By Valerie Easton
Photographed by Mike Siegel
A LITTLE RED grocery store that was turned into a home and studio for an accomplished artist and his master-gardener wife has the aura of urban myth. Yet there it is, on a prominent corner in Magnolia, flowers tumbling around the charming peek-a-boo fence.
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Longtime Magnolia residents may remember the neighborhood grocery on the corner of Bertona and 28th since the 1930s. Brom Wikstrom bought the building in 1982 and converted it to a home, complete with parking lot and weedy, rock-strewn yard. When he married Anne seven years later, she began the transformation by planting a few zinnias out front.
It was only after the couple built a “Detached Accessory Dwelling Unit” on their double lot in 1999 — as part of a city demonstration project — that Anne set in to create a garden melding the two homes on this highly visible corner.
“It took ages just to get the huge laurel out of there,” says Anne of her struggles with the beast of a hedge. Looking at a magazine, she found a design for an open, lattice-like fence, then jazzed it up with artistic details. The fence is as eclectic as the garden it encloses, with copper panels, bits of copper piping and a planted metal teapot enthroned in one of the window cutouts. The teapot spouts grasses in winter, flowers in summer. A fragrant climbing ‘Fourth of July’ rose threaded through the open latticework bursts into seasonal fireworks, its blowsy red-and-white-striped flowers the essence of summer.
The long parking strips are the first thing you see when you arrive at the Wikstroms’ corner double lot. Here’s how Anne Wikstrom turned these “hell strips” into low-maintenance, drought-tolerant gardens:
Dig nothing. Anne killed the grass and weeds by covering every inch of the strips with cardboard, then mounded 6 inches of mulch on top. She left the mulch in place through the winter, and the vegetation-free strips were ready to plant in springtime.
Plant. Anne selected tough, low-growing, non-thirsty plants like rugosa roses, euphorbia and small pines. She trimmed the edges with ajuga and hardy geraniums. “I’m really into sedums and sempervivums,” she says of the many hardy succulents that thrive sandwiched between street and sidewalk. Plenty of additions, such as a mahonia, attract birds.
Take care. Anne doesn’t water at all once plants are established, which can take a season or two. If a plant doesn’t make it, that’s OK with her, she’ll try something else. “I do my own little pruning to give the pines personality,” she says.
“It’s a welcoming fence,” says Anne. “I don’t like fences that shut people out.”
Inside the fence, the organic garden meanders around a pond and waterfall, past plum and frost peach trees, an herb garden and raised vegetable beds. This is a garden designed to wander, and planned to accommodate every member of the family. Anne is a dental hygienist who works part time so she can care for her garden. She needn’t fear running out of chores on this intensely planted double lot. Her mother-in-law, who lives upstairs in the property’s “big house,” enjoys looking down on the garden. Brom Wikstrom, a quadriplegic since 1975, finds flowery inspiration for his watercolors right outside his studio door. A member of the Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists of the World, Brom shows his work and travels to conferences around the globe. His résumé includes giving painting demonstrations to such diverse luminaries as Andy Warhol and the emperor and empress of Japan.
Anne has been inspired to think multidimensionally when designing the garden, because her wheelchair-bound husband literally enjoys it at a different level than she does. The garden’s paved pathways are wide enough so Brom can roll right out the door and through the garden; the raised beds allow him to get up close to dirt and plants. Since the garden isn’t large enough for a wheelchair-accessible labyrinth, an arbor shades a small-scale “visual labyrinth.” In the quiet back corner of the garden, a little shed dubbed “Casa de Flores” is the place for meditation and romantic dinners. “We have great little ceremonies in here,” says Anne, building her own myths deep in the garden that used to be a grocery store.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of “A Pattern Garden.” Her e-mail address is email@example.com. Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.