Cover Story Plant Life On Fitness Northwest Living Taste Essay Now & Then


Wild Around the Edges
With plantings, rockwork and water, a beachside garden comes together - naturally

The double lot is landscaped naturally on the lower lake level, with grasses, pond and boardwalk alongside the dock. Only a glimpse of the house's windows and chimney can be seen through the trees.

A carved wooden utility gate at the side of the garden was crafted by Tod Spalti of Orcas Island.

WHILE MANY OF US may dream of the joys of gardening on a double waterfront lot, a sloping garden on the east side of Lake Washington made its owners pay for their pleasure up front.

It all started a few years ago when they grabbed a chance to buy the property next door. While it was full of possibility, the hillside site was also loaded with tricky spots — and exposed to a howling wind that came up from the lake. So, long before the couple got to the fun part of selecting plants, they had to integrate two lots of distinctly different character, create terracing, deal with depleted soil and work out such practicalities as how to maneuver a wheelbarrow on such a precipitous grade.

The couple have lived in the house on their first half of the property for nearly 20 years. Built as a beach cabin in 1924 and painted a soft gray-green, the old house rambles up the hillside, appearing as organic a part of the landscape as the inspired mix of edibles, shrubs, small trees and flowers that embrace and surround it. Jasmine and climbing roses grow up its chimney and along the gutters. Up at street level a tumbled-down old garage has been refashioned into a two-story art studio, with the feel of a tree house. Here, looking out to the lake through the branches of a huge old cedar tree, the artist in the family works on Sumi paintings of radishes and beets harvested from her garden, or placid dragons with wickedly curling claws. These days, however, her creativity is engaged outdoors in tending the sumptuously planted and art-bedecked garden.

When the couple bought the adjacent property, it was a rubble-strewn lot. First they tore out the garage's concrete foundation and built a shop, office and wine cellar that extends back into the hillside. Its roof forms a flat area for lawn and plantings, edges trimmed with a rapacious fuzzy kiwi vine. A spacious sunny area between kitchen door and shop was left open for vegetables, fruit and herbs, and for a little patio to hold table and chairs. Rich, well-worked soil from an old strawberry farm was imported to enrich the poor dirt. And early on, the owners hired local landscape architect Richard Haag, of Gas Works Park fame, to design the stonework and watercourses that support the plantings and tie the garden together from street to water.

Landscape architect Richard Haag designed the series of recirculating waterways and rockwork that runs the length of the property, from the street high above down to the lower pond at lake level.

The owners wanted to create a habitat, and to some degree replicate a former, beloved vacation place in the wilderness. The inspired vision of owners and designer has created what the owner describes as "wilderness around the edges and a more civilized paradise closer to the house."

Haag worked on the structure and stone of the garden. He designed a path that winds back and forth down the hillside from the utility fence at the upper level to the lakeside lawn — and it's wide enough for wheelbarrows. Haag also managed to accommodate both the need for steps and terracing and the owners' wishes for rockwork and a recirculating watercourse — all in soft lines that follow the property's natural topography.

The handmade rocks have pockets built in to hold soil for the trees and groundcovers that now grow over and around, making them look both natural and integral to the hillside. Plantings are watered from sprinklers hidden in the folds of the wire-and-cement rocks. A West Virginia artist, the same person who painted artificial rocks at Woodland Park Zoo, spent a month painting lichen and other realistic touches onto the stones.

"He's so proud," says the owner of the woven-metal "Alpha Crow" that presides over the garden, frightening off real crows with its changing wardrobe; this year it was decked out in torn ribbons and shiny cat-food-tin lids.

Most of the rockwork centers along the stream and waterfalls that provide the splashes and gurgles of water music the length of the property. Toward the top of the new lot, however, the large boulders stand out from the contours of the land, forming a cool, shady meditation cave. The cave is approached by a secret, winding path, and inside there's a little stone bench. A sliver of light pierces the dimness through a slit in the rockwork that offers a view over the garden.

The walk down the hillside along gravel pathways and stone steps is relieved by flatter areas of lawn outside the front door, on top of the shop roof and along the lake. Up top, aged, sturdy evergreen trees shade the garden; rhododendrons, camellia, oxalis, ferns and hardy fuchsias flank broad, brick-and-cedar steps. Silvery artemisia stands out in the sea of textural greens. Pear and apple trees, rosemary and artichokes fill the beds between house and lawn. Below the house's deck, a little greenhouse has been squeezed in to catch the western sun off the lake. Bordering the pathway is a pewter-leafed Rosa glauca shown off by yellow daylilies. On the other side of the path grow tomatoes, peas, cosmos, marigolds, sunflowers, sweet peas and borage, all trimmed in neat rows of lettuces. At water's edge the garden is its wildest, with sumacs and native grasses, a naturalistic pond and a little boardwalk that traverses the wetland and leads to the dock.

Slabs of stone form a pathway from the kitchen door across the stream and past the vegetable garden to the workshop built into the hillside. More vegetables and flowers, as well as lawn, are planted on the roof.

All levels of the garden are punctuated with an eclectic assortment of art. A large, metal alligator with a tennis ball in his mouth fords the stream; a rusty heron hunches atop the boathouse; wooden carvings by Orcas Island artist Tod Spalti and Dudley Carter form gates and screens; and a boastful "Alpha Crow" presides over the rooftop vegetable garden. The owner decks out the crow in different garb each season to prevent complacency in the crows he is supposed to scare away. "He's so proud," says the owner of the woven-metal crow. And no wonder. This season, since the resident pair of 17-year-old cats were switched to eating wet food, the theme is aluminum. Along with ribbons of torn fabric, shiny cat-food-tin lids dangle from the crow's wings and breast, as wild-looking as his rakish raffia topknot.

Valerie Easton is a horticultural librarian who writes about plants and gardens for Pacific Northwest magazine. She is the co-author of "Artists in Their Gardens" (Sasquatch Books). Her e-mail address is Benjamin Benschneider is a magazine staff photographer.

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