Seattle's Michael Dahlquist was trained to be an landscape architect, but he'd rather think of himself as a gardener. His tendency to smother every single inch of his tiny University District garden in flora is pure plant collector and his color work is sheer artistry.

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MICHAEL DAHLQUIST earned a degree in landscape architecture from the University of Washington, but this painter and gardener is far too absorbed in leafy color play to attend to hardscape. His training shows in his preference for formality and repetition of plants. But his tendency to smother every single inch of his tiny University District garden in flora is pure plant collector and his color work is sheer artistry.

“I’d rather think of myself as a gardener, because I love the process of it . . . Gardeners are willing to change and adapt,” says Dahlquist. He’s busy altering the streetscape of his busy U. District neighborhood, pushing fragrant roses and cascades of white wisteria out past the sidewalk to overflow the parking strip. Behind the house, he’s colonizing the adjacent parking lot with fig trees and half barrels of strawberries.

Dahlquist isn’t deterred by his garden’s minuscule proportions any more than by its fence line. “Don’t forget vines,” he tells me, pointing out the lusty Chilean glory vine climbing an arbor, ‘Grandpa Ott’s’ morning glories planted to cover the fence, and even cape fuchsia (Phygelius ssp.) espaliered against the house. Now, that’s something I’ve never seen before.

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I stopped by Dahlquist’s little property to see his red garden that I’d heard so much about. But his garden is about far more than a color or two; he’s used different shades to effectively define and divide tiny spaces with distinct atmospheres and moods. He piles on color in layers of foliage and flower — overhead, underfoot and at every level in between.

In the red garden behind the house, burgundy-leafed smoke bush (Cotinus coggygria ‘Grace’) is pruned up into a canopy. Beneath it a red-painted dining set is nearly submerged in dozens of hardy, dark bananas (Musa hookeri), ‘Red Rocket’ snapdragons with purple foliage, and various coleus with burgundy and red foliages. “A little isn’t good enough,” says Dahlquist, who builds up more and more color intensity with purple grape vines, the red-leafed razzle dazzle bush (Loropetalum chinense f. rubrum), and the luscious dark canna lily ‘Indica.’ The claret-violet-colored rose ‘The Prince’ smolders against all the purple and burgundy foliages. Plum-colored clematis climb everywhere they can find a toehold.

There’s even a tiny pond surrounded by red-blooming mimulas and the fat, deep purple leaves of Ligularia dentata ‘Britt-Marie Crawford.’ All these plants and a great many more are burgeoning up happily in a space the size and shape of a hallway-like apartment kitchen. Yet Dahlquist has squeezed in an arbor, a few boxwood balls and a birdbath for structure amid his carefully chosen and cultivated plants.

“I’d read about red gardens in books by Gertrude Jekyll, but I’d never seen a serious exploration of it, built up over years,” explains Dahlquist of his work. “And it’s such a beautiful principle.”

A few steps around the corner of the house, the pale, frilly and romantic front garden is like another, chillier world. Here Dahlquist has indulged his love of gray and silver foliages, mixing in an extravagance of fragrant pastel flowers. Pale purple catmint foams up around white wisteria standards in the parking strip. Old-fashioned pink roses fill the air with the rich scent of cold cream. On one side of the front walk, three pale gray, willow-leafed weeping pears surround an urn planted in silvery gray foliage plants. This perfect little scene is completed with iceberg roses and white passion vine, snapdragons and sweet peas. The ground cover Lamium maculatum ‘Ghost’ shimmers as if struck by moonlight. “The streetlight is like a moon,” says Dahlquist, making the best of his urban location.

Dahlquist’s serious meditation on color is a lesson in how intensely color can affect you, and how skill and single-mindedness can create such beauty in unlikely spaces.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of “The New Low-Maintenance Garden.” Check out her blog at Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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