Anita Halstead and her husband, Kelly Robinson, have a peace garden. They also have beach, shade, memorial and cottage gardens on their four-tenths of an acre...

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Anita Halstead and her husband, Kelly Robinson, have a peace garden. They also have beach, shade, memorial and cottage gardens on their four-tenths of an acre on Vashon Island. Most of all, theirs is an inclusive garden, showcasing the couple’s varied interests and a cornucopia of plant gifts from friends and relations.

About seven years ago, they bought what could have been called the garden of hard knocks, but it was a good fit. The property was near the shore; they’re avid beachcombers. A Croatian had built the house back in 1908; Halstead is 100 percent Croatian. Better still, they learned that at the turn of the century, their tight-knit Vashon-Maury Island neighborhood had been a Croatian community, which relied on jobs at an adjacent dry dock.

Hard effort lay ahead. First they cleaned up the grounds. Next, they devoted three years to refurbishing the house. Robinson handled most of that work. Starting with pickup loads of pine bark and compost, they spent the next four years creating the garden together.

They shaped bare earth beside a circular driveway, which now loops around an island bordered by lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina); New Zealand flax from a sister’s garden; canna from a garden-club exchange; tall clumps of globe thistle; and euphorbia, courtesy of a brother-in-law. All thrive in this exposed setting.

Gift plants are integrated throughout the larger garden, as well. Birthdays, anniversaries and other special occasions always mean plants.

“Anita believes gardening is a process, not a project. And people have been so generous,” Robinson says.

The couple’s vision and passion earned them second place in Pacific Northwest Gardens: A Competition for Home Gardeners. Their prize is round-trip airfare and admission for two to the March 2008 San Francisco Flower & Garden Show plus two nights’ lodging. Halstead entered the contest quietly and surprised her husband with the news only after the garden advanced in judging.

Judges were delighted by this personal and livable garden. Its strong shapes, sensible paths and numerous rooms — bounded by hedges, paths and bent-twig fences — impressed them. A lavatera shrub border was applauded. So was a self-sown sweet-pea patch in the vegetable garden, where a giant red cabbage was the centerpiece. They also found much to appreciate in the large-scale cottage garden, which inspires meandering.

Summer lives here. In August, when the final-round judges walked through, the garden thrummed with bees, Quartermaster Harbor glistened in sunlight and the scents of damp earth and crushed mint permeated the old-fashioned sitting porch. “Simple and unpretentious, dreamy and summery,” one judge wrote.

Halstead’s study of color theory and her art-education career strengthened an innate sense of design, but the dreamy component? She cites the influence of William Morris, of the English Arts and Crafts movement.

If Halstead is the horticulturist, Robinson is the builder, and his contributions are everywhere. The view from the west-facing porch overlooks his mini-labyrinth of concrete pavers and river rock, on the right, and his outsized chessboard and chess pieces on the left. These formal spaces near the house are edged by two rows of hebes clipped into rounds. Sightlines are open for an unobstructed view of the harbor and a nearby beach. When art groups and other organizations meet at the garden, they assemble in this area, which serves as an open-air theater.

Robinson also built fencing and, most recently, crafted an arbor strong enough to support a wisteria.

“My dad built and remodeled houses, so I learned how to do this kind of work from him,” says Robinson, a retired urban planner and city manager.

He and Halstead honed their home-remodeling and garden-making skills in Snohomish, where they nurtured a Victorian-era house and garden for 20 years. They brought many plants from that garden when they relocated.

No doubt some were hellebores. Halstead is partial to hellebores because they flower when you need cheering, require little care and can be massed for good effect. Last summer, the tall, deep-purple flowers and stems of Angelica gigas, the Korean angelica, became another favorite. She finds daylilies dependable, and hydrangeas intriguing, in that color variations in the flowers and plant size are so dependent on soil conditions.

They’re both grateful for the 100-year-old pear tree that persists and for the unnamed apple tree near the vegetable garden, which produces good fruit. And hooray for tough plants, such as ribbon grass and lady’s mantle, which can be spaded up and used for borders.

Finally, there is Dracunculus vulgaris — aka Arum dracunculus. You may know it as voodoo lily. One day, walking along the beach, Halstead noticed a massive clump of it on a nearby property.

“It had the most unbelievable purple bloom,” she says. “The lovely surprise is that it must have been planted here quite some time ago by the Croatians, because it’s a plant they would have known. It blooms in March and then just collapses.”

She brought a clump home, and it continues to thrive not far from the garden arch, which is painted with the slogan “Miran Vrt,” meaning “Peaceful Garden” in Croatian.

“I think a garden comes from the inner core,” Halstead says, by way of summing up. You can feel the spirit of a garden — and of the gardeners — in a pronounced fashion in some places, she explains. “I like to say it’s like being a conductor. The violins are the calla lilies; the trumpet is lavatera. We’re all working in harmony.”

Dean Stahl is a Seattle freelance writer. Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.