President Mark Emmert and his wife, DeLaine, charged Larson with nothing less than bringing the UW presidential mansion garden back to life.

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One University of Washington president practiced his golf game on the lawn, another terraced the back hillside to grow fruit and vegetables. When Ray Larson was hired as head gardener at Hill-Crest, the president’s estate in Washington Park, he was the first full-time gardener in several decades. And it showed.

President Mark Emmert and his wife, DeLaine, charged Larson with nothing less than bringing the garden back to life. Because they host several university functions a week, the Emmerts wanted a welcoming garden for alfresco entertaining May through October. DeLaine asked for bird-friendly plants as well as herbs for cooking and flowers for cutting. They had a vision of the grounds as a lovely, productive asset for university events, not just a backdrop to the house.

Larson, with a new master’s degree in urban horticulture from the university, faced a property that had seen better days. The 1.5-acre garden’s sweeping lawns and mature trees and shrubs had been tended, but the place was ragged around the edges and badly in need of an update. It felt institutional rather than personal and did nothing to emphasize the charms of the century-old Georgian mansion it surrounds. Larson suspects the landscape was planted without much purpose before a 1958 plan by landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, drawn up around the time president Charles Odegaard built both the greenhouse and sun-room addition to the house.

Larson’s advice three years down the road of renovation? Take stock before you start, don’t just plunge in. Wait and watch to see where the sun falls, what bulbs emerge and how plants look once they leaf out. A plant that appears dead in February might just turn out to be a gorgeous hydrangea.

Start, he says, by determining what kind of soil you have. Larson enriched Hill-Crest’s sandy soil with plenty of compost, topping off with mulch to keep down the weeds.

He also talked extensively with the Emmerts about their goals for the garden and how they plan to use it. DeLaine Emmert formed a committee of local horticulturists to advise both her and Larson. Landscape architect Keith Geller devised a long-range master plan for Hill-Crest’s grounds; he also updated the hardscape and designed an entry arbor.

During the months of master planning, Larson set to work with what he had. He dug out a bank of weeds to reveal healthy shrubs beneath. He “arborized” big old lumps of rhododendrons, camellia and andromeda by pruning them up into treelike forms. He removed dozens of sick old roses and ripped out more pachysandra than he cares to remember. “I’m not a sentimentalist about plants . . . It’s OK to take things out,” he says.

As with many old gardens, Hill-Crest bloomed extravagantly in springtime then lapsed into dull summer green spottily interrupted by hybrid tea roses. So a priority was planting for year-round interest and color. An Irish yew hedge serves as backdrop for new perennials, hellebores, ferns and ornamental grasses. Now hydrangeas, crocosmia and agapanthus bloom in summer; sedum, aster and salvia flower in autumn. Native and berried plants like red-flowering currant, Vaccinium ovatum, hardy fuchsias and various mahonias lure birds to the garden.

The too-narrow aggregate walkways, added in the 1960s, never suited the mansion’s grand style. With Geller’s help, Larson sculpted planting beds around the new, wider bluestone walkways and patio. Now the new arbor marks the entry to the back garden, and in front of the house wider beds hold a textural medley of plants. Large-leafed architectural showstoppers such as melianthus, phormium and petasites contemporize the garden and play off the older plantings.

“I really hope people who come here will notice the plants . . . It’s not just a landscape but a real garden,” says Larson of his work-in-progress.

Since the Emmerts refrain from golfing on the lawn, Larson has been able to reduce the grass by at least a third to cut down on water use. And the color scheme? “We didn’t overdo the purple and gold,” says Larson. “It’s there, but we tried not to have it right in your face.”

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of “A Pattern Garden.” Her e-mail address is