Vanessa and Peter Greaves’ green, white and gray garden reveals simple lines, hard work and an eye for wabi-sabi charm.
PICTURE A SMALL, urban garden owned and created by an architect and a food editor at Allrecipes.com. No surprise that Peter and Vanessa Greaves (architect and foodie, respectively) have created a clean-lined garden with a crisp green-and-white color scheme, with raised beds for lettuces and herbs in the front garden, and pots of white alpine strawberries lining the front steps.
Their garden is so simple, yet all of a piece, that it might be best described by what it’s not — fussy, high-maintenance, impersonal, grand or overworked. Not a bit.
Peter bought the house in the Mount Baker neighborhood in 1985 from an 85-year-old man who grew only what he could eat. “For years, we kept finding potatoes and peanuts growing around the garden,” Peter says.
When he and Vanessa married a few years later, she joined right in with Peter’s continuing garden experimentation. “I have these ambitions, but I’m not a plant person,” says Vanessa. “On occasion, there are things that work out.”
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Which is a serious understatement, considering the harmony the couple has created between indoors and out, and the detailing, uniqueness and cool serenity of the garden spaces. In the back garden, a mossy-trunked old apple tree is a remnant of the earlier garden, as are the fragments they’ve excavated, like the concrete rubble dug up and used to build retaining walls. “Every rock you see came from the garden,” says Vanessa, remembering digging them up and hauling them around in buckets.
“When I bought the house, the front garden was a desert,” says Peter. And the back garden was a 45-degree slope, all grass, running right up to the house. “Now the back is a perfect rectangle of a lawn I can mow in 15 minutes,” he says with satisfaction. After leveling the lawn, the couple set in to create topography by building up terraces and pouring a concrete wall topped with a hedge of Italian cypress pruned flat into a privacy curtain.
The effectiveness of the limited color palette is on display on the back terrace, where a grouping of stark white butterfly chairs draws the eye. Is the green, white and gray color scheme a result of Peter’s modernist architectural eye? In part. Vanessa explains that she doesn’t wear colors … “I don’t do well in color,” she says. The palette they’ve chosen is restful to the eye and calming, and lets the carefully orchestrated yet simple details shine, from a row of rocks in descending sizes set along the top of a concrete bulkhead, to the junctions where the intersecting lines of materials meet.
“It’s kind of a wabi-sabi theme, with moss and found objects; nothing is polished and perfect,” says Vanessa, pointing out the gnarly old lilacs and the ancient apple tree shading the back terrace. At the other end of the terrace are a table and chairs for al fresco dining. “We have such a small dining room that we’ve added a seasonal one,” says Vanessa. She tests out recipes as part of her job, experimenting with the berries and herbs she grows in the warm sun of the front garden.
As they beat back the old laurel hedge at the back of the property, they discovered that it used to run continuously along the entire block, serving as a squirrel and raccoon highway through the neighborhood. This realization led the couple to plant the shady area that runs the back width of their garden to enhance wildlife, and now they enjoy visits from birds, bees and bats.
In front of the house and in back, they planted the pale, silvery drama of white-barked Himalayan birch groves (Betula utilis var. jacquemontii). As the birches grew up to create shady areas, the couple underplanted with painted ferns, hosta and ornamental grasses. Soon enough, they needed to replace the home’s tiny back windows with larger ones so they could enjoy the garden from indoors looking out.
The house has evolved along with the garden. Peter describes the home, built in the 1930s, as “a modest Cape Cod style.” He’s added pale gray cedar shingles and metal cladding and extended the back deck. The architecture extends out into the garden, with a potting shed that Peter designed and tucked into the side garden. Crushed-rock paths lead around the house to the grove of birches in front. A rusty steel sculpture is a focal point beneath the trees and, it turns out, another very personal touch. “I took welding in college back East, and hauled that piece out here with me,” says Peter.
Over the years, Peter and Vanessa have done all the work in the garden themselves, except for pouring concrete and sculpting the undulating junipers in the front rockery, which need pruning just once a year. From the old trees to the junipers, they’ve worked with what they had, and added to it, to come up with a very personal and welcoming garden of great simplicity and charm.