All the plants have stories to tell in this fun, graceful garden space, which was crafted with a lot of hard work and DIY spirit.
ALEXIS ZOLNER’S GARDENS are a reflection of her life. Walking through, one comes across salvaged terra cotta embedded in a wall (found on a work trip to Chicago), a tree peony (dug up with a spoon from her mother’s garden before they sold her childhood home), mosaic sconces mortared to the pizza oven in the backyard (discovered in the United Kingdom) and more.
A well-traveled life and a penchant for DIY projects have helped Zolner put together many garden areas and themes across her small lot just above the ferry terminal in West Seattle. She purchased the home in 1985, knowing that eventually she’d have to start over.
“When I moved in, there was a tiny little ramshackle, blue, one-story beach house here, and it was falling down and I knew I’d have to replace it. It was really bad,” says Zolner.
She tore down the little blue house in 2001 and installed a modular home. Nothing was left of the original house, and only three plants on the property survived, but it gave her an opportunity to start again, though at first she relied on annual plants in the garden, year after year.
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“I deadheaded hundreds of thousands of marigolds,” she says.
Most plants on Zolner’s property have a story of some kind, even if that story is short. Many of them start with, “I loved this plant when I saw it at … ,” and she will make note of a garden show, nursery, private collection or international botanical garden.
Other plants have longer stories and, often, longer lives. The red maple tree off the front courtyard was one of her first plantings, gifted by her parents when she bought the home. The pink tree fuchsia was transplanted from her mother’s garden, as were the red-berried skimmia that hug the southern fence line.
“My mom was a passionate gardener,” Zolner says.
She is not only an adamant collector of bits and pieces of things she’s been captivated by; she also is a collector of ideas. “I’m a big copier — if I see something I like, I’ll copy it the best I can.”
The plants and hardware she collects sometimes inform the design, as with the wrought-iron gate that tops the wall encasing the front yard. She acquired this from a demolition on Lake Washington, knowing eventually it would be used, in some way or another, to enhance the perimeter of her property.
Other times, the plants come first, as with the parking strip. Influenced by British garden design, Zolner knew she would create a knot garden there, and started with a formally designed boxwood hedge. She filled in the space over time with a hodgepodge of plantings — pink blooms such as echinacea and primrose on one end, a miniature conifer garden for fairies on the other and three crabapple trees inspired by an orchard at the New York Botanical Garden.
Fence lines on the property are a spectacle — a result of Zolner’s meticulous DIY vision, research and manpower. A formidable poured concrete wall borders the sidewalk and frames the front yard — four gargoyles collected at a statuary on the peninsula sit, bookending the wrought-iron fencing. The south end of the property is framed by a corrugated steel fence that Zolner designed — the final look is “zippy, and the cost was negligible.” The modern, clean design offsets the otherwise-Old World style of the front courtyard with its stone fountain. The fence along the driveway is a simple design Zolner thought up — a series of tall, steel trellises held to posts with iron staples.
The backyard is the newest addition to the property. After single-handedly demolishing a rotting wood deck in 2015, Zolner hired Mark Shepherd Masonry to put in a patio, retaining wall, pizza oven and other functional features of her own design. Then, she decided on a theme for the garden plantings, having fallen in love with two trees — a Magnolia macrophylla and a Himalayan tree, Daphne.
“I bought both, and I thought, ‘You know what? They will anchor this space, and they will inform the design,’ and so everything I put back here was bigleaf, dinosaur-ish, unusual-leaf, fuzzy-leaf and very little color,” Zolner says.
She has the usual shade plantings (hostas and fuchsia) tucked between less-common plants — a river of all-gold Japanese forest grass winds through them, and a collection of Chinese mayapple hugs the hostas. The backyard bed is dense and varied — palms, lilies, ferns, elderberry and a large-leafed shredded umbrella plant fill in the space around the dining area.
It’s an effect that is compelling and graceful, offset by the grey-toned stonework and colorful artwork and container plantings she has dotted across the backyard. A Pike Place Market pig stands against the garage, glass flowers from Katy LaRue sit in pots, and plantings and fluorescent pink metal flamingos from TecWeld in Kingston brighten a planting across from the pizza oven.
“I love my backyard,” she says. “I have coffee out here in the mornings, and then sometimes Archie (Zolner’s 200-pound St. Bernard) and I will lay out here on the chaise lounge and read.”
And while the garden beds are full and the containers run over, Zolner has plans for more. The parking strip plantings are in need of rearranging. Her neighbor just chopped down a large fig tree, spilling sun onto her shade garden. A box of simple limestone tiles sits in the garage, waiting to be mortared to the front wall.
Ever the visionary, Zolner, who recently retired, will get to it all eventually, likely doing most of the construction and dirty work on her own.
“I do a lot,” she says. “Number one, I enjoy it, and number two, you can save a lot of money. And you get what you want.”