NOT EVERY DREAM HOME comes with a dream garden. Many of the gardens I visit have inherited overgrown landscapes; yards with poor soil; or, worst of all, no sunlight. Of course, any yard can be rehabilitated, given time and an often-hefty budget, but why bother going big when you can get just as much reward by keeping things small?

Looking for a little garden inspiration? Good ideas come in small spaces.

For every well-designed and professionally installed landscape we have featured in this magazine, there are even more local homeowners who have hand-built their landscapes through hard work, ingenuity and experimentation. And other gardeners have cultivated mobile gardens on balconies, patios and rented spaces, ready to pick up and move when the lease is up.

These resourceful gardeners have created small gardens with big impact.

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Work with what you have
Shaun Myrick and Kevin Bohnert have a nontraditional layout at the Windermere home they purchased 11 years ago. Visitors must enter through a tall, bright yellow lattice gate; the front door is on the side of the house.

Sunflowers, tomatoes, beans and hydrangeas grow in Kevin Bohnert and Shaun Myrick’s garden in Windermere. Myrick’s favorite color is yellow, so, “Anything that can sit still, I spray-painted yellow,” he says. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)
Sunflowers, tomatoes, beans and hydrangeas grow in Kevin Bohnert and Shaun Myrick’s garden in Windermere. Myrick’s favorite color is yellow, so, “Anything that can sit still, I spray-painted yellow,” he says. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)
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A long side yard serves as the primary entrance to the home and runs the full length of their narrow lot, which is made mostly of patio. Myrick is the gardener of the two, and originally envisioned the space as a perfect place to hold all the outdoor furniture they had amassed over the years.

From the front gate through to the grass-filled backyard, Myrick, an interior designer at Shaun Myrick Design, has created a series of rooms, one bleeding into the next and dotted with container plants and vibrant displays of color. “It’s about quality and color,” Myrick says. “Everything about the way I design is about comfort — I want it to look elegant and fancy, but comfortable.”

Guests walk from a dining room to a lounge area to a reading nook and end at a covered cabana with a fire pit, passing potted plants and sculpture along the way. Myrick spray-painted a nearby cement finial in the same bright yellow as the fence. “Anything that can sit still, I spray-painted yellow: Buddha statues, Mother Mary from Kevin’s mom’s yard, trellises, tomato cages,” he says. His trick is to play with color and keep it consistent across the landscape.

The outdoor “rooms” house potted collections of variegated geraniums, white mophead hydrangea, angel’s trumpet and hostas. There are several small trees: fan palm trees, an olive tree and a fruiting Meyer lemon citrus tree.

Myrick finds deals at nursery clearance sections, having faith that while plants might look poorly there, they’ll bounce back. “Shaun brings them back to life,” says Bohnert. They found the Meyer lemon tree on clearance several years ago, and last year it produced 38 fruits.

Thanks to Bohnert’s job as a managing broker with Windermere Real Estate, they’ve collected pots, plants and fountains for free as people have moved and given away items. “It’s all serendipitous; we’re in the right place at the right time, and Shaun makes it look easy,” says Bohnert. They inherit overgrown plants from neighbors, and have transplanted ferns, hostas and violas from their families’ yards. And while Bohnert has access to materials ready for repurposing, Myrick is the one who puts it all together back home. “I’m Shaun’s biggest fan,” says Bohnert.

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Myrick has a strong design sense and understands what will work well in their space, but he’s not as particular about the plants themselves. “I don’t research the plants I’m going to plant and plan it all out; I don’t find the exact best one. I find a plant that I like the look of, I bring it home and I plant it. It’s just a trial,” he says.

Birds of a feather
Sometimes, a yard needs only a small focal point to shine, and that’s just what one West Seattle couple envisioned when they purchased their home in 2019. Troy Hart and Michael Godfrey were gifted a blank slate of a landscape — the entire yard was flat and covered in grass. This allowed them to build whatever they wanted without reworking an existing landscape. The first order of business? A chicken coop.

This chicken coop in Troy Hart and Michael Godfrey’s backyard has a chicken run at left and a chicken tunnel that leads to the other coop at right. Hart is a professional chicken-coop builder. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)
This chicken coop in Troy Hart and Michael Godfrey’s backyard has a chicken run at left and a chicken tunnel that leads to the other coop at right. Hart is a professional chicken-coop builder. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)

Hart’s fascination with birds started at a young age, when he drove back and forth across the state to show ornamental game birds. The passion never faltered, and today he builds high-end, custom chicken coops through his business, The Chicken Nerd. It was the desire to keep a flock that instigated the garden’s design.

“The coop was placed with regard to weather and protection for the birds. We wanted it away from the house and the neighbors, with an easy way to collect eggs,” says Hart. He built two coops, allowing for separate flocks: one for egg-laying birds, and the other for the more-fancy-looking Bantam breed. Designed for functionality, the high-gloss black coops are at waist level and are capped with shiny, corrugated metal roofs.

