NATURALISM REIGNS in a seaside garden near Gig Harbor. The tree-studded property appears so well-established, so comfortable on its sloping site, that it gives the impression of growing undisturbed for decades.
The garden’s apparent age, however, is an illusion born of good design and generous numbers of new plants, expertly chosen. Venerable native conifers lend a feeling of permanence and scale to all the new plantings.
Less than four years ago the owners hired the landscape-architecture arm of the Tacoma firm AHBL to modernize and personalize their three-acre property. The project was a collaboration between the garden-savvy owners, landscape architects Phil Decker and Sarah Schroedel of AHBL, and the Nussbaum Group, which was responsible for construction, planting and now maintenance.
When visitors formerly drove up the long, winding driveway, they were greeted by lawn, a laurel hedge and badminton court. All are history. The towering laurel hedge was ripped out, but many more plants were saved. “Lots of transplanting was involved,” Decker says. A nursery behind the carport housed plants through construction until the garden was ready for replanting.
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How to deal with a property that was originally three lots? Schroedel came up with a design to knit the parcels together with groups of plantings and a network of stone paths and patios. An alfresco shower, fire pit and a pergola-topped barbecue create destinations within the larger landscape. You can stroll through dogwoods, star magnolias and a glen featuring a thousand ferns, more than 20 varieties. A grove of Enkianthus campanulatus ‘Red Bells’ blooms in May, then stars again when its foliage blazes in autumn. A new stream links various areas as it flows over rocks, crosses beneath stone-slab bridges and ends up puddling into a pond beside a patio.
The work began with amending the soil and dealing with drainage. But the real story is the breadth and detail of the plant palette. The garden is already growing up to feel like a personal arboretum. A new canopy forms a leafy layer beneath the old conifers. A wide array of plants, chosen for bloom, texture and the ability to attract birds creates interest in all seasons.
Pulmonaria and corydalis bloom blue along the stream in springtime. Shade-tolerant ground covers, such as ferns, epimedium, oxalis and astilbe, carpet the ground in a textural medley. Small, fragrant evergreen shrubs like Daphne odora and Sarcococca ruscifolia perfume doorways. White flowers — including bleeding heart, flowering currant, dogwoods and anemones — light up the garden. The predominantly green backdrop plays up the luminescence of their bloom.
“Tulips just wouldn’t be right for this garden; they look too formal,” explains Decker. He chose more casual-looking bulbs, 9,000 of them, including natives such as trout lilies and cammasia. Snowdrops, crocus and tiny Iris reticulata begin the bulb parade in March, followed by waves of narcissus, anemone and fritillaria. Allium and lilies continue the show through August.
Nearer the house, the garden is more about outdoor living. “A covered barbecue an easy distance from the kitchen was a strict requirement,” says Decker. A curved patio set into the slope features the fire pit and a rock wall for sitting. It faces west toward Henderson Bay, a perfect spot to watch the sun set over the Olympic Mountains and Puget Sound.
While amenities such as the outdoor shower are eye-catching, there’s plenty of practicality. Pathways built of Montana sandstone are wide enough to accommodate a Rubbermaid cart the owner uses to trundle weeds and clippings. A steel-pipe grate crosses the driveway to serve as a deer guard when the gate is open. Along with extensive fencing, it keeps plantings safe from predation.
“Overall, the property is planted in about 50-60 percent native plants,” estimates Decker, including evergreen huckleberries, sword ferns and the winter-blooming evergreen Garrya x issaquahensis. The ornamental plants close to the house bleed gracefully into the property’s wilder margins. The garden rests in a deep sense of place, enlivened by a plant palette that grows more spectacular every year.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com. Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.