SOME GARDENERS ARE always fussing with their landscape, never quite satisfied, consistently digging up or adding in plants. Not so for Jessica Cantlin, who purchased her Denny-Blaine neighborhood home with her husband, Alan, and their two children, in 2012. Her yard, she feels, is now full and done.
Cantlin grew up in this neighborhood, and bought the house simply by talking to childhood neighbors. They chatted on a Sunday and were in contract by Friday. While the house needed a few small updates, it was move-in ready when they bought it, which allowed her to focus on the property outside. And while she dug up and brought over some plants from the old house (a yellow tree peony purchased at an arboretum plant sale and a white eastern red bud she planted when her daughter was born), she mostly started over and reshaped both the front and back yards.
What used to be a dark and mossy yard packed with trees is now an open lawn framed in boxwood hedges with flower beds behind them. Alongside the pathway to the front door, she has filled the space with rhododendrons (for privacy), roses, a dwarf Korean lilac, peonies and daphne. Nearby, she recently planted a jasmine-like white wisteria that she is training up and over the porch. Cantlin has surrounded herself with scented blooms.
“Daphnes are my favorite,” says Cantlin. “My daughter’s name is Daphne, after the flower.” She has planted several varieties across the property. Last year, their trunks split in winter and she saved them by taping them up with duct tape — an intuitive hunch that paid off.
Across the lawn, she introduces a lot of yellow into the landscape. There is a winter hazel, the first of the plants to bloom each year. She planted both white and yellow common lilacs and has planted a Butterflies Magnolia to offset these — a stunning single-trunked tree with tulip-like, creamy yellow blooms.
“This yard, in May, is so pretty and I’m trying to work on bringing in more plant varietals that will bloom throughout the year,” says Cantlin of the spring-blooming landscape.
There are many simple highlights of Cantlin’s small yard — an old grove of purple rhododendrons that creates a dreamy understory on the way to the backyard, the lush evergreen Akebia quinata ‘Shirobana’ vine draped over the length of the front fence. The backyard is compelling, designed expressly to entertain. Here, most of the yard is filled with blond gravel that houses a large dining table, chairs and a fire pit filled with river rock the family collected from the riverbed in front of its Methow Valley cabin.
“When we redid it, I had two priorities — I didn’t want to have grass back here, I wanted it to be more of an entertaining space,” says Cantlin, “and I wanted to plant trees that would be pretty all summer long and make their mess in the fall, when we are inside.” She pulled out the original dogwood trees.
This outdoor dining room is bordered by variegated Ogon grass on all sides that provides yearlong color in green and yellow. On the north side of the property, Cantlin added three deep planting troughs last year for her birthday, where she grows vegetables she’s happy to share with the family dog, Murphy, and Coconut, the rabbit.
Large, sphere-shaped boxwood hedges stand kitty-corner to three dwarf pine trees on the other side of the yard, creating a sightline that feels uniform — a clever trick of design that most people wouldn’t notice. The landscape is anchored by this, and there’s a sense of dimension and variety.
There are several small trees in the backyard. A red twig maple is underplanted with pink astilbe, peonies and deutzia — a low-growing woody perennial that has a little white blossom in the spring that lasts through most of summer.
There is more daphne back here, too. A rare Edgeworthia papyrifera Daphne (a gentle, elegant shrub with tiny white-yellow flowers dangling off bare branches in winter) and a Daphne burkwoodii ‘Carol Mackie’.
“If I see a daphne that is different, I like to buy it,” Cantlin says.
Across from the daphne stands a star magnolia, bordering a bluestone pathway that dead ends at the back fence. While Cantlin planted the front yard with privacy in mind, the fence in the backyard has a gate cut into it leading directly into a narrow passageway alongside the back of a neighbor’s house. It looks like a gate to nowhere.
“These are our friends … and when we redid the yard, we put in a gate so the kids can go back and forth,” says Cantlin.
Cantlin, a fine art landscape photographer, intentionally leaves space between plants, allowing them room to grow, which you don’t see in all gardens. It can look a little sparse in winter, but the pauses between plants are gentle and calming.
Cantlin’s parents live two doors down, and her garden is most certainly influenced and informed thanks to her lineage — her mother, Laurie Riley, is a past president of the Seattle Garden Club.
Cantlin has a thing for plants and knows what she likes.