THE TALL HOUSE, built high on a knoll, is one of the older homes in Seattle’s Crown Hill neighborhood. It rises above the hillside to overlook its own private ravine of mostly native plants — a challenge well suited to its owner, Sarah Reichard.
For the director of the University of Washington Botanic Gardens, this large, wild and weedy garden has proved to be both retreat and testing ground for theories on how to beat back the invasive plants she’s studied for decades.
Well-established trochodendron and dove trees, as well as a massive wisteria vine outlining the front porch, are testimony to a heritage of old and unusual plants, many collected by a previous owner. Positioned so high on the hill, the home and deck have an expansive view toward Puget Sound. In the winter when the leaves are off the trees, the parking lot of Swansons Nursery is also in view. “It’s dangerous living this close,” Sarah says.
She and her husband, Brian, bought the place in 2001, a few months after the UW’s Center for Urban Horticulture, where Sarah taught, was firebombed by eco-terrorists. “The fire made me buy the house,” she says. “I needed a sanctuary, something good happening in my life after that.”
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The couple ended up with a ¾-acre property that was seriously overgrown. The blackberries were so thick they couldn’t fight their way from the deck down into the yard. “It’s like a secret garden, you never know what you’ll find,” says Sarah. When she and Brian weeded beneath a huge old mugo pine, they unearthed a statue of Neptune. They discovered the remains of a big-leaf maple buried beneath a mound of ivy. Now the huge, rotting stump is a magnet for flickers and woodpeckers.
The couple started in an area close to the house, rooting out encroaching bindweed and buttercup. They slowly weeded their way out into the landscape and down the hillside. It took them a decade to reach the creek toward the bottom of the ravine, liberating trees from blackberry vines as they went. As air and sunlight penetrated the forest, native bleeding heart and twinflower popped up to encourage their efforts. As the Reichards worked, they discovered their property was home to an astonishing number of birds and animals as well as native cedars, vine maples, ferns and wildflowers. “I’ve seen about every kind of bird here except an owl, also mountain beavers, raccoons, coyotes and possums,” says Sarah. “There are so many birds, I don’t have any slugs.”
All the wildness, and the stream flowing through the property into Puget Sound, inspired Sarah to write a book about all she’d learned right in her own backyard. She took a sabbatical and finished “The Conscientious Gardener: Cultivating a Garden Ethic.”
Thirteen years later, the couple is still practicing extreme gardening as they clean up, edit, plant, build and encourage natives in the barely tamed ravine. It took Brian two years to build a stone terrace halfway down the hillside. First he had to bushwhack through nettles to find a relatively flat spot. Then there were 13 tons of material to carry down the slope.
Sarah has been known to carry a steaming teapot down the switchbacks to enjoy a cup of tea deep in the forest. From this shady perch, it’s hard to believe you’re anywhere near the city.
The couple jokes that Brian is the construction department. He finished up and handed it over to Sarah, the horticulture department, who has planted a “hellebore hill climb,” big leaf rhododendrons and a grove of paperbark maple (Acer griseum).
“I feel like the construction department did a better job,” says Sarah. “But this garden has made me a better teacher. I’m living what I’m teaching.”
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.