This West Seattle couple brings a professional eye for design and detail to elegant, architectural plantings.
IT DOESN’T ALWAYS happen, but when it does — it’s worth noting. Sometimes, gardens are the perfect reflection of the person who planted them. With Carl Williams, it’s worth mentioning.
Driving by Williams’ corner lot in northeast West Seattle, it’s clear that plants are part of the architecture. Greenery frames the imposing home, which runs the entire length of the street on one side. And while the home is impressive and the lot is 6,000 square feet, there is an understated energy to it all — an elegance that Williams himself exudes. Soft-spoken and relaxed, Williams has lived here since 1994 (the house was custom-built in 1987) and has made significant changes to the landscape on only two occasions.
“I did it in stages and had Shapiro Ryan Design do all of the design and hardscape planning, and then Martha (Shapiro) selected all of the plants,” says Williams. “I was specific about what I wanted. I wanted it to be more evergreen — I wanted color and shape all year long. I didn’t want it to be a maintenance nightmare.”
Stage One focused on the front of the property — losing a high wall and deck bridge flanked by grass off the main entrance and adding a poured concrete wall, new driveway and some pavers. Stage Two was an overhaul on the back half of the house. Williams added an addition for his design firm — a private office space and entrance that used to be a poorly constructed free-standing deck and shade garden. Working with Shapiro Ryan again, they also extended the poured concrete wall down the back half of the property and around the corner.
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“When we did the back, it took 12 truckloads of concrete. I just couldn’t believe it,” says Williams. The skim-coated concrete wall was always a part of his vision. “I love them — that was one of the stipulations — I had to have them,” he says.
The initial renderings are still intact today, and he has made few changes to the original plantings. No surprise, given Williams’ long career as an interior designer. He has an eye for design.
With his recent marriage to landscape designer Daniel Lowery (who owns Queen Anne Gardens), the gardens now receive more attention to detail. “These pots are all Daniel’s. Did you see the Brugmansia?” asks Williams, gesturing to a massive flowering plant in an equally massive pot along the north edge of the sprawling driveway. “This is the second blooming,” he boasts.
“It bloomed in July, and now it’s doing its final push,” adds Lowery.
More commonly know as ‘Angels Trumpet’, the plant stands at least 6 feet tall and wafts its perfume across the property. “I started with a 15-gallon plant, and I wanted a big show,” says Lowery.
From the driveway, you can move in two directions — toward the walkway that leads to the front entrance, or down a small flight of stairs to the sidewalk. Either way, you step on and over low-growing ground covers like Isotoma fluviatilis ‘Blue Star Creeper’ and Saxifrage. Flanking the short set of stairs, Lowery added a gray-green Feijoa sellowiana ‘Pineapple Guava’ and allowed for dark-green ferns to blow in and volunteer here.
A row of plum trees runs the length of the parking strip, left over from the previous owners, whose red color mirrors the Berberis ‘Barberry’ planted alongside the house. “It’s a burgundy accent, even in the house and his clothes, that’s a favorite,” says Lowery. “That’s what color my bathrobe is, so I look good in the living room on Sunday mornings.”
There are grasses, rhododendrons, Japanese anemone and more in every shade of green — dark green, lime green, green-green, chartreuse — some with variegated leaves. Some plants were added to show off darker red leaves or pink blooms — a little bit of everything that works well together. Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Oakleaf Hydrangea’, whose big blossoms go ashy-brown while the leaves turn red in autumn, sits along the south side of the property next to a juniper tree and under the thin, willowy branches of a rare Acer davidii ‘Snakebark Maple’.
At the far corner of the property is a private entrance to Williams’ office. At the top of the staircase, you find Hakonechloa macra ‘Japanese Forest Grass’ blowing in the wind — this same grass lines the entire east side of the house. An Ilex crenata ‘Sky Pencil Japanese Holly’ stands at the corner, a tall and slender broad-leaved conifer.
Back here, a red-tipped crepe myrtle and a Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Hinoki Cypress’ tree frame the doorway to his firm and reach a full two stories high — their tips brushing the edges of the small patio off the kitchen above. The Cypress trees were 45 years old when Williams bought them 20 years ago, proving his plant choices are enduring.
For the small amount of outdoor space there is in relationship to the house, the garden feels very lush and full. As a whole, the property is stunning. Lowery, as a newer inhabitant, echoes this.
“There is a natural feeling, a flow, the rhythm (that) is asymmetric. I’m sure there is a musical style that goes with it — adagio,” he says. “It’s a unique collection of mostly evergreen plants, and there is an immense amount of privacy and lushness, and (it has a) sanctuary feel.”
From across the street, the property looks and feels like an urban park. Standing among the plantings, you hear birds chattering across the trees; hummingbirds buzzing by; and, in the distance, seals loudly barking.
“That was the whole point in buying this place,” Williams says. “I wanted a place with a view so it feels like I’m on vacation.”