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Summer sensations

Annual tour leads visitors through prized Spokane gardens

Entwined within the blossoms of Cynthia Eaton’s garden are her childhood memories of secret paths, heirloom flowers and family.

Billed as “A Sentimental Journey,” it’s one of a half-dozen South Hill gardens that will be open to the public Sunday. Visiting hours will be between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

The self-guided tour, now in its 23rd year, is sponsored by the Associated Garden Clubs of Spokane, said Karen Gendron, club president. Tickets are $10 and are available in advance at several Spokane nurseries; on the day of the tour, they’ll be sold at all six gardens.

In the Rockwood neighborhood, Dan and Cynthia Eaton have nurtured a lovely English cottage garden that mixes formal and informal elements, from graceful arbors to naturalized ivy and ferns. The couple began cultivating the spot about 15 years ago.

Sweeping beds of lavender, yellow, pink, orange and red-flowering perennials border a thick, green lawn.

“I had favorite flowers, and I knew I wanted them in my garden. I have emotional attachments to them from my childhood,” said Eaton, a Denver native who grew up in an older home on Dahlia Street, where alleys and hidden paths traversed her neighborhood. The brick paths running through her yard remind her of the kid-traveled shortcuts from yesteryear.

A shaded stone bench in the backyard invites visitors to sit and enjoy the surroundings.

Years ago, Eaton said her children called the area their “fairy fort.” It was here where the kids, now grown, enjoyed summer lunches with their mother. A pair of identical vegetable patches where the little ones grew pole beans and sunflowers are still tended.

Pockets of violets and mature lilies also dot the grounds. Bessie McNair, whose husband, James, was an influential executive for the Washington Water Power Co., planted them in the 1920s when she and her husband owned the property.

“She still lives with me,” Eaton said of the property’s former mistress. James McNair built the rock walls that ring the garden.

Dragonflies and honeybees buzzed about a colorful, fully stocked butterfly and bird garden in the heart of the yard.

“I plant to attract critters” and regularly see hummingbirds, monarch butterflies and songbirds,” said Eaton, who teaches English and art at Sacajawea Middle School.

She nodded at a weeping willow tree and recalled a tiny sparrow that earlier had perched on top of it. “He was just a common sparrow, but he sang his heart out, like it was his opera.”

Eaton added: “There are little moments of perfection in the garden – the perfect bloom, the perfect color – and I don’t think that happens anywhere else.”

Guided by a fascination with color, texture and pattern, she said she selects plants by instinct.

“There is no plan,” she laughed. “I’ve never drawn a garden schematic.”

Pink peonies, hydrangeas (her mother’s favorite), irises, bachelor buttons, roses in a rainbow of shades, urns of eggplants and marigolds and petunias have all found their way onto the property. Plum and pear trees, mock grape and mature maple and cedar trees add color and shade.

“I tend to mix it up and don’t follow absolute rules. But I had a great-great-grandmother in Sweden who was a gardener, so I guess it’s in my genes,” Eaton said.

When puttering in the garden, Eaton said she loses track of time. Minutes become hours. Blossoms peak and fade and are replaced by new crops of flowers from late bloomers.

“There’s always something going on in the garden,” she said. “I call it my therapy garden.”

Reach Paula Davenport at (509) 459-5153 or via e-mail at