The family hired the landscape architect to turn their yard into a nature sanctuary as well as a place for their two young girls to play.

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THE LANDSCAPE at the Tam family’s home in Medina was uninspiring. “It was really dull, pretty much a pathway to and from the house,” says Lucille Tam. The two flat levels of lawn didn’t even draw the kids outside to play.

The couple dreamed of a garden alive with birds, a landscape to connect the family to nature as well as complement their house. They liked the idea of adding a little wildness to the suburban scene of manicured lawns. Simon Tam, who travels to Paris for his work, is also intrigued by European garden formality. Yet they also hoped for a garden they could maintain themselves.

The Tams hired landscape architect David Pfeiffer to turn their yard into a nature sanctuary as well as a place for their two young girls to play. They also wanted space for dining and asked Pfeiffer to work with what they had. To lend scale to the house, he kept many of the large trees on the property. And he turned an existing ditch into the centerpiece of the front garden — a curvaceous dry streambed lined in stones and planted in grasses. A thick slab of teak crosses over, providing a sense of entry so emphatic that “the UPS guy compliments the bridge,” says Lucille.

But first came the ripping out of lawn, and a plan for two dramatically different gardens, front and back, with distinct purposes. The front garden is Asian-inspired and naturalistic, with a Chinese millstone underfoot, and a mossy Balinese urn. A spring bubbles up in the corner of the streambed, and the birds have moved in.

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Pfeiffer chose relatively self-sufficient plants that don’t need pruning, like the serviceberries that grow along the streambed. “We planned for randomness, leaving space for the plants to spread, and for the garden to change through the seasons and over time,” he says. Oregon grape, epimedium and gaultheria grow in the dry shade beneath the trees; iris and umbrella plant (Darmera) colonize the boggy areas. Native strawberries clamber over the rocks and spread to cover the ground between twiggy snowberry shrubs and spreading Japanese maples.

The garden is mostly green and native, but Pfeiffer isn’t a purist about native plants. He mixed in fiery-toned blood grass and black mondo grass for texture and color. In springtime, daffodils, little blue scilla and iris add color; in autumn white anemones carpet the ground and katsura trees blaze apricot and orange red. Masses of sarcococca by the front door scent the garden in winter. Lucille appreciates all the fragrant plants. “I fell in love with the daphnes,” she says, adding that she’s learned the plant names so she can talk gardens with Pfeiffer.

Walk down the driveway to the back garden, past blueberries tucked into raised beds, and you enter a different world. With its arbor, patio, fountain and straight pathways, this garden has an ordered, European feel. Pfeiffer left lawn back here for the kids to kick around a soccer ball. There’s a play structure and edibles growing in the sunniest spot. The plants are more restrained and tidy, including hebes and boxwood. A gravel path, lined in aromatic catmint, leads from the patio to an herb garden.

So, how about the kids? Are they as in love with the new garden as the birds are? “It seems big and wild to the girls, there’s so much for them to discover out there,” says Lucille. “I find rocks in their pockets all the time from the dry creek bed.”

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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