IT’S NOT OFTEN a landscape architect gets another shot at a garden he designed years ago. But when horticulturist Sue Nicols was hired to come up with a fresh plant palette for an aging Capitol Hill garden, she asked Brooks Kolb to collaborate with her on the project. And it turns out that Kolb, along with his partner, Bill Talley, had renovated the garden in 1997 for an earlier owner.
Present owners Don and Marty Sands bought the 1932 brick Tudor three years ago. They remodeled it inside and out, then turned their attention to updating the garden. The couple appreciated the dramatic entry gates, as well as the maturing Japanese maples, Korean dogwoods and Hinoki cypress from the earlier renovation. Marty loves how the garden wraps around the house “like a little haven.” And she calls the majestic copper beech that dominates the scene “a Grandfather tree.”
But the corner property was pretty much all lawn and rockery. “There were lots of conditions and issues to deal with,” says Nicols. The place was overgrown and shady. Many plants had grown leggy, others had outlived their natural life spans and were in decline. Ivy and salal so choked the rockery you couldn’t even see the rocks, and plants were dying out in the dry shade beneath the rooty old copper beech.
The Sands were looking for more color, fragrance and year-round interest. The corner property is exposed to the street, and Marty hoped for more privacy for the walking meditation she practices in the garden.
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First, Kolb and Nicols needed to decide which of the old plantings to keep and what needed replacing. The two ended up saving about half of the original plantings, including a towering Scots pine. “It was 12 feet when we planted it in 1997 . . . I had no idea it’d grow so big,” says Kolb. The hardscape and features from the 1997 renovation, including terrace, fountain, gates and arbor, were well-designed the first time and suited the garden as much today as they did 17 years ago.
What was it like for Kolb to re-imagine a garden he designed long ago? “It’s a wonderful chance to come back in and retool a garden,” he says. He planted a necklace of new daphnes around the old fountain and left alone the huge white wisteria growing on the hefty arbor at the side of the house.
Nicols added many of her own favorite plants to the Sands garden. Intensely fragrant Daphne bholua blooms by the back door from Christmas through March, when the sweetly scented flowers of Daphne odora kick in. ‘Yaku Princess’ rhododendron is compact, and smothered in May with large, water-color-pink blossoms. Nicols mixed in ‘Korean Apricot’ chrysanthemums for fall color. Hellebores bloom in winter, as does the evergreen shrub Sarcococca ruscifolia with tiny white flowers that smell of vanilla, even on the coldest days.
Now sword ferns and epimedium flourish in the dry shade beneath the copper beech, and sweeps of golden Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’) light up the darker corners of the garden. Garden beds are updated with plantings of small-scale grasses, like Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’ and Carex ‘Ice Dance,’ mixed with sedum, astrantia, day lilies and hardy geraniums.
And the owners’ hopes for a more colorful garden? ‘Peach Blossom’ astilbes, hot orange and crimson Crocosmia ‘Emily Mackenzie,’ chartreuse euphorbia and blue-flowering Ceanothus ‘Julia Phelps’ create brilliant patches of color. Ivy and salal were rooted out of the rockery, replaced with campanula, snow-in-summer and Marty’s favorite gentian blue lithodora.
In the shadier areas of the old garden, beneath the original trees and those planted in 1997, maidenhair ferns, variegated hostas and black mondo grass carpet the ground. “There’s not a blade of grass left,” says Marty happily. She takes evident satisfaction in her time-travel garden, which is both freshly updated and respectful of its past.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com. Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.