And while the coops look like an accessory dwelling unit for a human, the real beauty of the space lies in what Hart and his husband did with the surrounding landscape, using free resources and a well-thought-out plan.

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In order to collect eggs with ease, Hart added a gravel pathway leading to the coops and filled in the surrounding space with berms. They planted these with color: hebe shrubs of varying leaf colors, grasses, echinacea and elephant ear plants, which display oversize, arrow-shaped leaves. They opt for low-maintenance plantings in specific color palettes and are well-researched buyers. “My dad owned a landscaping business, and me and Michael walk around the nursery for inspiration, but come back to our rules,” says Hart.

Troy Hart raises Silkie chickens, among other varieties, in his Seattle-area backyard. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)
Troy Hart raises Silkie chickens, among other varieties, in his Seattle-area backyard. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)

The berms are bordered by felled stumps and logs, and stones collected, at no cost, from Craigslist. Tall, metal barrels punctuate the space and act as containers for trees — more found, free goods from public listings. “We have always loved reclaimed things,” says Hart. They spray-painted the barrels black to complement the coops and give everything a clean, modern feel. The barrels grow a weeping pussy willow and a Japanese maple they chose specifically for the bark.

Against the fence stands a cross-section of trees, propped up in a shiny, metal watering trough more typically used to hydrate livestock. “We wanted it to have a farm feel without being super farm-y, and in the trough, it’s easier to uplight [at night] for more dramatic effect,” says Hart. They paid $40 for a 3-foot-wide cross-section of a 37-year-old maple tree they saw neighbors cutting down. “The only thing we bought for this garden space is the log and the trough,” Hart says.

Garden anywhere
What about garden lovers who have no space to grow? Enter Riz Reyes, a horticulturist and plantsman who has all the professional know-how to grow plants blindfolded, but doesn’t own a home with a yard. Over years of working with plants, Reyes has collected specimen plants and cuttings and assembled a coveted collection of potted plants that he keeps outside his downstairs apartment in Lake Forest Park.

This sweeping sea of container plants is thanks to his self-confessed “endless plant hoarding.” Drawn to foliage, he looks for plant material that will look good year-round. So he has many species of ferns, and he collects unusual ivy cultivars. Reyes doesn’t flinch at using a houseplant as an annual, planting out Aspidistra during spring and summer.

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Elephant ears, also known as Colocasia, stand tall at the top of the staircase in Riz Reyes’ container garden. Mexican grass is seen below the Colocasia. 
(Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)
Elephant ears, also known as Colocasia, stand tall at the top of the staircase in Riz Reyes’ container garden. Mexican grass is seen below the Colocasia. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)

It takes attention to make a composition and knit plants together to form a garden. And with up to 100 plants, Reyes has a sorting mechanism for making everything look cohesive. He chooses pots, such as glazed ceramics and faux terra-cotta, that can withstand the elements. “I choose colors that set up the plant specimen. I like darker, lapis blue ceramic glazes because I like to plant foliage with a chartreuse sheen,” says Reyes. Red tones complement cooler greens, and he adds colors as a little highlight, nothing too showy.

Reyes plants mixed containers and also keeps specimen plants in containers by themselves, choosing special-looking pots for those. He has an affinity for “spillers” and hostas, which, he says, grow everywhere and offer qualities such as huge or tiny leaves, color and fragrance.

Using oodles of containers and plants, Riz Reyes has created a beautiful garden next to his Lake Forest Park apartment along and on the top of a stairwell. These pots contain a collection of Pyrrosia fern species and cultivars. The ferns are often known as tongue ferns. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)
Using oodles of containers and plants, Riz Reyes has created a beautiful garden next to his Lake Forest Park apartment along and on the top of a stairwell. These pots contain a collection of Pyrrosia fern species and cultivars. The ferns are often known as tongue ferns. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)

Are there any limitations to growing in containers? “I’m used to living in apartment spaces,” which can be restrictive, he says. “But I am always intrigued by the latest discovery or newest interest [in plants]. When people tell me I can’t grow something, I want to prove them wrong.”

He is comfortable putting any plant in a pot, and encourages even those without a yard to experiment. “There were times I made mistakes, but it’s how I learn. Being able to endure challenges and disappointments helps to develop your own character as a gardener, and everyone has a different path,” says Reyes.

He calls attention to the fact that all plants spend a certain amount of time in containers if they’re being cultivated. “It’s like a transition period. The plants are in transit, and that’s the beauty of it: You can continually experiment and play with different combinations,” says Reyes.

The plants will come with him when and if he relocates, though any new place would need to offer access to the outdoors, as his current garden would fill three or four parking spaces with containers. “I think about the plant — their living is temporary, too. We’re all just kind of renting together, and eventually they’ll find their long-term home.”