Landscape designer Terry Welch takes his Zen vision to Vashon
Welch has again reinterpreted Japanese aesthetics for a Northwest setting.
Special to The Seattle Times
EVEN THE most experienced gardeners make mistakes. The most they can hope is that when they move on to a new garden, they don't repeat them. After 40 years in the design/build landscaping business, Terry Welch must have kept this maxim firmly in mind when he began creating a new garden on Vashon Island.
Welch's old garden was a multiacre magical mystery tour, with a Zen garden, large pond, beaver dam and woodland trails. A wildlife sanctuary in rapidly developing Woodinville, the garden was a mecca for school tours and a pilgrimage for gardeners visiting the Northwest.
But when Welch decided to sell his famous garden, he discovered it wasn't so easy to find a buyer. Seduced by the charms of Vashon, he was ready to move on after 28 years of creating and tending the Woodinville garden.
"It was an eight-year odyssey to sell the sanctuary, with a cast of characters including artists, healers and Zen centers," says Welch of the array of potential buyers he dealt with over the years. "I realized that in my naiveté I'd created a hugely idiosyncratic property."
Finally, in 2009, a serious buyer turned up, and Welch could at last join his partner, Steve Shanaman, on Vashon and take up the opportunity to begin again.
Downscaling started with the house. After an architect's plans proved too pricey, Welch and Shanaman went online and ordered a metal building they called "the gas station." They bought an upgraded window and door package to take advantage of the view, and built a partial second floor in the voluminous interior. They ended up with a 2,700-square-foot home that, from its metal roof to integral metal gutters, requires no exterior maintenance.
The new property is two acres, but most of it is in wooded ravines. Majestic madrona trees and ancient firs frame the view and set the scale of the garden. Welch kept the plantings simple, avoiding the siren song of what he calls "perennial terrorists." He grows 15 cultivars of Japanese maples, as well as pines, witch hazel and stewartias.
The centerpiece of the garden is a boulder-framed plunge pool that looks like a hiking destination. The water is the clear aqua blue of fresh glacier melt, kept clean and swimmable by a nonchlorinated salt system. Heated by the sun, the water gets up to 76 degrees in the height of summer. "It's bracing in April," says Welch, who swims when the water temperature nudges up toward 50 degrees in the spring.
A moon gate forms the symbolic as well as the literal portal between the ornamental garden and the naturalistic hillside below. Where lawn meets ravine, a wide buffer of native plants protects the slope.
Welch's expertise at building gardens for clients shows not only in the plunge pool (he's built five on Vashon) but also in the way the garden quietly radiates from it. A flagstone patio set into the lawn holds a pair of Adirondacks. A broad terrace runs along the back of the house, tying the metal building to the landscape. Benches at one end of the terrace hold the collection of bonsai Welch brought from his Woodinville garden.
The bonsai aren't all that Welch transplanted from his old property. While very different in size and site, the new Vashon garden is imbued with the same atmosphere of serenity as the Woodinville sanctuary. Welch has again reinterpreted Japanese aesthetics for a Northwest setting. And even in this new and less wild garden, his deep reverence for nature permeates the design and spirit of the place.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific NW magazine staff photographer.