THE TREES ARE big, the house is small (but very cool) and the gardens are always growing.
Ben Oleson and Jen Zook are owners of Zook & Oleson Gardening (zookandolesongardening.com) and parents to Indie (15) and Jesse (12). Two dogs, Joaquin and Fiona, and an “ancient” cat named Vincent, complete the household.
An avid plantsman, Oleson’s approach to garden design is grounded in plants. “I’m a gardener. If you want a garden, I’m your guy,” he says. “I only design what I can install — and I’m not that handy.”
I politely disagree as we walk among several Ben-built projects on the family’s large corner lot in West Seattle. The landscape is abundantly planted but prioritizes family life. Built features, like decking, an interesting dog-friendly fence (it has windows at canine height) and outbuilding storage solutions for the active family’s outdoor gear, are integrated with ornamental shrubs and perennials, edible gardens and berries.
Bisecting exuberantly planted garden beds, an informal boardwalk leads to a citrus yellow front door. The canopy of a truly impressive silver maple (Acer saccharinum) envelops the front garden and bustles with life. “The tree is a community of animals, the only ecosystem of its size for blocks and blocks,” Oleson says. “We get hawks, raccoons, possums and every kind of bird, along with lots of insects.”
Over the years, the family has broken up the oversized lot into a series of smaller, flexible spaces. Zook describes organically tackling projects in the backyard in response to one need or another. “We wanted a place to read in the shade, a place to read in the sun, a place to drink coffee in the morning, a place to drink something else in the evening,” she says.
One of the most impactful changes in the landscape occurred when the couple installed a prefab Modern Shed in the far back corner of the property. Primarily designated as office space, the tiny structure gets daily use by the entire family. “It’s always there if someone needs private space away from the rest of the house,” Zook says. “It’s probably the best investment we’ve made, and I love the way it sits on the property. One of the best views of the shade garden is from the desk!”
The girls are growing up, shade from the mature trees is encroaching on the veggie beds and the family is imagining how to reinvent spaces that are not living up to their fullest potential. Like a big, beautiful table carefully sited to complement the shade garden. “I love that table,” Oleson says. “It was a tremendous amount of work!” But the microclimate on the north side of the house is so chilly, the table gets used only on summer afternoons. “We sometimes fantasize about a little pool, or hot tub, or pond in that side yard. Would that be more useful than a giant family table? We haven’t decided yet.”
The sunny south side of the property was covered in concrete before it became a productive vegetable garden. Then edible beds gave way to a lawn to accommodate cartwheels. Now Oleson and Zook are eyeing the space and imagining an outdoor table for dining, crafts and safe (warm) outdoor gathering space.
“When the kids were little, they enjoyed playing in the dirt under the cedars where nothing would grow,” says Zook. A few years on, the family built a treehouse, complete with pulley systems, ropes and ladders. When interest in the treehouse waned, the couple installed a silk circus trapeze. And they think they’re not handy! “The next phase for that shady space will be to hang a cozy reading hammock,” says Zook. Live and learn.