ERIC JOHNSON AND BEV HIMICK had a long time to consider how they wanted to design and build out their garden. After several years as renters, they convinced the owner to sell the house and existing overgrown lot to them. “I was really interested in the backyard potential and the view,” remembers Johnson.
The property sits on a sloping incline in West Seattle, which is lovely because it provides mega-views of the Sound, but a bit of a headache because the property has many levels, and they would have to remediate an old, neglected home. Luckily, Johnson is a civil engineer who pays meticulous attention to detail.
Over the years, they’ve chipped away at the house interior, but the outdoor renovation is complete. “It all came about because Eric said to me, ‘Let’s build a new sidewalk,’ ” says Himick.
They decided to rip up and rebuild all of the utilities, which in turn tore up the landscape. “We had a 10-foot-deep trench along the house, down to the basement, putting in foundation drains, and since we had it all torn up, you might as well do all that,” Johnson says of the overhaul.
The small front yard used to be full of juniper bushes. Cutting these out exposed a retaining wall made of boulders Johnson and Himick have since planted with a mix of rockery succulents, Asian peonies, creeping geranium and a maple that covers the entire yard.
Steps to the side yard run on the eastern edge of the property and lead visitors into the backyard. At the top, the couple recently added a small waterfall feature dotted by dwarf conifers.
“I got pretty into landscaping, and they’re so cool,” Johnson says of the tree collection, which includes a ‘Sulphur Flush’ oriental spruce and ‘Coney Island’ eastern white pine. These striking evergreens are thickly interplanted with alliums, hostas, heuchera, astilbes and black mondo grass. The conifers were added before the West Seattle Garden Tour last year.
“We were burned out after five years of construction,” says Johnson, but the looming tour provided enough inspiration to fill in any spaces of their landscape.
And hummingbirds were a factor, too.
“I like to photograph them. And any wildlife stuff, so any plant that was geared toward bees, butterflies or birds was a big part of our plan,” says Johnson, pointing at a basket of hanging fuchsias.
There is one particularly captivating area along the east side of the house that Johnson gushes over.
“Sheesh, that’s really popping,” he says, passing by a little corner of ferns, heuchera and a potted maple. “I just like the color and the patterns — it’s so cool.”
We pass by bleeding hearts, Solomon seal, ‘Jack Frost’ brunnera and a bright yellow scented azalea. “The flowers along here smell, so when we come out in the morning and go to work, I like that,” Himick says.
“There is an over-the-top irrigation system here with, like, 17 zones, and friends tell me I went over the top, but you kind of need it,” says Johnson. “I put in everything by myself.”
The backyard opens to an oasis of patio with plush furniture and a running river.
“This is how I always envisioned it,” Johnson says, recalling his early years as a renter. They ripped out the entire backyard, pushed it to the property line and cultivated the space. It’s difficult to ameliorate sloping hills with a range of elevations within a property, but Johnson has done just that.
It’s in back where Johnson’s precision really shines. He built a cascading river made of Pennsylvania blue stone boulders, which took a lot of thought and consideration.
“What kind of water sound do you want? How many waterfalls do you want to have? How high? I’m an engineer, and I’m good at this stuff, but I had to figure it out,” Johnson says. He notes the gurgling sound of water across the property — places where it’s louder (at the end of the fall) and softer (up by the seating area). He laid all the rock of the riverbed by himself, figuring out the position and composition so it looks natural.
The patio along the river is lined with custom-made grates to catch and drain the rain from the patio out to the street.
“That took a ton of work to get the grades right,” Johnson says. But now, water won’t sit on the walkways, puddles won’t form on the stone, and water will not drain to the house.
Along the river, they’ve planted bee balm; a collection of grasses; and Himick’s favorite, ‘Blonde Ambition’ blue grama grass. “Here, we have grasses and water, and it’s more of a retreat for birds,” says Himick. It’s a sanctuary for humans, too — simply beautiful.
Down the steps, along the west side of the house, Himick’s garden influence takes over, with edibles. She has planted an Asian pear tree, shaped in espalier to hide a storage area under the deck. Farther along, there are narrow boxes for growing tomatoes, herbs and coveted dahlias.
The property is dotted with maple trees in huge containers. On the west side of the house, there is a tall, red-leafed maple that grew so much, it split and now requires support that Johnson made of cabling. He started growing maples in pots because they allowed for the trees to be mobile.
“It’s a good way for us to have maples when we know we are going to tear things up,” he says. Maples are Johnson’s favorite plant.
This property was born of hard work, smart planning and creative vision. Johnson and Himick are a great team, finishing each other’s sentences and working side by side to pull up hundreds of crocuses over the years.
“Ours is the classic story of someone that wants to do repair on their house, but the end result is beautiful because it’s done by yourself,” Himick says.