Renée and Carl Behnke mix color and textures in their fragrant ‘wild garden,’ highlighted by spectacular roses.
TO FOLLOW Renée Behnke around her property is like trying to keep up with a speed walker — she hops from plant talk to personal story and then back to plants in a matter of seconds. It is no wonder Behnke is president emeritus of Sur La Table, the fine cookware company the Behnke family purchased in 1995, then sold majority ownership of in 2011. She walks like someone used to getting things done quickly and efficiently — calling out plant names over her shoulder rapid-fire.
Renée and her husband, Carl, purchased their sprawling property in Clyde Hill 12 years ago and had three entire city lots to plan out the gardens. “The only thing we kept was one wall in the garage — everything on the property is new,” says Renée. A lifelong gardener, she knew immediately what she wanted and worked with dear friend and landscape designer Rod Juntunen to create all the garden spaces and hardscaping.
Walking up the stamped cement pathway to the house, visitors pass by intense-smelling blooms and herbs — roses, daphnes and cherry blossoms — a hint at what the rest of the property holds.
Herbs of all matter, along with a smattering of leafy greens, are tucked in among flowers — white Casablanca lilies, hydrangea and alliums. Blueberry bushes, sage plants and daphnes corral the mint, helping to hold it in place so it doesn’t spread. The herbs are an easy grab from the kitchen, which sits just inside the home’s front doors.
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The front garden is tidy and feels full and lush, with personal touches throughout. Behnke uses glass cloches — thick, bell-shaped covers she found in France — to protect sensitive plants, like the lemon verbena. A water fountain designed by artist Nancy Mee gurgles close by. A nearby trellis supports Sally Holmes Climbing Roses, which spill over and drape romantically.
Walking into the backyard, one leaves the confines of the little entry garden and starts to grasp the magnitude of the property. A narrow stone pathway leads through a large garden with a winding path that is densely planted with perennials and annuals on both sides. “I intentionally wanted it to be busy and colorful — kind of like a wild garden,” says Behnke.
There is no clear order or system to her planting — she mixes color and texture without repetition, intuitively, with occasional input from Juntunen. Here, a tall Lions Tail shrub with tubular orange flowers is flanked by delphiniums in blue and lavender, white David garden phlox, burgundy cosmos and magenta-toned asters. “This isn’t a real organized garden,” says Behnke. She has pollen on her nose.
Her keen organization comes through in the spectacle of a rose garden that runs the length of the south side of the backyard, bordered by 15 lilac trees. Here, tall garden roses bloom from May through September and are neatly labeled with heavy-duty placards — the name of each rose printed in block letters. In this space, Behnke relies on help from local rose expert Bob Gold, who comes annually to spray, fertilize and prune the roses, and also provides input on rose selection. “I’ve always been a rose-lover, but you can’t really do that on your own,” Behnke says.
She and Carl contribute by pinching off all of the side blooms, allowing for one huge rose head to develop. Many are the size of her hand. Behnke walks among the roses, shouting out characteristics or musing joyfully about their strong fragrance. “Just Joey is so beautiful, but you can’t cut Just Joey because it doesn’t last in the house at all.” She brought Mister Lincoln over from their old house — a rose bush she has had for more than 15 years.
So, are roses her favorite? “Different things are my favorite on different days,” she says.
The rose garden borders the croquet court that takes up most of the backyard. Carl was once a ranked U.S. player. The court is the centerpiece of the yard, though distinct gardens surround it on all sides. Raised boxes and container plantings flank the deck and pool at the back of the house. A large vegetable garden sits to the north, behind a grove of hornbeam trees. A boxwood hedge and lawn are to the west.
The vegetable garden is a massive space, taking up one entire city lot, and is encased by espaliered fig trees Renée imported from Italy. No surprise, given the Behnkes’ propensity for cooking and hosting friends for dinner each week, plus several charity events during the year. The garden is planted with tomatoes, peppers, beans, peas, onions, garlic, zucchini and more. This, too, they plant and tend on their own. “But we argue,” says Renée. “Carl thinks because there are 400 seeds in the bag, we have to plant them all, so now we have a restriction on him.”
Leaving the vegetable garden, she walks past a mock orange shrub that is in need of pruning. Behnke is creating a mental to-do list as she plows across the property. “Plant care is a really big job, but I work real fast, and I come out here and just do it. I have a guy help do the hedges and stuff,” says Behnke of her seemingly boundless energy to tend the massive property.
Does she ever get tired? “Not really,” she says. “Isn’t that wild?”