June is the perfect month to visit other people’s gardens. Why not enjoy the fruits of someone else’s labor rather than fret about your own weedy pathways and roses in need of deadheading?
Lifelong gardener and plantswoman Leanette Bassetti offers the perfect remedy for those of us who are chore-weary and searching for inspiration from the garden. Visit Bassetti’s Crooked Arbor Gardens, a 13-acre Woodinville paradise that Bassetti operates with her husband, Bill Berleman.
The specialty nursery is surrounded by a series of fascinating display gardens, open Fridays and Saturdays through September.
More than 30 artists and plant sellers have a yearly tradition of gathering at Crooked Arbor Gardens to celebrate the marriage of art and horticulture. This year, Bassetti and Berleman will host the 10th annual Garden Art Show and Plant Sale on June 26 and 27.
Bassetti and Berleman know that good food and garden touring are essential companions, prompting them to sell catered lunches and espresso for those who wish to picnic on a grassy expanse while taking in the beauty of a 10-foot-tall metal or ceramic sculpture.
This isn’t a country garden where you’ll find stands of sunflowers or rows of vegetable crops. Instead, it’s an amazing collection of thoughtfully designed garden scenes that reflect the couple’s affection for European, Asian and woodland landscapes, not to mention excellent artwork.
A Northwest native, Bassetti can credit family genes for her green thumb. In the 1950s, her father, Leno Bassetti, owned and operated Bassett Grow Earth, a garden center on Highway 99 in Edmonds, where his children often helped out watering plants and serving customers. (For business reasons, the elder Bassetti dropped the “i” of the family name)
In 1959, he and his wife, Antoinette Bassetti, acquired 160 acres of dairy land and peat bog in Woodinville and turned the property into a production farm for Bassett Western Soil, which operated for two decades.
That was about the time Leanette Bassetti was leaving home to attend college. But she was drawn to the country life in 1982, when her parents invited Bassetti to move to the property, giving her three acres, which has since expanded to 13 acres.
The idea of settling here intrigued her.
“I always wanted a little nursery,” she said.
While working as an administrator at the University of Washington, Bassetti and Berleman, a UW professor, began turning the farmland into a home, display garden and weekend nursery.
They brought an unconventional approach to the venture, cultivating a generously proportioned 12-by-60-foot border planted with a profuse mixture of perennials.
“We both had been gardeners and we loved art,” Bassetti said.
That meant first removing established pasture grass and blackberries, then double-digging planting beds to nurture young plants.
Today, the ornamental border is a tapestry of texture and color, from the oversized plume poppies with leaves that look like giant puzzle pieces, to the free-spreading hardy geraniums with petaled faces the size of a half dollar. A changing collection of sculpture punctuates the plantings with bold forms and bright hues.
To serve as a backdrop, Bassetti and Berleman constructed the signature element of their landscape: a crooked arbor. The arbor snakes behind the perennial border for about 65 feet, leading to a secret shade garden and a former calving shed that Bassetti now uses for a workshop.
A purple-flowering wisteria vine covers the crossbeams overhead, turning the twisting arbor into a cool, verdant respite on a sunny day.
“We didn’t want a straight focal point,” Bassetti said. “We wanted it to be a surprise for people to walk under the arbor.”
Countless weddings have been held in this landscape over the years, and brides and grooms often choose to receive their guests beneath the arbor. Three bridal parties have already reserved Crooked Arbor Gardens for weddings this summer, Bassetti said.
Adjacent to the arbor is the massive, green-roofed barn, built in 1946. Its outer wall, trimmed in white lathe strips, serves as a backdrop for Berleman’s horticultural artistry: intricate espalier displays of cotoneaster and pyracantha and architectural latticework that suggest arched doorways and windows.
After erecting a new home and moving here permanently in 1982, Bassetti and Berleman wanted to start the weekend nursery. Bassetti acquired her original plant stock from a retiring nurseryman on Vancouver Island, which enabled Bassetti’s Crooked Arbor Gardens to begin with conifers collected from around the globe.
Raised beds house Bassetti’s small plant inventory. She specializes in interesting conifers and rock garden plants, including choice alpines, such as saxifraga, hebe and lewisia.
Bassetti cherishes rare conifers and evergreens, including the DuFlor alpine fir, a tiny sport originally found on the Olympia Peninsula that has been propagated from cuttings ever since. It grows about a quarter-inch per year. Colorful and feathery Japanese cedar specimens and wavy-textured Japanese holly are among the collection.
“Of course, I needed a rock garden to display my dwarf conifers, so we created one beyond the shade garden,” Bassetti said.
The rockery is home to large conifers and rhododendrons that fit together in a tidy but informal design. Nearby, raised tables, arranged around a crescent-shaped stage, display a diverse collection of small alpine and rockery plants, succulents, groundcovers, dwarf perennials and evergreens growing in unusual containers and hypertufa troughs. Lavender beds frame either side of this display, serving as an aromatic base for small sculptures.
During frequent visits to Northern Italy, where Berleman and Bassetti visit her relatives and tour gardens, the couple became enchanted with Italianate gardens. They borrowed many of these elements to create formal Italian-style displays at home, featuring sculpted and shaped conifers, symmetrical plantings and long sightlines offering views of sculpture or specimen trees.
One area is enhanced with evenly spaced urns planted with dwarf mountain hemlocks that drape attractively over the pots’ edges. Surprisingly, Bassetti says these trees are 26 years old. Punches of color accent the display in smaller tubs filled with leafy cannas, some of Berleman’s favorite tropical plants.
While traveling in Italy, the couple embraced the importance of sculpture in the landscape.
“We knew we couldn’t afford antique or reproduction sculpture from Italy, but we kept looking for something that would work at this property,” Bassetti said.
Several years ago, while visiting the La Conner garden art gallery Go Outside, she and Berleman discovered the work of Skagit County artist Arnie Garborg. He welds large geometric metal forms that are painted or allowed to rust when left in the landscape.
Berleman and Bassetti acquired one of his pieces and commissioned a second sculpture. They became friendly with Garborg and soon decided that Bassetti’s Crooked Arbor Gardens was the ideal venue for showcasing his outdoor sculpture and that of other Northwest artists.
In 1991, Crooked Arbor Gardens launched its first show, scheduling the event for the last weekend in June. Except for skipping a few years, the show has continued to grow and now encompasses dozens of artists, sculptors and furniture makers. As a bonus, many of Bassetti’s horticultural friends bring their specialty plants to sell during the two-day festival, which last year drew 1,000 plant and art enthusiasts.
Now retired, Bassetti and Berleman tend to their landscape and grow plants full-time.
“Up until three years ago, I was living a double life,” Bassetti joked of how she balanced two careers at once. “This garden has developed all around us.”