The back garden is back in business with lower-maintenance plants, a focal shed, and lots and lots of inspiration

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LORENE EDWARDS FORKNER’S name might ring a bell, as the author of a number of gardening books, or as the current editor of “Pacific Horticulture” magazine. You might well have shopped at Fremont Gardens, the tiny urban nursery with all the cool plants, which she owned for many years.

Perhaps you remember the garden Edwards Forkner designed for the Northwest Flower & Garden Show. Can you picture the garden’s lust-worthy shelter that helped her win top honors? A version of that charming little shed now holds pride-of-place in her recently renovated garden in West Seattle.

Edwards Forkner’s garden seems to be in a near-constant state of change in response to fresh ideas and her changing neighborhood. Most recently, she and her husband, James Forkner, undertook a major back-garden remodel.

“When a big new house went up behind ours and took away our privacy, and I got a new job, I walked away from the garden and it went feral,” explains Edwards Forkner. “My biggest garden failure was in creating a garden I couldn’t keep up with.”

So she set in to create a lower-maintenance landscape, no small task for such an avid plant worshipper. Edwards Forkner had three main goals for the renovation. First was to screen the garden for privacy. Second was to create space for outdoor living, and third was to design and plant a garden that could take care of itself. Or nearly so.

“The special plants didn’t even matter so much anymore,” she says. Only a few remnants of the old plantings remain, including a gorgeous Eucryphia at the back of the house, and a bunch of acanthus and evening primrose she’s been unable to root out.

The renovation challenges were great. The tall, new house overlooking the back garden is out of scale with the couple’s city-sized lot, which is set at an awkward diagonal. Edwards Forkner hired Seattle designer Virginia Hand to come in and consult.

“I told her that we needed a great idea for the space, and that we wanted some kind of shelter that felt like a porch … I love a shade porch,” says Edwards Forkner.

Lorene Edwards Forkner describes her former back garden in West Seattle as an overgrown mess. With help from designer Virginia Hand, the garden has been renovated for lower maintenance, with large concrete pads, gravel, gabion walls for seating and retaining the slope, feed-trough planters, trellis and a shed to create privacy and space for outdoor living. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)
Lorene Edwards Forkner describes her former back garden in West Seattle as an overgrown mess. With help from designer Virginia Hand, the garden has been renovated for lower maintenance, with large concrete pads, gravel, gabion walls for seating and retaining the slope, feed-trough planters, trellis and a shed to create privacy and space for outdoor living. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)

Hand came up with a diagonal line that runs through the garden and organizes everything — paths, raised beds, seating and shed. Hunky architectural elements — like gabion walls, and a trellis with heavy posts and beam — draw the eye while creating shelter and privacy. Hefty concrete pads and gravel flooring cut down on maintenance, and bring a modern, graphic feel to the space. The materials, like galvanized steel, concrete and rusty iron, are repeated through the garden and fit well with Edwards Forkner’s casual, contemporary, somewhat funky aesthetic. Many of them, like an old wooden fence, pebble mosaics and the gabion walls, have been repurposed from the old garden.

“And it’s all nicely overscaled; I didn’t want anything twee,” says Edwards Forkner.

The new shed, furnished with lights, a fire pit and cushioned benches, provides privacy, shelter and a focal point to the back garden. The family uses the comfy space year-round. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)
The new shed, furnished with lights, a fire pit and cushioned benches, provides privacy, shelter and a focal point to the back garden. The family uses the comfy space year-round. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)

But it’s the shed, designed by a friend and built by a group of friends, that lies at the heart of the garden. It creates total privacy, with its tall, solid back side oriented toward the looming home behind. The roof is high and slanting, with every inch of space put to good use, including a fire pit, cushioned benches and festival lights strung wall-to-wall. It’s a party of a shed: inviting, comfortable and sufficiently well-appointed to be used year-round.

An Orienpet lily adds height, fragrance and glorious flowers to the July garden. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)
An Orienpet lily adds height, fragrance and glorious flowers to the July garden. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)

The garden’s plantings are an inspired integration of vegetables, flowers and fruit, a cottage garden with a modernist, personal feel. Peas climb a rusty trellis, and lettuces, herbs and fava beans grow in galvanized feed troughs.

“I always have to have favas,” says Edwards Forkner. There are tomatoes and pumpkins, strawberries and rhubarb, raspberries, blueberries, asparagus and artichokes, as well as sweet peas, lilies and a pleached hedge of apple trees that she calls her “one high-maintenance thing.”

“The garden is never static,” says Edwards Forkner.

What’s next? The couple has torn the deck off the front of the house and has plans to renovate the foliage-rich entry garden.

“I plan to dig and divide my collection of Pacific Coast iris,” enthuses Edwards Forkner. “You’ve gotta love a plant that weathers anything and dishes up drop-dead sexy blooms as well.”

So we’re back to plants and more plants?

“What I want,” explains Edwards Forkner, “is an architectural, low-maintenance garden, but in my own plant-obsessed way.”