take three sticks and make a teepee, they said. Cedar and bamboo work well.

Be creative and consider found objects such as bed frames or an old ladder.

Go horizontal: Create outdoor shelves on the inside of the fence. The couple keeps a collection of cacti in pots on a shelf. It’s visually interesting and a good way to use space.

Buy small and wait: They bought all their plants in 4-inch or gallon-sized pots. By being patient, they’ve saved a lot of money.

“We don’t look for plants on the cheap, we are just patient gardeners,” Pliml said. “Part of our gardening ethos is that we just take time to sit, watch and consider what will work, what won’t work as well as what can be in the future. We cultivate as opposed to instant gratification.”

Build good soil: The couple said they were lucky to have good loam to start with, on top of a sandy river loam. Most of their perennials require little but occasional composting.

They add horse and cow manures, homemade compost and Cedar Grove compost to the vegetable raised beds. Anytime they start a new bed, they add compost. They also amend with compost two to three times a year.

Repurpose: They use bowling balls, pots, glassware, old lamps and garden art from thrift stores. She found free boulders on Craig’s List and turned an old bamboo chair into a trellis for beans.

“Don’t be afraid to look around with new eyes at old objects,” she said. “Be creative. Do what works. Do what feels good to you. If it doesn’t work, donate it back.”

Mix in the edibles: All vegetables and herbs are ornamentals, the couple said. Almost all edibles love full sun. Many herbs are perennials and many are drought-tolerant Mediterranean plants. Others, such as parsley, lovage, tarragon and dill, prefer moist rich soils.

Many edibles give you something to eat and provide great structure, texture and beauty. Consider the blueberry: Great spring and fall colors, wonderful spring flowers, attractive to pollinators and delicious. They added a dwarf variety to their mixed beds.

Don’t hesitate to use edibles in pots too. Parsley adds great texture to patio pots. If you don’t have much space, try a columnar apple tree, which can be grown in a large patio pot.

DIY: You’d be surprised what you can accomplish with a little homework and lots of sweat.

The couple built a sandstone patio and paths for less than $1,000. They created a level area, smoothed and pressed an 18-inch layer of sand, and then laid 3 1/2 tons of sandstone.

Plenty of free how-to resources are available online, at the library and at the local extension office.

Green roof how-to

Mary Ann Pliml and Andy Sudkamp built a base using 3/4-inch plywood for the base and 1-inch-by-2-inch cedar for the rim and then used a piece of pond liner to line it.

They lined the bottom with a soil mix: The bottom 1 inch is coarse grit. On top of that they added a mix of equal parts sand, pumice and peat.

They used fiberglass screen on the front edge to allow for drainage and to keep the soil from washing out. It’s angled about 60 degrees to keep the water from pooling.

The roof is planted with sedums and sempervivums, which are drought tolerant. They chose these plants for the roof because they will thrive.

Gardens of Merit tour is Saturday

When: The eighth annual Gardens of Merit Tour is 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday.

What: The self-guided tour starts at the Evergreen Arboretum and Gardens and includes six Everett gardens.

How much: Tickets costs $10. Purchase tickets the morning of the tour at the arboretum, 145 Alverson Blvd., Everett.

What else: From 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the arboretum, tour guests also can buy plants at a plant sale, enter to win a raffle drawing, enjoy refreshments and listen to live music.

Information: 425-257-8597 or online at

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