The story behind Seattle's Streissguth Gardens on Capitol Hill is revealed in "In Love with a Hillside Garden."

Share story

Seattle is a treasure trove of hidden stairways, pocket parks and garden niches. Its up-and-down topography creates all sorts of oddball corners that local gardeners treat as a blank canvas. Most engage with their loving task under cover of anonymity. But with the Streissguth Gardens on North Capitol Hill, the floral casebook has been thrown wide open.

“In Love with a Hillside Garden” by Ann, Daniel and Benjamin Streissguth (University of Washington Press, 118 pp., $22.50) goes into every detail of brush-clearing, soil-tilling, plant-placing and watering regime. For Ann and Daniel and their son, Benjamin, the garden is a living, protean creature — almost a member of the family.

The Streissguth Gardens form a natural amphitheater on the south side of the East Blaine Street stairway, with a view out over Lake Union of the Space Needle, Queen Anne Hill and the Olympics. They’re an easy trek down from 10th Avenue East — and one heck of a climb up from Lakeview Boulevard East. The gardens got their start in 1972, when Ann and Daniel, who lived in a house just north of the stairway, purchased two vacant lots from a neighbor.

The sharply sloping land was an urban jungle: “South of the East Blaine stairs a barricade of blackberry brambles extended where rampant wild clematis vines pulled saplings over into dark mysterious rooms.”

Over the next three decades, the Streissguths cleared paths here, creating both flower and vegetable gardens. Benjamin, born in 1970, literally grew up in the garden. In 1990, when a large condominium project threatened the three vacant lots immediately south of the Streissguths’ two, the family campaigned for the city to purchase the land — with a promise that they would deed their own two lots to the Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation and maintain them, if the purchase went through.

That’s exactly what happened in 1996. The Streissguth Gardens now constitute the north end of a continual greenbelt encompassing the hillside below St. Mark’s Cathedral.

Some chapters of “In Love with a Hillside Garden” are simply an inventory — with fond commentary — of all the plants you’ll find in the garden. Ann, Daniel and Benjamin take turns narrating, identifying garden treasures, garden nuisances and plants that, like the hypervigorous Welsh poppy, fall somewhere in between.

They also share their gardening philosophy. “I marvel at their biological strengths and weaknesses as well as their beauty and scent,” Ann says of the garden’s “inhabitants.” “I shamelessly evaluate their acceptability based on how well suited they are to our needs as we develop and maintain this acre of hillside garden. Can they help us control the weeds? Can they reproduce themselves sufficiently to be visible in such a garden? Can they co-exist with the other plants we also love?”

Filled with color photographs taken over the years and with maps that highlight every aspect of the garden, this little book distills the essence, in miniature, of our garden-happy city.

Michael Upchurch: