Gary Necci’s love of hiking in the high alpine meadows at Mount Rainier inspired him to turn a mess of a steep backyard hillside into a tapestry of textural plantings in his West Seattle garden.

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“IT HAS ONE of the prettiest views in West Seattle, but it’s SO steep,” says Gary Necci of the nearly vertical garden he has built and planted on his hillside. He has carried every plant and shovelful of mulch up and down the two-thirds of an acre on a west-facing cliffside.

Alpine gardens like the one designed and built by Necci draw you in to look closely at the details, like this little stone lantern softened by creeping ground covers. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)
Alpine gardens like the one designed and built by Necci draw you in to look closely at the details, like this little stone lantern softened by creeping ground covers. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)

“Close-up, the garden is a series of little worlds; it’s so intricate, but stand back and you get an overall tapestry effect,” Necci says, describing his masterwork version of an alpine rock garden.

When Necci’s parents bought the house in 1985, the hillside was choked with blackberries and weeds. But the spectacular view of the Olympic mountains and Puget Sound made up for the backyard’s 45-degree slope. His dad did a little gardening, but the precipitous plunge of a garden was pretty much untamed when Necci moved into the home in the late 1990s.

“My first love was Japanese gardens, but I was bitten by the rock-gardening bug and wanted to combine the two styles,” explains Necci, a graphic artist and former professional musician. “Maintaining the garden forces me to get exercise, but sometimes I do feel like a mountain goat.”

Necci began his conquest of the slope by building retaining walls out of broken concrete from an old homestead on the property. He hauled in one-man rocks (and got help with some larger boulders) to create planting pockets up and down the hillside, backfilling with decomposed granite. He carved out private spaces along the route up and down the garden; a meditation hut offers shade and solitude, and stone benches are welcome perches to admire the wide-open water view while resting from the climb.

Necci planted his favorite white pines and Japanese black pines, training the branches by wiring up rocks to hang off of them. Mountain hemlocks make up the evergreen backbone of the garden, chosen because they are compact, dense and don’t require as much pruning as the pines. Stone steps wind down the hillside, built of varied heights to make sure anyone walking through the garden slows down enough to really see the amazing variety of rock-garden plants on the slope. “I’m not in that phase of collecting plants … though I do have a few gems,” Necci says of what is clearly a collector’s garden of little treasures and skillfully trained trees.

Stone benches are strategically placed to offer a respite from the climb back up the garden, as well as a view out to mountains and water. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)
Stone benches are strategically placed to offer a respite from the climb back up the garden, as well as a view out to mountains and water. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)

He’s not a purist about traditional rock-garden plants; Necci mixes in a variety of shrubs like small spirea, hebes and berberis, many of which he cuts back to the ground to keep them low-growing. Native plants like kinnikinick and dwarf conifers are combined with a variety of alpines and other plants suited to the site’s sharp drainage and full-on sunshine. Necci mostly chooses plants for their textures, adding in flowering plants like the foot-high, white-blooming Pieris ‘Prelude’, along with phlox, heaths and heathers, thyme, dwarf iris and a variety of sedum and succulents.

At the foot of the garden, nearly 40 feet down the slope, Necci recontoured the land to create level ground for a toolshed and to grow food. Here, he has planted vegetables in raised beds, and is training a pleached hedge of apple, plum, peach and cherry trees.

Necci, a Japanese garden enthusiast, trains black pines in the traditional way by suspending heavy rocks from the branches. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)
Necci, a Japanese garden enthusiast, trains black pines in the traditional way by suspending heavy rocks from the branches. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)

After more than 15 years of hauling rocks and planting vertiginously, Necci feels the garden is pretty much complete and that now his work is mostly maintenance. He’s encouraging natives like mahonia and salmonberry to spread and take over the margins of the garden where it lapses into the woods. And he’s growing enough fruit and vegetables to share with the neighbors.

Necci’s love of hiking in the high alpine meadows at Mount Rainier inspired him to turn a mess of a steep backyard hillside into a tapestry of textural plantings growing amid rocky outcroppings. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)
Necci’s love of hiking in the high alpine meadows at Mount Rainier inspired him to turn a mess of a steep backyard hillside into a tapestry of textural plantings growing amid rocky outcroppings. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)

What was Necci’s inspiration for a garden unique in its mix of plants and the extremity of its slope? “I love hiking in the alpine meadows of Mount Rainier, so I’ve tried to bring the feel of the place I love best into the garden here,” says Necci.