The 12-acre Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation landscape across from Seattle Center includes masses of native plants and 150 big-leaf maples. Raised up in sleek, dark concrete planters, integrated with ornamentals, and anchoring a vast reflective pond, native ground covers, rushes and perennials have never looked so stylish and city-appropriate.

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SHANNON NICHOL designs significant landscapes around the country, yet her work hearkens back to her childhood in Whatcom County near Mount Baker.

“I literally grew up in the woods, and I understand what plants grow well here . . . I’m a shameless ambassador for big-leaf maples,” says one of the founding partners of the Seattle landscape architecture firm Gustafson Guthrie Nichol.

No surprise, then, that her latest big project — the 12-acre Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation landscape across from Seattle Center — includes masses of native plants and 150 of those beloved big-leaf maples.

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While getting an undergraduate degree at the University of Washington, Nichol was encouraged to study abroad. She credits a departmental scholarship to attend the University of Liverpool with giving her the wider perspective that has served her well in the years since.

While working as an intern at a local firm, Nichol collaborated with internationally recognized landscape architect Kathryn Gustafson; later when Nichol started her own firm with colleague Jennifer Guthrie, the women asked Gustafson to join them. GGN now has a bustling office on Seattle’s waterfront with 31 employees.

At the Gates Foundation, Nichol’s sophisticated mix of plants in this intensely urban location might well change how we use native plants in our own gardens.

Raised up in sleek, dark concrete planters, integrated with ornamentals, and anchoring a vast reflective pond, native ground covers, rushes and perennials have never looked so stylish and city-appropriate. “We put in 125,000 plants, not counting the green roofs,” says Nichol. Credit the Gates Foundation for investing in a landscape so densely planted as to look great from the get-go.

From the Lurie Garden at Chicago’s Millennium Park to the North End Parks in Boston, Nichol is known for designing gardens that reference the natural world while enhancing the surrounding neighborhood. Her work here at the Gates Foundation is no exception. She kept in mind the unique ecological history of the site. The area that is now Seattle Center was sunny, open and boggy in contrast to the more usual conifer forests. Horticulturist Ray Larson, who wrote his master’s thesis on Seattle’s early ecology, says the area was home to flocks of waterfowl and known by a Native American name that meant “prairie.”

Nichol ran with this idea. “We wanted the landscape to be comfortable, humble, rustic,” she says. “Our concept was of a dense, fuzzy, knee-high, green mat.” Layers of green on the ground and up on the roof, with darker landscape elements in between, caused Nichol’s team to refer to their design as a “thick green Hershey bar.”

She’s hoping that in 20 years the maples will grow to create a “dappled, frog-green canopy,” she says, noting that the understory will have to change over time. In the meanwhile, masses of dwarf blueberry bushes soften the edges of the campus, while drifts of native and ornamental foliage plants fill the planters. “Most masses contain three kinds of plants; two native types and one ornamental,” she explains. Grasses fill the sunny areas for a meadow effect, and ferns green the shady areas. Nichol planted for texture rather than flower. Hundreds of blue-blooming native camas bulbs are about as floral as the landscape gets.

You won’t believe how effective huge masses of chartreuse euphorbia can be until you drive along the Mercer Street side of the campus. These sun-loving, fast-growing perennials will carry the show until the slower-growing gaultheria fills in. Nichol designed for maintenance as well as effect, choosing ornamental plants that can take sun, heat and reflected light to help carry the more shade-loving native plants.

And what’s next for Nichol? She’s enthused about her project to revitalize Cleveland’s historic city center. Closer to home, Nichol’s new design for Rainier Vista extends the Olmsted Brothers’ original plan to reconnect the isolated Montlake Triangle to the University of Washington campus.

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