Eugene Weekly : Gardening : 8.9.07

Fitting In
Whitey Lueck strives for ‘plausible landscapes’

When it comes to “green” building, naturalist and landscape designer Whitey Lueck thinks there is too much emphasis on the buildings and not enough on the land. “The parts of the yard that are not in food production should be turned back to native Willamette Valley plants, in my view,” he said, addressing a recent sustainability tour in south Eugene. The group had stopped at a house Lueck landscaped a few years ago, mostly with native woody plants: ash, Douglas hawthorn and red alder, with understory stuff like thimbleberry and vine maple. He retained the grading left by the contractor, and except for adding a lot of leaves, he did not modify the rather heavy soil. Lueck prefers to avoid “heavy handed horticulture” and minimizes the amount of materials brought in from outside.

Whitey Lueck, local tree hugger

People love to visit natural areas and think they are beautiful, Lueck likes to point out, but at home they think their yards should look quite different. In spite of a horticultural background, he has managed to put aside this “two heads mindset.” “There is only one Willamette Valley in the world,” he says, “and when we plant non-native vegetation we displace the native plants and make it look like any other place.” Lueck would prefer to see our front yards look like the Willamette Valley, with food gardening and ornamentals confined to the back yard. While it isn’t always possible to replace what existed before, he strives to create what he calls “plausible landscapes.” His own yard is an excellent example of the principle, put to work in an established, older neighborhood in southeast Eugene.

Lueck’s modest house and yard could serve as a model for a low-impact urban lifestyle that makes room for nature. In fact the yard, complete with interpretive signage, is always open to anyone who cares to wander through. After doing this a couple of times myself, I met Lueck there to talk about his approach to domestic landscapes. I noticed obvious signs of active gardening: Clumps of Douglas aster and blue wild rye had been trimmed back and the clippings deposited neatly around the plants. I commented that his approach to both design and management was different from that of many other native gardeners. “I do want to tend and have control,” he conceded. “I call it orchestration.”

There are many native shrubs and perennials in Lueck’s front yard, but after the big, double-trunked redwood by the street, the most conspicuous component is the fast-growing aspen grove, planted to provide cooling shade for the west-facing house. Why aspens, I asked, and are they really native to the valley? Apparently there are two groves of aspen near Peoria, Ore., but they make no seed, and cuttings have been unsuccessful. Lueck’s trees came from northern Idaho, courtesy of Seven Oaks Nursery. “They tolerate heavy soils, wet feet in winter and summer drought,” he explained, so aspens grow where red alder or Oregon ash would show drought stress. With gray-green trunks and clean looking foliage, they are also very beautiful.

Lueck has influenced other gardeners in his neighborhood to plant aspen trees, and all their neighbors may have aspens now soon because suckers can pop up anywhere. Lueck originally planted five aspens in front of his house. Now several have root sprouts, and they grow quickly. When individuals get too big, he will cut them down. (Mysteriously, cut stumps don’t sprout!) His 7-year-old landscape is very much a work in progress. “I’m not sure what direction I want to go — all broadleaf? Super drought tolerant conifers?” That would not include the 50-year-old redwood. “It would not be healthy if I didn’t water it twice a month in summer,” he said. The rest of the front garden gets watered once a month, and this is enough to keep many plants green. Lueck has no problem with monthly waterings. After all, he argues, it can and does occasionally rain in summer.

The little front lawn of grass, prunella, clover, yarrow and other things is cut with a push mower. Non-native lawn daisies are permitted here, and there are several familiar cottage garden flowers in his food garden. “They are here if they want to be,” he said, “and they are easy to pull out.” Beyond the food garden and chicken house is a patch of meadow that Lueck has kept because it contains camas bulbs. He’s added native milkweed, and this year he’s using the leaves to raise monarch caterpillars in jars. The meadow is cut once a year, a little at a time, from early July into mid-August.

A sustainability bike tour on Saturday, Aug. 18, will take in Lueck’s and several other gardens in the “Aspen District.” Meet at 11 am at Linda Lu’s garden, 2755 Kincaid Street.

Rachel Foster of Eugene is a garden consultant and author of All About Gardens, a selection of past Eugene Weekly columns. She can be reached at