IT WAS A SINGLE photograph of a rare variegated lily of the valley on Instagram (@curtissteiner) that tipped me off to the remarkable garden that Curtis Steiner plants and tends at his home in the Phinney Ridge neighborhood.
A Seattle luminary, Steiner owns a shop on Ballard Avenue that bears his name — it feels more like a museum than a retail location. If you are drawn to treasures and fantasy or love design, you likely know who he is. It was with much anticipation, then, that I arrived at his garden; I had a hunch it would be amazing.
Steiner is quiet, intentional and wildly creative. There is no access to his home from the street. His alley entrance is purposefully mundane.
“I like the fact that it looks like a deceptive house from the alley. You don’t want to attract too much attention,” he says of the basic garden plants that frame the gate.
“When I was a little kid, I was really introverted and shy. We had a big, wooded area behind us, and I would go out and find an enormous tree, get all the leaf litter away and plant little things,” he says. “That was my bliss.”
Today, his passion remains inclined toward shade gardening.
Steiner purchased the property quite specifically for the huge wild cherry tree, Prunus avium, that drapes across the roof of the house and a wide swath of backyard garden space. “You can build a house, but you can’t build a tree.”
There is a deep, wide couch on the front porch meant for visitors and Steiner’s dog, Mortimer. Across a pathway stands a converted garage, now home to his small studio. The property is L-shaped, with the widest portion across the front.
“In the morning, there is magical light, and in the evening, lots of sun,” he says. Against the eastern wall, in a small gold, metallic pot, he has planted an ‘Above and Beyond’ climbing rose that blooms in hues from pink to peach to brown. Looking up, he calls attention to the woven pattern of the bark on a Concord grapevine hanging from a trellis overhead. The vines twist down the entire side of the house, where Steiner has set up a small area to sit and take in the evening light.
“I tend to not be all that flowery in my aesthetic,” he says. “It’s foliage first, and sometimes [I pick plants] in spite of the flower, like, ‘Oh, I love your leaf; I hate your flower, so let’s get through this period.’ ”
He points out a nearby bonsai-like conifer, ‘Miss Grace’.
“It is such an exquisite thing,” he says. “It’s a miniature giant Dawn redwood. I like leaf associations.” He points to a nearby Montpellier maple with a muted hue. “It’s a very strange green.”
Down the walkway to the backyard, we pass a shade garden full of hostas and native bleeding heart. He loves their beautiful summer color on the leaves, and how it comes and goes from the landscape. A hedge of mahonia creates privacy, and will bloom in the winter.
As the property bends, we pass by Rhododendron ‘Bow Bells’, with a “satisfying leaf shape and a hideous bloom,” he says. The property was practically bare when he purchased the home, though the cherry tree and a big clump of lilacs are original. He limbed up the lilacs, creating a grove. “It feels like an underwater thing,” he says of the thin, reaching trunks. “There is something magic about walking through an understory.”
The garden is dotted with art and a bespoke selection of pots — bonsai pots, an English chimney and garden urns. “I love this Japanese shrine I have hanging” at the back door, he says. He has gathered objects slowly over the years. “I have a sense of when something is remarkable.” A piece of lightning-burned tree leans against the fence line, a gift from friends who brought it to him from Hama Hama.
White-leafed Brunnera ‘Sea Heart’ grows along the narrow pathway down the backyard, creating dense ground cover.
“This comes from nothing each year, and it travels, but it’s so easy to pull up,” he says of the fuki (Petasites japonicas), a giant garden plant with prehistoric leaves. We pass by the rare variegated lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis ‘Albostriata’). “It’s very hard to find,” he says.
Along the path are common Western sword ferns that stand as tall as his chest.
“A monoculture of this would be so wonderful,” he says. He has them planted in a clean, tight line. They are showstopping ferns that help hold back a nearby variegated dogwood. Hostas ‘Halcyon’ are tucked in around them.
The backyard is jampacked with plants, inviting visitors to walk through slowly. Tiny prostrate yews are set against a chartreuse hydrangea. Ivy climbs over a fence. Columbine self-seeds across the garden, and he leaves them where they find space.
He chooses plants based on their architecture — the shape of their leaves or cones. A Korean fir (Abies ‘Koreana’) flips back and forth, growing in twists and turns of branches, so you’re often looking at the underside of the leaves. Its green color ranges from evergreen to lime.
The pathway dead-ends at a red maple surrounded by sea holly. “This is ‘Miss Willmott’s Ghost’, a very white, super silver plant” when it is in bloom, he says of the herbaceous thistle.
As he does in his shop, Steiner selects and cultivates plants that you simply do not see very often in local gardens. Every inch of his garden is covered in captivating plants, moss or ground cover.
“The thing that’s the joy for me is that it is ever-changing and ever-challenging. You’re never going to solve it,” Steiner says.
“Nature and the seasons require that you assert your consciousness to it and your ideas to it. Some things get big and fat, and some things die, and some things diminish, and some things get great, and you have to push this in, and suddenly you have this area and, you know, it’s wonderful. It’s endless.”