Mary and Whit Carhart spent 16 years nurturing 2½ acres of spectacular gardens, combining plants and art in a dazzling — and exhausting — display.

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WHIT AND MARY CARHART think big. The couple have labored over their hillside garden on Maury Island, just south of Vashon Island, for the past 16 years. How have they managed to develop and maintain acres of richly planted, art-studded gardens, including a vast pond with streams and waterfalls, a stroll garden and a variety of beds and borders around the house?

Vashon designer Terry Welch helped out, creating the water features and adding a walk-through metal moon gate to the scene. Recently, the Carharts sought advice on woodland plant selection from Miller Garden curator Richie Steffen. But it’s the Carharts who plant and maintain a garden so spacious, you need to stop and rest just walking it from top to bottom.

The 20-acre property, facing west toward Quartermaster Bay, is contoured with deep hollows and hills. Sixteen acres are in Stewardship Forest, with 2½ acres of cultivated gardens. The number and variety of ornamental and native plants in the gardens are staggering. Whit loves Japanese maples, and has planted more than 150 of these graceful beauties.

Whit was a radiologist in Yakima when the Carharts bought their island home in 1993. When he retired in 2000, they moved to the island, and began removing lawn around the house to create larger and larger planting beds. Over time, they gardened their way up the slope, adding seating areas, art, plants and more plants.

“It’s a big acreage, but I don’t feel intimidated by it,” says Whit. “For years, I gardened 25 acres of Yakima orchards.” He took classes from Dan Hinkley at Edmonds Community College. He studied soils at South Seattle College to learn how to deal with the property’s mostly sandy soil interlaced with clay and springs. “I’m not a professional; this is all by the seat of my pants.”

You’d never know it. The Carharts are enthusiastic and inspired gardeners who love sharing their property, regularly leading tours through the gardens. Visitors enter the garden at the top of the property, where a clearing in the woods opens to a foxglove-filled meadow. A red gate marks the transition from wild to cultivated.

As Whit carved out paths winding down the slope, he followed the many well- established deer paths. At first, Mary loved the deer, but eventually the couple fenced 5 acres to protect the gardens from predation.

Now paths wend their way down the hill through the woodland stroll garden. The slope is retained by logs; rocks; steps; and plantings of ornamental grasses and ground covers like ferns, cyclamen, hepaticas and native trillium. The garden is meandering and hushed, except for the distant sound of a waterfall luring you downhill, and the seasonal fireworks of cardiocrinum, species rhododendron, hydrangea and peony bloom. Chairs, benches and art, including the mosaic work of Vashon artist Clare Dohna, are tucked here and there along the way, offering spots for rest and reflection. Looking back up toward the meadow, through the burgundy foliage of Japanese maples, the laciness of golden locust and past the snowy bracts of dogwood (Cornus kousa x C. nuttallii ‘Venus’ and Cornus ‘Eddie’s White Wonder’), is nearly as arresting as looking down the slope toward the waters of Puget Sound.

A pond/swimming pool is at the center of the lower part of the Carharts’ upper garden. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)
A pond/swimming pool is at the center of the lower part of the Carharts’ upper garden. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)

Emerging from the woodland is pure drama. Downslope is an outcropping of boulders, with streams tumbling over rocks and waterfalls, ending in the pond. Conifers, maples and ferns line the edges of the pond and stream. Stone benches; a little island; and a cobble-floored “Machaii,” or Japanese sitting shed, are clustered around the expanse of water. Which is where Terry Welch worked his magic, turning an area of fill dirt into a sun-warmed, saltwater swimming pool elegantly disguised as a naturalistic mountain pond.

Step through the portal of a circular moon gate to reach the lower level of the garden, where wide borders sweep around the house. Four dancers, statuary by artist Dominic Benhura, cavort amid silky, golden mounds of Japanese forest grass. (Hakonechloa spp.). The borders are a mix of perennials; bulbs; small shrubs; and vines, including allium, clematis, peonies, lilies, delphinium, hosta and poppies. Big old cedars and madronas shade the edges of the property; thickets of native salmonberry feed the birds; and paths weave their way down to the beach, completing the navigation of this enchanting hillside, from woodland meadow to saltwater beach.