THE FIRST THING you notice about Bonnie Berk and Larry Kessler’s property in the Mount Baker neighborhood of Seattle is the formidable retaining wall. Accentuated with terra-cotta tiles and red brick, the wall provides double-sided access to the property via stairs, and was part of the original home design by Arthur Loveless. It’s a grand entrance leading to the Colonial Revival-style home built in 1916.
Berk purchased the property 25 years ago and, as an art collector herself, was committed to honoring the architect’s original plans. In 2000, she rebuilt the staircase and the main terrace, as they were cracking and bowing from age. She worked from original drawings the previous owners had passed on to her. “You can tell from the blueprints, he (Loveless) was very detail-oriented, as he detailed everything — glass, a lamp, everything,” Berk says.
With the landscape, however, she has taken artistic liberty. Where once there was a steep slope of a front yard running to the wall (and looking like an overgrown cottage garden), Berk had a terraced garden installed, with series of planting platforms.
Once terraced, landscape architects suggested a lawn of mondo grass that eventually would house large-scale sculpture. While it took many years for Berk to find art, she chose two immense installations that flank the stairway leading up to the main yard.
One is “Moongate,” a large, circular, metalwork sculpture from local artist Jim Honold. The other is a playful, pineapple-shaped bloom of steel, “Joy,” that Berk purchased from California. “Moongate” is surrounded on all sides by plantings — tidy boxwood and white hydrangea hedges in front, and painted, black-raised beds behind. The beds are filled with plants in deep colors of bronze, black, red and burgundy, with an occasional pop of chartreuse mixed in. The dense planting includes black mondo grass; red bananas; tall, deep purple dahlias; and massive red canna lilies that tower behind the sculpture.
“Joy” sits under a magnolia tree and welcomes you as you step up into Berk’s yard, under a canopy of leaves — one of the few original trees she kept on the property.
The house stands on a lot-and-a-half of land and is pushed to the far northern corner of the property, allowing for a sweeping sightline. At the top of the stairs, visitors are met with a sprawling lawn, several seating areas and sporadic plant groupings.
The original landscape had laurel, holly and boxwood hedges and was otherwise all lawn, but Berk started playing with the shapes of things, having never gardened much in the past.
“I grew up in an apartment,” she says. “I was never a gardener until I moved to Seattle and discovered the generosity of the Seattle climate, where you can more or less put things in the ground, and they’ll grow.”
Running the length of the property to the south, the garden offers privacy from the neighbors by way of a 20-foot-tall laurel hedge that Berk believes was planted when the house was built. Without the hedge, neighbors would literally be peering down into her yard. For the sheer height alone, it is truly magical to behold.
“Doug, who does the hedges, stands at the very top of an 18-foot ladder, and he’s over 6 feet tall, so that’s (as tall) as we can have,” says Berk. Centered in front of the hedge is a tall arbor (also made by Honold) with Kadsura japonica ‘Chirimen’ vining up, and a bench and sculpture tucked below. The sculpture, “Mother Nature,” is of a serene and peaceful face. “Don’t we all need some Mother Nature? She looks pretty benevolent,” says Berk.
Walking toward the back of the property, Berk has planted a shade garden full of plants with strong foliage and variegation, which she loves. “I have a lot of passions. I am passionate about Podophyllums,” she says, pointing to a woodland plant with umbrella-like leaves. Here, she also has planted a hard-to-grow (and therefore uncommon and special) Podophyllum ‘Starfish’. A few plants she grows simply for the leaves, like the chocolaty Hydrangea ‘Miss Saori’ that she cuts the flowers from, and a tall Rhododendron sinogrande. “I like foliage much more than flowers,” says Berk.
Surveying the landscape, it’s clear that Berk has a visually compelling and thoughtful space from every angle. Color, pattern and texture are all intentional. “Well, I like black, and there is a lot of discipline” says Berk, and points out her black-pots-only rule. “Good design is what you’re not doing, too.”
The front of the property overlooks the steep incline to the street, and Berk finds respite on a terrace just off her living room. Here, she has black pots full of dwarf conifers, a sago palm, hearty aloes, a wispy Pittosporum illicioides ‘Angustifolium’ and potted burgundy contorted filbert. She can sit out among the plants and look east toward Lake Washington.
Of her passion for plants and gardening, Berk says, “I love to learn.” She has studied in England and currently volunteers at the Elisabeth C. Miller Botanical Garden, sits on the board of Far Reaches Botanical Conservancy and is a member of many local garden groups.
“This is one of the very best places in the world to be a gardener,” she says, noting many of the fantastic people and friends she has met over the years. “You come for the plants and stay for the community.”