IT TAKES courage to leave a hillside of horsetails below your front windows. Or maybe it takes an acute appreciation for nature’s patterns. Or perhaps the design chops of Ted Kennedy Watson, founder of Watson Kennedy fine-home shops.
All are on show and in play at the weekend retreat of Watson and his husband, Ted Sive. “WestWard” is a green, green place of calm on the west shore of Vashon Island, where nature reigns — with a fair bit of refereeing from the owners.
When the couple was searching for a place on Vashon 15 years ago, Watson wanted a waterfront house, and Sive hoped for a house in the woods. They both got their wish when they found the small house down a hillside close to the water and bought the property from former Seattle Mayor Wes Uhlman. They’ve since added trails, steps, sheds, a guesthouse, platforms and decks to their little compound.
“I call it our ‘tended forest,’ where we beat back the interlopers, and restore and encourage the native plants,” explains Sive of his anti-interventionist style of gardening. When the couple bought their two-acre property, the steep hillside was a tangle of ivy, holly and other invasives. “It was one giant, untended thicket . . . but the bones were there,” says Sive.
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They left the mature Douglas firs, hemlocks, alders, cedars and maples in place, limbing up some of the heavy, dense evergreens. And they set to cleaning out the invasives, letting sword and bracken ferns, Oregon grape, salal and ocean spray grow, encouraged by the increased light and air. They’ve added more natives, including evergreen huckleberries, vine maple and red flowering currant.
The couple’s job is one of continual shaping and prodding, pulling and planting to keep the forest moving in the direction of light, air, natives and views. Watson and Sive are determined not to let the naturalistic-looking hillside slide back into entombment by the always eager-to-take-over invasives.
Even the native plants require some work. The lower branches of the ocean spray (Holodiscus discolor) continually die out, and every few years the fern fronds need to be cut back and cleaned up. At least all those big-leaf maple leaves can be left where they fall to mulch the slope just as nature intended.
“We’re working with what we have . . . you have to appreciate the incredible beauty of what’s already here,” says Sive. Except for a few pots of geraniums, lavender and herbs near the house, and that surprisingly beautiful, if slightly alarming, mass of horsetail, the forest is their garden.
Watson and Sive loved the scale of the 500-square-foot house on the property, but not its chopped-up spaces. They added French doors, rearranged the rooms, added a pine floor and painted everything white.
As you wind your way down the switchback-steep trail and steps to reach the compound, you feel sheltered by the evergreen canopy.
On a sunny day, the light pours through, reflecting off the saltwater below and shimmering through all the layers of leaves.
Sive’s mantra for maintaining what they’ve joined with nature to create? “Clean it up, let it be, edit it to make it its best self,” he says, hoping this philosophy might allow him time to enjoy the hammock strung temptingly between two big fir trees.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific NW magazine staff photographer.