Steve Emmer and Cody Christensen appreciate a working elevator. The men hoisted dozens of pots and perennials from street level up to the terrace...
Many gardeners lust after sharp English shovels, miraculous weeding tools or carts to tote a mountain of compost. Steve Emmer and Cody Christensen appreciate a working elevator.
The men hoisted dozens of pots and perennials, shrubs and trees from street level up to the terrace outside their Seattle condominium to create their haven in the city. The resulting garden frames close-up views of Elliott Bay and office towers, and provides private spaces for relaxing or entertaining.
There is a public benefit, too: As people walk down the stairs from the Pike Place Market and look across Western Avenue toward the bay, they can see a surprising patch of green, as if trees from the Pike Street Hillclimb scrambled up four floors and colonized a rooftop.
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Their urban oasis won this year’s grand prize in the 15th-annual Pacific Northwest Gardens: A Competition for Home Gardeners — the first time a terrace garden has been so honored in this contest. They will receive round-trip airfare for two to London, with five nights’ lodging and admission to the 2008 Chelsea Flower Show. The Seattle Times and the Northwest Flower & Garden Show, in cooperation with the Arboretum Foundation, sponsored the competition.
Contest judges admired the way these gardeners brought beauty and usefulness to a harsh space. They praised the deft placement of evergreens and deciduous trees, and how each plant contributed something to the tapestry. They noted that the hardscape — including a metal garden arch, a gazebo and teak furniture — worked in harmony with the vegetation. Scale and proportion were pleasing. Outdoor rooms, too, came alive with light and shadow — even birdsong during nesting season.
This was obviously a challenging location, given the glare from reflected sunlight and chilly winds off the bay. Extreme traffic noise from the Alaskan Way Viaduct, just a few yards away, did not encourage lingering. “We fussed with this garden for four years,” Emmer says.
The men had a number of aims: a private spot for reading under trees, another nook where they could sit with friends around a small table, and an area where they could accommodate a large group seated for dinner or standing in conversation — all within about 800 square feet.
They succeeded, thanks to careful arrangement. They were even able to incorporate some old Northwest favorites, including blue-eyed grass, bunchberry and huckleberry, as well as New Zealand flax, hostas and large shrubs.
“It’s a great advantage to have the pots and be able to move them around — to say, ‘Wouldn’t it be better over there?’ Or, ‘Here’s a spectacular plant, let’s put it by this door where we can see it.’ And when it’s past its prime, push it out of sight,” Emmer says.
When they moved to the split-level condo New Year’s Day 2003, they took a load of plants from their former house and garden in the Madrona neighborhood, including a collection of Northwest native trees and ferns. They soon added hinoki and Italian cypress, weeping hemlock, styrax and colonnade apple trees for the vertical elements needed to help form those pleasing enclosures for relaxing or entertaining. Emmer has a keen eye for texture and color. Once the terrace rooms took shape, he shuffled pots until the composition felt balanced.
“Gardening is the closest thing to art we do,” Emmer says. “I love it because it’s not static. With a painting, you may get tired of looking at it, want to take it down or move it. But the garden changes all on its own.”
The condo’s previous owner was not a gardener but did leave behind a few randomly placed large Japanese maples, including Acer palmatum ‘Bloodgood.’ They had potential to add privacy in strategic areas but were in poor condition. The men changed pots and soil, learned how to prune roots and eventually coaxed the trees back to health.
On the west side of the terrace, the condo association had installed four massive circular planters to segregate a shared area in what was otherwise a single, open expanse. Christensen and Emmer positioned pots of their own to fill gaps on this border. They stocked these with trees, Asiatic lilies and flowering perennials, and set aside a place for outdoor entertaining. A long, narrow table fashioned from recycled marble became their centerpiece. Cypresses in square, concrete containers were placed to separate this open-air dining room from more private seating niches the men had established on the east side.
Trees were a double blessing, because they also disguised metal chimneys and railings. The gardeners did what they could to relieve harsh lines elsewhere. For example, they trained a grapevine to wind up a circular stairway to their corner condo’s second floor, where potted herbs on the balcony were ready for use in the kitchen. At the base of the stairs, they positioned a handsome selection of impatiens, wood sorrel and other shade-loving plants.
Christensen grew up in central Utah with generations of family nearby, some of them gardeners. Emmer’s grandfather had an ornamental nursery and Christmas tree farm outside St. Paul, Minn. “Our way of earning money as kids was to go help Grandpa in the nursery or on the tree farm,” he says.
Given that kind of traditional-values background, would it be fair to consider this rooftop garden a bit . . . edgy?
“We’ve created an area that’s unexpected here, and that sort of makes it edgy, or different,” Christensen says. “The building is concrete and steel, but we’ve created something that is more traditional Northwest, that we feel comfortable with.”
The men don’t get outdoors much during the typical workweek — Emmer works for an adult-care organization in Seattle, and Christensen is employed in a commissary at the Bangor submarine base — so gardening when and where they could has been important recreation for them.
There are disadvantages inherent to this kind of garden, they point out, including the need to root-prune trees and to change the soil from time to time. Plants in pots can dry out quickly or become waterlogged. Weather and insect problems can be magnified.
Size and scale are of supreme importance, so one must choose plants that won’t outgrow containers or the garden space. The word for that skill is discipline.
Beyond this, “I think it’s really worth it to get planters that add an artistic aspect to things,” Emmer says. “You can have a $30 shrub and really gulp at a $130 glazed pot, but that can really make the garden. Think of it as you would an expensive picture frame. You have a favorite print you put on the wall with thumbtacks because you don’t want to buy the frame. You may have the print, but it doesn’t show it off to best advantage.”
Over time, gardens — and people — change. Christensen and Emmer sold their condominium shortly after the contest and bought a single-family home on approximately a half an acre in Kitsap County, which makes Christensen’s daily commute easier to manage. They took the marble table that seats 14, but at the new owner’s request, most of the garden was left behind, including all the large trees. For now, their vision of a rooftop oasis in 21st-century downtown Seattle lives on.
Dean Stahl is a Seattle freelance writer. Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.