Perennial garden is an annual event

Nancy Tarnai

If you are weary of spending a fortune on annual flowering plants each May only to say a final farewell by September, take a cue from Cathi Bouton.

The Chena Hot Springs Road resident has worked for decades to cultivate a perennial garden that could likely be featured in Sunset magazine. Tucked away privately behind her home, the garden is a wonderland of color and delight.

Cathi Bouton in her perennial garden. Photo by Nancy Tarnai
Cathi Bouton in her perennial garden. Photo by Nancy Tarnai

“It’s just how I spend my time,” Bouton said. A sign language interpreter by profession, she is accustomed to appearances before large audiences and the stress that goes with such an on-the-spot career. In down time, she takes to the garden like a moth to flame.

“My brain tends to whir,” she said. “This is the only time it’s quiet.”

Bouton grew up in Southern California and Idaho in a non-agricultural household. “My mother had a couple pots of geraniums and some tomatoes,” she said. Although her grandparents had a spectacular rose garden she didn’t appreciate it at the time (she does now). Later, Bouton became a fan of “Mother Earth News,” and set her heart on a life in Alaska where she could go back to the land.

Since she and her husband Jeff moved to their property in 1984 they have worked each summer to get to the point where they are today. “We started with an itty, bitty triangle. First we built terraces, then we brought in rocks. I read books and we made it work,” Bouton said. She visited the Georgeson Botanical Garden for inspiration and ideas, picking up seeds at their seed sales.

Each spring Bouton is thrilled to see what comes back to life after the long dark winter. She greets the returning plants with shots of worm juice and compost to jump start their growth. Shredded leaves are another special ingredient she likes to pile around the plants. She is constantly surprised by what shows up or spreads. “It’s like getting presents all the time,” she said.

The garden features over 80 species of perennials. Because she is a lifelong student of languages Bouton is fascinated with the scientific names of the plants, spouting them off easily. “I like knowing the genus and species,” she said. “They tell you something about the plants.”

Bouton can say exactly where she got seeds or starts and the precise location she has moved each plant from and to. She has kept meticulous records over the years and is considering writing a perennial guidebook for interior Alaska. “People don’t realize that we can grow so many varieties here,” she said.

Her advice is simple: “weed and cultivate. That’s my new thinking on the whole thing. Don’t hang onto stuff that is not doing good and keep the rest. Life is good.”

She has taken gobs of pictures over the years and kept all her plant journals with notes on even the smallest details. “The book would be for all my friends who say what is this and where should it go,” she said.

One key required for growing a garden like hers is patience, Bouton said. Sometimes it takes years to see results and she has to try different spots to find success. Plants that do particularly well in Fairbanks include dianthus, campanula, veronica, but Bouton’s special favorite is the blue poppy.

“I spend a month taking out weeds, a month loving the garden because it is gorgeous and then a month deadheading and getting ready for next year,” Bouton said. For her husband’s sake she does grow some food, such as strawberries, rhubarb, onions, beans, zucchini. “It’s just basic stuff,” she shrugged. And she has added a seven-circuit classical labyrinth to her land for meditative walking.

Soon Jeff will retire and the couple will relocate to Whidbey Island, Wash., to be closer to their three children and two grandchildren. While she is not looking forward to leaving her garden behind, Bouton is anticipating the new species she’ll be able to grow in a different climate.

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.