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Originally published January 25, 2013 at 12:00 PM | Page modified January 26, 2013 at 7:45 AM

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Laurelhurst garden gets a gracious new life

Landscape architect Brooks Kolb carried out the homeowner's vision in gentle curves and masses of plants.

Special to The Seattle Times

A GREAT VIEW is about all Kevin and Jean Kelly's Laurelhurst garden had going for it when landscape architect Brooks Kolb first saw it. The topography was precipitous, the plantings worn, the steep steps down to the garden cracked and broken. The handsome old house not only lacked connection to the garden, it turned its back to it.

"I grew up in San Francisco on a steep hill overlooking the bay," says Kevin. "I always felt this house deserved a great garden." After living in the house for 23 years, the couple decided it was time for a green update.

Kolb started by designing an entry terrace to connect the old house to its new garden. A geo-tech warned against filling in with heavy soil, so Kolb used foam to raise the grade about a foot. Now the expanded porch steps graciously down to a terrace at lawn level. Kolb replaced the chute-like stairs with a gentle S-curve of steps that wind their way through fragrant shrubbery.

When it came to plantings, the Kellys asked for low-maintenance. But they also wanted their garden to be colorful, textural and attractive in all seasons. In other words, a full-spectrum garden without all the work.

Kolb cleared the slope of overgrown rhodies and andromeda, keeping a single yucca for its sculptural quality. He added another Persian ironwood tree (Parrotia persica) to keep the existing one company. An ornamental cherry tree and a tall, eagle-friendly conifer from the old garden lend the house a sense of scale.

How to create a garden that's tactile, scented and seasonal, yet easy to care for? "The garden isn't Noah's ark, there aren't just two of anything," says Kolb of his strategy of massing grasses, perennials and small shrubs.

The garden relies on sturdy foliage plants to carry it through the year. "We used privet honeysuckle (Lonicera pileata) as a juniper update to cover the steep slope," says Kolb. Low-growing, red-berried Cotoneaster dammeri drapes over the retaining walls. Shrubby dogwoods with variegated leaves thrive, along with ferns, in the shade beneath maples.

The clumping bamboo Fargesia robusta, small pines and big-leafed rhododendrons carry the garden through the winter; ruffled hellebores and fragrant sarcococca cluster along walkways. Golden Japanese forest grass, hostas, blue oat grass, hydrangeas and masses of astilbe color the garden in summer. Kolb mixed in big-leafed plants like acanthus and ligularia to amp up textural contrast.

In autumn, parrotia, fothergilla and lacy Japanese maples turn the garden brilliant shades of gold, orange and red. Kolb flanked the new, wider steps with Daphne burkwoodii 'Carol Mackie' for variegated foliage all year and sweet-smelling flowers in early spring.

Both Kelly and Kolb emphasize the importance of teamwork in the garden's success. Kelly had a vision, Kolb realized it, and gardener Eileen O'Leary stepped in to maintain the place. "Gardens evolve," says Kolb, who includes a yearly post-evaluation with all his landscapes.

The refurbished garden invites you not only to the front door of the house, but also to stroll its pathways. The lawn, which originally ended in a pinched point, now curves toward a splashing fountain. Halfway up the slope, the path widens to accommodate a private little patio. Here's where the Kellys relax and enjoy their new garden in every season.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com. Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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