Compact and modern, her inspired View Ridge garden emphasizes outdoor living.
YOU MIGHT EXPECT someone who has owned a garden shop for 20 years to have a fabulous garden, but Gillian Mathews’ garden is especially fabulous and surprising.
I was expecting a more-formal, English cottage garden, given the feminine feel of her store, but instead discovered a modern, inspired garden full of unique plants and clever hardscaping.
Mathews, owner of Ravenna Gardens in Seattle’s University Village, bought her home in the View Ridge neighborhood in 2015, but didn’t start planting until last spring.
“The house is so tiny — it’s like an apartment with a garden,” says Mathews. “I really believe in living with a place for quite a while before you start — you get to follow the light.”
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Early on, award-winning landscape architect Richard Hartlage of Land Morphology offered to help with the design. Mathews had an idea of features she would like — a vegetable garden, a deck — but left the design up to Hartlage.
“He laid it all out, and then I did fill in some blanks. It was very collaborative,” says Mathews.
On approach, even Mathews’ parking strip is immediately alluring. Visitors are guided to walk along a narrow pathway through 4-foot-tall, willowy stems of vibrant purple blooms: Verbena bonariensis (Tall Verbena). Originally, the space “was all grass, and I don’t do grass,” she says.
“I went to the Chelsea Garden Show for the first time last year, and they are very into meadows in the U.K.,” she says. Those meadows inspired the strip, filled with the verbena; Stipa gigantea ‘Giant Feather Grass’; purple-spiked salvias; and short, lime-tinted yews that she prunes into low, rounded hedges.
The front yard is contained by a short wall of boulders — a feature in place when Mathews purchased the home. “The original plan had a wall made of steel, but you can only spend so much money on the garden,” she says.
Plantings here are shaped into spheres: boxwoods, Sutherland hebes and giant alliums. The cylindrical shapes were inspired by a recent garden tour she led for the Northwest Horticultural Society to Provence, France, where some gardens are “all balls; very clipped,” she says. “Even the lavender is shaped into topiaries.”
To get to the backyard, you follow a narrow pathway. This short jaunt offers plenty of intrigue. A custom-made steel trellis from Architerra Designs acts as fencing and is adjoined by a planked wood fence that runs the length of the yard. Against the house, Mathews has waist-high steel containers, also from Architerra, planted with salad greens and espaliered apple trees.
The back of Mathews’ house is an urban oasis. A water feature made from a repurposed sheeps’ trough greets you with the soothing sound of spilling water and is surrounded by sculptural garden art. Just as you’re taking in these whimsical features, you’re compelled to keep moving forward, up a small set of stairs made from steel (and filled with gravel), past a gabion fence — a retaining wall built from stacking small stone within steel cages — and into the real star of the backyard, the dining space.
Set at an angle to the squared property line, the dining table accommodates eight and cuts into the garden in nook-like fashion.
“This design is all Richard,” says Mathews — one of his signature styles. The space is surrounded by the gabion wall and plantings of lilies, variegated dogwood and summer-blooming ‘Limelight’ hydrangeas. A lantern hangs overhead. An adjacent sitting area with Adirondack chairs angled toward the setting sun is home to two stainless-steel troughs where Mathews grows vegetables — tomatoes and some greens.
The backyard is peppered with original garden art that Mathews has collected over a lifetime of gardening. A rusty gramophone is tucked among ferns on the shadier, north end of the property. Sculptures of ceramic leaves on spikes are scattered within the plants; these were picked up from a vendor at last year’s Hardy Plant Study Weekend in Victoria, B.C.
A deck runs the length of the house and offers several sitting areas, including an outdoor sofa, and more art, in the shape of iron lanterns, cement birdbaths and urns.
“My whole thing was, I wanted to live in a place that had seamless indoor-outdoor living. It took me a year to find a house that I could open up into the garden,” says Mathews.
The deck is crowded with container plants, leftovers from her time in a town house with no yard. Any plants that are not hardy and require winter protection also go in pots — that makes them easier to move, especially when they sit on casters. Made from a mix of materials — galvanized steel, stone, ceramic, lightweight concrete — the containers also provide structure to the patio space and are filled with architectural plantings, like trees, horsetail, palms and ferns.
Mathews tends the entire property on her own, hand-watering all of the plantings. She anticipates everything eventually will knit together and minimize the need for weeding or major garden work.
“It’s all about layers, isn’t it?” she says. “ You start with the bones and then add a layer (of plants), and add another layer.”
She slowly is working her new home into an eye-catching, garden-lovers’ paradise built for relaxing.
“I like to garden for others,” she says. “It’s my gift to them.”