On the island north of Seattle, a musicians' garden is steeped in the rhythms of flowing water and swaying trees.

Share story

Joann and Artie Kane’s music-driven life is reflected in their vast Whidbey Island garden. Artie is a pianist who composed scores for “Looking For Mr. Goodbar,” “Dynasty” and “Love Boat,” among many films and television shows. JoAnn sang in Vegas, and opened for Perry Como before starting a successful company that prepares and transcribes music for clients as diverse as Barbra Streisand and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The couple commuted to Los Angeles for years after they moved to Whidbey Island, although these days they mostly stay put and enjoy their garden.

How can a nonvisual art like music be expressed in flowers and foliage? Goethe wrote that architecture is frozen music. Perhaps gardens, which change and grow through the seasons and years, can be thought of as living music. This is the premise behind the new Toronto Music Garden, designed in collaboration with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, which uses ornamental grasses, a birch grove and wildflower meadow to convey different musical movements.

The Kanes’ garden is imbued with melodies on many levels. Piano tunes fill the air from Artie’s concert grand piano in the music room. Then there’s the rhythmic repetition of plants, perhaps most obvious in a 90-foot-long parade of boxwood known affectionately as the “great wall of Kane.” An old barn remodeled into an acoustically rich concert venue holds Jack Benny’s old piano. A curvaceous fountain crafted of horns rises up out of a pond. And at the front door, a scaffolding dangling 16 steel bells, hung in order of the notes they play, greets visitors. JoAnn’s been known to hammer out Christmas carols as well as “The bells are ringing for me and my gal.”

The Kanes migrated north from Bel Air in 1994, after searching the Northwest for waterfront property. Artie was “ready to retire after nine years of ‘Loveboat’ and six years of ‘Matlock,’ ” says JoAnn. They were looking for five acres. But once they crossed the spectacular Deception Pass bridge, drove the length of the island and down a long, wooded driveway they fell in love with the 19 acres they found there overlooking the sea. The couple followed deer paths to discover they owned a beautiful, natural meadow previously hidden by trees. It was more of a mixed blessing to find that nearly two acres of the property were wetland.

Two years of feasibility studies later, JoAnn went to work planting more than 700 trees. She may have started out asking how bougainvillea did on Whidbey, but soon reverted to her hardy Minnesota roots, and with the help of Bill and Rhonda Bergthold, landscaper and master gardener respectively, selected dozens of sequoia, maples and dawn redwoods. The team planted plenty of colored foliages like golden locust, burgundy barberries and purple-leafed plums to create contrast against the green-and-blue backdrop of conifers, sea and sky.

In the autumn, sumacs and maples blaze scarlet, and in winter thick hedgerows of evergreen nandina and leucothoe clothe the garden in tinted foliages.

As with any garden, practicalities are as vital as artistry. “This property is all about water management,” explains JoAnn, pointing out the holding pond and stream. Water from acres of wetlands runs into rock-lined drains and a 7,000-gallon catch basin.

To cut down on maintenance, JoAnn favors trees and shrubs rather than flowers. The result is a quiet, elegant arboretum of a garden, with scattered art pieces and outbuildings as focal points. The exception to this restraint is the riotous rose garden, planted close to the house so the rose perfume wafts into the music room while Artie’s music drifts out to the garden.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of “A Pattern Garden.” Her e-mail address is valeaston@comcast.net. Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.