Enjoy the garden The Streissguth Garden is on the west slope of Capitol Hill, above Interstate 5. The only access is from the East Blaine...

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PEDESTRIANS NAVIGATING the East Blaine Street staircase must be surprised to come upon a rich garden of flowers, fruit and vegetables stretching between Interstate 5 and Capitol Hill on one of Seattle’s steeper slopes. In its way, this billy-goat garden can offer just as much exercise as the stairs do for runners, since planting, weeding and harvesting on such an angle is a feat of energy and agility. The garden serves as inspiration for passersby and gardeners both because 15 years after he retired from teaching architecture at the University of Washington, Daniel Streissguth continues to whittle away at it. The hillside “was never planned as a garden, really,” he says. “It grew incrementally because that’s how we cleared the land.”

Glimpses of native trillium led Streissguth to hand clear the blackberries and ivy ever farther south into the woodland, until now the garden reaches over an abundant acre. Streissguth purchased the original steep lot, reachable only by public stairs, in the 1950s. In 1962, he designed and built for himself a tall, light-filled house opening to the garden on lower and upper levels. The house looks invitingly contemporary more than 40 years after it was built.

Streissguth started right in carving pathways out of the slope wherever it was possible. He created a flat, grassy private terrace for outdoor living and dining, planted trees and raspberries. He wasn’t intimidated by such an inhospitable space because he grew up in Monroe in a family of great gardeners. Ann, his wife-to-be, rented the house next door, and with a farming and English-gardening tradition in her own family, was similarly undeterred. Soon their gardens overlapped, as did their lives. Ann bought the nearby house, and the two married, combining households and gardens.

“He wanted my streams,” laughs Ann of the channels and little waterfalls she’d excavated into the contours of the soggy hillside. They bought the property across the staircase, planning to develop it, but couldn’t resist expanding their garden instead. Their son, Benjamin, grew up a collaborator in all things horticultural, and is now working toward a degree in landscape architecture at the University of Washington.

Streissguth is a tall, dignified man who radiates enthusiasm for every new bud and fresh scent in the garden. Ann is small and vital, a professor at the UW medical school and a world-renowned expert on fetal alcohol syndrome. She and Ben clamber around the wet trails exclaiming so delightedly over the first rhododendron flower you nearly forget they’ve tended the place for decades.

Hundreds of runners and walkers stop to admire the garden, and in turn, the Streissguths, as they weed and water, chat with the stair climbers. Several years ago Ann and Daniel gave their property south of the Blaine Street staircase to the city. Now the public can wander the trails and enjoy the scene. With their gift, the Streissguths nudged the city to buy the rest of the greenbelt between their garden and St. Mark’s Cathedral.

Downslope neighbors have adopted parts of the greenbelt, pulling smothering ivy out of the trees. The family often finds plants left anonymously on the steps, which they add to the burgeoning garden.

“The soil was wet, nasty, heavy clay when we started,” says Daniel, pointing out the network of little runnels and ponds that divert and corral the runoff that oozes from the slope. The steepness and lack of access made it nearly impossible to bring up soil or use earth-moving equipment, so the Streissguths have worked with what they have. Blueberries, hostas and astilbes flourish in the damp areas; on the wooded parts, Daniel thinned out many old maples, replacing them with smaller deciduous trees while taking care to preserve view corridors for uphill neighbors. Now dogwoods, stewartias and vine maples form an understory of spring and fall color.

At the lowest, sunniest level of the garden, Ann grows strawberries, tomatoes, cucumbers, peas, potatoes, lettuce and kale in raised beds, backed by tidy rows of espaliered marionberries and loganberries. She loves to grow flowers from seed, so dianthus and wallflowers join dahlias, phlox, roses and daylilies in the sunny beds.

Although the garden has been planted for year-round delights, it is especially floriferous in late winter and early spring. Sweet witch hazel dazzles in the winter glen, and sheets of yellow aconite and purple crocus drape the slope in color. “We particularly like the little early bulbs,” says Daniel of drifts of dainty snowdrops and Cyclamen coum. A little later, hosts of Pacific Coast iris bloom beneath the big-leaf maples, and rhododendrons such as the Loderi hybrid ‘Polar Bear’ attract with their fragrance.

Despite its many botanical treasures, the Streissguth garden is as much a social phenomenon as it is a horticultural destination. “Our lives have been tremendously enriched by all the stair visitors,” says Daniel. So many passersby admired the delicate violet flowers of Iris unguicularis in winter that the Streissguths kept dividing their clump and giving pieces away until it died. Not long ago they found a gift of a lovely big start of the iris left for them on the stairs. Once again winter-blooming iris is spreading over the hillside.

Enjoy the garden

The Streissguth Garden is on the west slope of Capitol Hill, above Interstate 5. The only access is from the East Blaine Street stairs. You can walk down the stairs from 10th Avenue East, a block north of St. Mark’s Cathedral, or up the stairs from Broadway Avenue East, a dead end accessible from East Boston or East Newton. The public part of the garden is south of the staircase.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her e-mail address is valeaston@comcast.net.