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Masterful local garden designs elevate natural Northwest beauty

Lakewold Gardens’ lavish landscapes provide a green escape

Elements of European garden design, such as topiary designs set in tightly trimmed lawns, balance with native Northwest rhododendrons and conifers on 10 acres at Lakewold Gardens. Photo courtesy of Lakewold Gardens

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Whether you are a green-thumb garden enthusiast, or simply a nature lover who appreciates a leisurely stroll amidst perfectly manicured green scenery, you will be glad to know there is a jewel of landscape architecture and garden design in your back yard.

Just around the time Camp Lewis was established by Pierce County bond measure in 1917, nearby, a little piece of property on Gravelly Lake was evolving from a lakeside cabin retreat into the 10-acre Interlaaken estate now known as Lakewold Gardens.

In 1918, the lakeside parcel was transferred from its original owner, Emma Alexander, to her son, Hubbard Foster Alexander, and his wife, Ruth. He was a shipping magnate, president of what was then the largest luxury passenger steamship operator in America, Admiral Lines. With his means, purchase of nearby lakeside property brought the estate to its current 10 acres, and the gardens Emma had already established with a blend of European and Northwest elements continued to grow -- both in size and notoriety.

A succession of owners kept the sylvan lakeside landscape flourishing, and in 1938, the prominent property came into the hands of George Corydon Wagner and Eulalie Wagner. Corydon was a businessman dealing in lumber and coal, and his financial legacy -- combined with Eulalie's philanthropical vision -- allow visitors to wander this wonder today.

Lakewold Gardens is open to the public for casual viewing and group tours, with plenty of activities and events to help folks get involved. There is an admission fee and a cost for tours, but there is a generous military discount, which also applies to seniors and students (see below).

The large estate gardens were designed originally and improved periodically with consultation from leading 20th-century landscape architect Thomas D. Church. The overall layout is divided into various "garden rooms," each with its own style and character and combining native Northwest species with exotics that thrive here.

Although the Northwest is prime fern territory -- perfect for plants that love shade and moisture -- at Lakewold in the Tom Gillies Hardy Fern Foundation Display Garden, ferns from around the globe share space with local species. Plants here range from three inches tall to the size of small trees, providing a Jurassic Park jungle vibe.

Meanwhile, the Mary Jane "Squeak" Allen Shade Garden avoids direct sun under the "Wolf Tree," a Douglas Fir that is hundreds of years old. Trillium, dog-toothed violets and Himalayan blue poppies thrive beneath its branches, as well.

Just down the shaded path is the Woodland Garden, which, as its name suggests, is home to many tree species. Sited along a pond and stream, species such as Parisian ironwood, Gary Oak, Umbrella Pine and a Chilean flame tree co-exist, throwing ample shade.

The property's Library Courtyard is one of the least noted and visited areas. Secluded and surrounded by large rhododendrons and camelias that shield it from direct sun and harsh winds, the courtyard garden supports less hardy species within.

Elsewhere on the grounds, the Knot Garden resemble in shape a loosely tied bow, the design of Thomas Church. Inhabitants here include fragrant culinary herbs, which lend a perfumed pungency to the area.

Flowering perennials occupy the Cutting Garden, while the Rock Garden features a collection of alpine cushion plants and miniature bulb species such as poppies and Pacific Coast iris.

If your visit prompts you to get further involved, becoming a member of Lakewold Gardens supports the organization's mission and garden upkeep, and avails members of discounts and special privileges. That includes special access and pricing for certain events throughout the year.

And the calendar of happenings includes far more than garden walks.

The Learn in the Garden series, for example, continues in October with "Learn from Your Fern."

"As a key element in our mission, this program is designed to help educate, train and involve our local community members," according to the Lakewold website. "This year, we are excited to provide six opportunities to increase your gardening knowledge and skills. Each class is taught by an expert in their field.

The upcoming fern class is led by Hardy Fern Foundation curator Jo Laskowski, who will dissect plants by way of explaining their anatomy and stages of life, from spore to gametophyte to sporophyte. 

The fun and instructional sessions start at 10 a.m. and last approximately an hour. The suggested donation is $10. To register, call 253.584.4106.

Music is also a big part of the atmosphere at Lakewold. "Music from Home" is a house concert series celebrating the live musical expression of women and people of color. The monthly performances include beer, wine and access to the gardens during the event. Sunday, Oct. 13, features the music of Tacoma composer and performer Deborah Anderson. Tickets are $25, $15 for military, students and seniors (available through

Lakewold's big event each year honors Eulalie Wagner's love of entertaining at her garden estate. The Beautiful Tables Showcase features lavishly set formal dinner table tableaus created specifically for the event by local designers. This year's event is Nov. 1-3 and 8-10, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day. Admission for Lakewold members is just $10, non-member cost is $15, and group discounts are available. Tickets, which can be purchased at the door, include entry to the gardens.

When Lakewold Gardens officially opened in May 1989, Eulalie Wagner was forthright about her philosophy and reasons for making the gardens accessible to the public: "As we become more and more city creatures, living in manmade surroundings," she said at the time, "perhaps gardens will become even more precious to us, letting us remember that we began in the garden."

LAKEWOLD GARDENS, open year-round, no reservations required, 12317 Gravelly Lake Dr. SW, Lakewood, $9; $7 for military, seniors and students; children 12 and younger, free, 253.584.4106,

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