Palms and cypress, stone walkways and concrete walls give stately shape to an old garden in Seattle's Madison Park.

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Living in a Paul Thierry-designed house that came with the original planting plan hasn’t slowed Naomi Barry down in her quest to modernize her Madison Park garden. Designer Scott Mantz, working in stages over the past six years, has transformed a grassy plot into a sophisticated city garden with European flair.

“Scott gave us a planting plan . . . and we followed some of it,” says Barry cheerily of the big garden behind her 1930s brick home. “I really need to put me into the garden,” she says. “But now I realize that ‘me’ doesn’t know much about plants.”

Which is where Mantz’s interpretation of Barry’s wishes for a classical yet tropical garden come into play. “I thought about Lake Como,” he says of the groupings of slender, spear-like Italian cypress that punctuate the planting beds. The dramatic foliages of palms, silk trees, hebes and flax warm and soften the garden.

When Mantz began work, the mostly grassy garden was a big mess after a major remodel. The home’s previous owner had given Barry the original plans for the garden, which was pure English cottage style with a big lawn, cherry tree and rose garden. Nearly everything has been changed out in the years since, except for a shady grove of stately, treelike rhododendrons at the back of the property.

The first stage of the project in 2002 was all about elevations and topography. Mantz began with the side garden, paving the narrow, shady area and adding an acid-etched concrete wall as backdrop to plantings of ferns, brunnera and coleus. He designed curved retaining walls, walkways, stairs and a ramp for pushing a wheelbarrow up and down the slope. “We needed a graceful way to move from one level to another,” he explains of all the granite paving and basalt walls.

A new deck off the library is ideal for growing tropicals in pots, and a fountain drips down a stone wall into a little pond. The fence is rebuilt to the original design. “A team from Avalon Northwest Landscaping worked here for months,” says Barry. “They became like part of the family.” She credits the company with meeting the challenges of working in such a dense, urban neighborhood by showing great sensitivity to the neighbors’ concerns.

Then came the planting, a pleasure Barry is still toying around with. “This isn’t a prissy garden,” says Mantz. “Naomi likes bold foliage.” She also wanted to temper her brick home’s boxy angles with soft colors and leafiness, hence the blowsy hydrangeas, heucheras, hebes and gauzy ornamental grasses. Mantz subtly cut down the size of the big garden by informally grouping trees and shrubs to create permeable alcoves, rooms and passageways.

“Scott taught me not to be in such a hurry to plant,” says Barry, “so I place the plants, leave them, think about it, and then move them around.” Orchestrating her garden’s plantings remains a delightful, open-ended process for Barry, who explains, “As we get older our color tastes change . . . The other day I looked out there and decided I needed more fuchsia.”

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of “A Pattern Garden.” Her e-mail address is valeaston@comcast.net. Barry Wong is a Seattle-based freelance photographer. He can be reached at studio@barrywongphoto.com.