The colorful, low-maintenance garden was the finishing touch to a contemporary remodel that includes a bright red playhouse for the couple’s daughter.

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YOU’D EXPECT to see a cool, contemporary shelter in the garden of the guy who founded the Seattle business Modern-Shed. But you might be surprised to find that the shed in Ryan Smith’s Laurel Vista garden is a bright red playhouse for his daughter Della. The little structure, with its butterfly roof and bold color, has great presence and serves as backdrop to the newly renovated garden.

The garden is both comfortable and hard-edged, designed in intersecting planes to match the lines of the midcentury modern home. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)
The garden is both comfortable and hard-edged, designed in intersecting planes to match the lines of the midcentury modern home. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)

When Smith and his wife, Ahna Holder, bought their midcentury home, it was dilapidated from years of being rented, with brown wall-to-wall carpet, and in serious need of renovation. “The house looked like a project to me,” says Smith. “And I like projects.”

The couple worked on updating the house on and off for nearly 15 years before tackling the garden. Which was so overgrown they couldn’t even see the grass on the lower level of the property.

“We left the trees around the perimeter for privacy, and started hacking away,” says Smith. Now Smith and Holder’s property, with its gray horizontal screen angling off the sidewalk, terraces and minimalist plantings, is an ideal space for the thriving Modern-Shed business Smith started in 2005 and runs from his studio on the property.

Courtney Olander designed the planting plan for the garden, creating groupings of pots holding medleys of textural, colorful foliage. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)
Courtney Olander designed the planting plan for the garden, creating groupings of pots holding medleys of textural, colorful foliage. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)

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Initially, though, neglected underbrush wasn’t the only problem the family faced when stepping out the back door.

“We felt marooned on the patio,” says Smith, for the lot dropped steeply away from the house. So they set in to tame the slope with terraces, carving out usable space for sitting and dining outdoors. They did all the hardscaping themselves, using pavers and a bamboo composite material called ZomeTek for the steps and walkways. The planting beds are built of COR-TEN steel; the terraces and lawn are rectangles. Clean hard edges of steel, ZomeTek and pavers meet up at the corners, creating a contemporary feel of intersecting planes.

Pots, grasses, chocolate cosmos, rudbeckia and the playhouse in late summer. The shed is about 100 square feet, with a butterfly roof. Smith started his Modern-Shed business in 2005 when he badly needed storage space because his home had no attic or basement. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)
Pots, grasses, chocolate cosmos, rudbeckia and the playhouse in late summer. The shed is about 100 square feet, with a butterfly roof. Smith started his Modern-Shed business in 2005 when he badly needed storage space because his home had no attic or basement. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)

Two years ago the couple hired designer Courtney Olander of Olander Garden Design to come up with a planting plan. Smith wanted a low-maintenance garden, and asked Olander to keep it simple to go with the lines of the house. Holder, who grew up in San Diego and still is adjusting to the Northwest climate, wanted plenty of warm colors. Smith and Holder saw the garden as a chance for living outdoors as many months of the year as possible, from the covered terrace by the house to gathering around a firepit, and dining under the stars.

Dark-leafed heuchera, nandina, blood grass and a silvery succulent fill a COR-TEN steel bed alongside the steps to the lower garden. Designer Courtney Olander used mostly foliage plants chosen for color, texture and ease of maintenance. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)
Dark-leafed heuchera, nandina, blood grass and a silvery succulent fill a COR-TEN steel bed alongside the steps to the lower garden. Designer Courtney Olander used mostly foliage plants chosen for color, texture and ease of maintenance. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)

Olander’s challenge was to select plants that would work with the mustard yellow trim on the house and studio, and the brilliant red of the shed. She chose shades of burgundy and gold in foliage and flower. Now ebony-leafed heucheras and deep purple ‘Queen of the Night’ tulips hit the dark notes in springtime, followed in summer by chocolate cosmos, blood grass and rudbeckia with its golden flowers centered in dark brown.

Ryan Smith’s garden is all about  modern living – outdoor kitchen, patios, pots, various “rooms”, and a darling little red shed. This stylish garden in Laurelhurst features a fire pit on the lower patio.
Ryan Smith’s garden is all about modern living – outdoor kitchen, patios, pots, various “rooms”, and a darling little red shed. This stylish garden in Laurelhurst features a fire pit on the lower patio.

She planted in masses, using lots of ornamental grasses for their modern, upright lines. She added a grouping of pots beneath the red maple outside the dining-room window. She planted them with year-round foliage plants in the same deep, rich tones. The maple tree and the pots are up-lighted at night, as is the huge old ginkgo original to the property. The night lighting helps connect the family to the garden after dark, and expands the usable space for evening entertaining.

One terrace holds an outdoor kitchen, with sink and barbecue, long countertops and a pizza oven that’s a concrete half egg with a stucco shell. Here’s where Smith cooks up pizza for Della and her friends.

“We use this outdoor kitchen constantly,” says Smith.

The outdoor living room has a grouping of red Adirondack-style chairs around a firepit. Yellow butterfly chairs complete the color scheme and echo the roofline of the shed, while adding a dose of 1950s cool. The garden is surrounded by mature evergreens for screening, including rhododendrons, conifers, cypress and junipers, mixed with ornamental cherries for seasonal color.

“We love the private, courtyard feel of the space,” says Smith, “and the outdoor kitchen,” where the family has served pizza outdoors, fresh from the oven, even into December.