FROM THE MOMENT he laid eyes on it, landscape architect Brooks Kolb was captivated by a unique property in North Beach. Garden paths, patios and walkways, as well as the house itself, were built of stone, timber and clinker brick found on site. The ambience was more Hansel-and-Gretel cottage than 21st-century Northwest.
Owners Maureen and Tim Brillon bought their 1925 Tudor and overgrown garden in 1999. “The house was falling down, the garden was a jungle and the entry was as dark as a cave,” says Maureen of the place when they first saw it. Yet they, too, were drawn in by its storybook charm.
The Brillons remodeled the house, then turned their attention to garden renovation. They interviewed several landscape architects, then selected Kolb, in part because they were impressed that he asked to look at the garden from inside the house.
While he left plenty of big cedars and firs for privacy and scale, Kolb opened up the cavelike entry by removing a number of trees and a huge Portuguese laurel. He designed the half-acre garden around the three remaining old lampposts. Yet this wasn’t a period restoration.
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“The garden was a hodgepodge,” explains Maureen. “We wanted a thoughtful, well-planned garden with good lighting, safe walkways and low-maintenance plantings.” She describes her husband as the gardener, a real do-it-yourselfer. But with a steep hillside and a mix of new and mature plantings to contend with, an easy-care garden was a major criterion for the renovation.
First, Kolb needed to deal with the infrastructure. Broken, heaving stones made the front walkway uneven. “I call it anti-social paving,” says Kolb of the treacherous approach to the house. He replaced walkways and patios with stone and brick that look as if they could be original to the place. He reused the old stone in new retaining walls around the entry terrace, capping them with thick slabs of bluestone.
Kolb added a layer of shade-tolerant plantings beneath the trees, including golden Japanese forest grass, nandina and lots of native foam flower (Tiarella trifoliata). Now that the curving new borders are filled with flowering shrubs, grasses and perennials, it’s hard to believe the property was once a cherry orchard.
What are Kolb’s low-maintenance strategies for the garden? He left healthy, older shrubs like rhododendrons, azaleas and mock orange as a backdrop. Then he filled in with masses of small shrubs like mahonia, fothergilla and leucothoe, and low-growing evergreens such as Yak rhodies, sword ferns and hellebores. Ribbons of short, showy ornamental grasses and variegated brunnera brighten up all the green. “Still, you have to keep on top of the weeding; you can’t let it get out of control,” Kolb cautions.
The garden is terraced down to where it drops away into a forested ravine, with lawn on the lower level for the kids to run and play soccer. Mountain beaver from the ravine have been working over the crisp line of hebes hedging the lawn. The chewed-up hebes have been replanted, and copper electrical lines strung around them to protect the plants from predation.
While the old house exerts a force field of European charm, the lower garden on the edge of the wild ravine has its own magnetism. The stone steps down into the garden are flanked with intensely fragrant variegated Daphne transatlantica ‘Summer Ice.’ Grassy, mower-width paths meander down the slope. The little tool shed is shingled like the house, and Adirondack chairs beckon visitors to stroll the pathways down into this fairy tale of a garden.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com. Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.