When Shelagh and Phil Tucker thought twice about paying the water bill for an expansive lawn at their home in North Seattle, their decision to replace it led to an exuberant garden full of year round interest. They called me to assist in creating a water-wise design. Shelagh suggested a Mediterranean theme; she knew that many plants native to the Mediterranean would do well on the sandy south facing slope.
In Seattle, two to three months of dry weather in the warmest season can be a challenge to gardeners who grow plants from summer-wet climates. Plants from mediterranean climates provide an alternative. Gardeners around the world have used Mediterranean Basin plants for their beauty and low water needs. The plant palette can expand to include those from other regions with a mediterranean climate— Chile, South Africa, Australia, and the West Coast of North America—all marked by mild wet winters and dry summers.
In addition to a variety of plants, the Mediterranean is a rich source of design inspiration. Western culture began on the shores of this ancient sea. We in the Northwest are at its farthest reach, across an ocean and a continent. Here, classical style bumps into Asian influences from across another ocean. The North-west garden style, still young and evolving, often merges these two garden traditions.
My task in the Tucker’s endeavor was to design the garden’s structure; Shelagh was in charge of the planting design. When I first saw the featureless slope, with nothing to give it scale, it seemed enormous, although it measured only fifty feet deep and seventy feet wide. How to give it character? Strong lines would create the garden structure, important because I knew that it would be filled with an exuberant array of plants. We left a small panel of lawn in front of the house and porch to create a rectangular forecourt, made level with a small wall. A circular stone terrace halfway down the slope became the focal point, with an axis running through it from the front door to the street. At the circle’s center, Shelagh placed a millstone from a local antique store. A stone retaining wall around the terrace allows the flat area to tuck into the slope and provides a bench for casual seating, along with two wooden armchairs. The open space of the circle provides a contrast to the dense planting in the rest of the garden.
Architectural fragments salvaged from Seattle’s historic Music Hall Theater flavor the garden. Built in 1929, the Spanish Baroque Revival movie palace in downtown Seattle was demolished in 1991. The facade was made up of ornate pieces of concrete with a surface of quartz crystals. They had been cast in molds and then, during the theater’s construction, placed on a reinforced concrete understructure. They could be removed intact, and the wrecking contractor, Jack McFarland, saved them for those interested in a slice of history. Shelagh bought fifteen fragments that are now used to adorn walls and fountains, lending a sense of antiquity to the garden.
To balance the formal structure of the terrace, the Tuckers brought in large natural stones to create rock outcroppings; they bring strong bones to the design in that part of the garden. The rocks also help level an area for a path made of informal stone steps leading from the front door to the curbside mailbox.
Shelagh’s house has a Cape Cod style that, at first glance, seems out of keeping with the Mediterranean motif. However, the repetition of front porch columns suggests an ancient colonnade, and you can imagine that this is the home and garden of a New England sea captain retiring to the south of France.
What Makes Mediterranean Style?
Rustic stonework in walls and terraces create a link to the past. Formal geometry in the layout of the garden recalls classical design and is a good foil for informally placed plants that look as if they had grown in over time. The Mediterranean theme goes hand-in-hand with reducing water use. The new garden features a much smaller lawn area, stone terraces, gravel paths, and sun-loving, drought-tolerant plants. The gravel is a custom mix of several colors and adds a warm hue to the scene.
Foliage, color, and texture tie the design together and enliven it year round. Even out of flower, the gray foliage of lavender and the deep green of rosemary play against each other. Senecio greyi (syn. Brachyglottis ‘Sunshine’) provides roundish gray leaves with a bright silver edge echoed by the steely spikes of blue oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens). Rockroses thrive here, including Cistus x hybridus, pruned softly into mounds to control its size, and Cistus skanbergii, which stays at three feet with no attention. Ceanothus ‘Dark Star’, with fine textured leaves, adds an arresting deep green knobby presence. Prostrate rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Prostratus’) hugs the tops of the walls. Arbutus unedo also performs well in this garden.
Shelagh particularly enjoys Grevillea victoriae ‘Murray Valley Queen’, a hardy evergreen shrub from Australia, with spidery red flowers in winter. “It bloomed in the snow last winter, totally untouched,” she says.
Two eucalypts, also Australian natives, add height and scale to the composition. Cider gum (Eucalyptus gunnii) has reached thirty feet in three years. Alpine cider gum (Eucalyptus archeri) is more demure at ten feet tall. Bringing us back to the Mediterranean, an Italian cypress (Cupressus sempervirens) presents an exclamation mark that anchors a collection of perennials.
Perennials are an essential part of the design. Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida ‘Gold-sturm’) brings bright golden flowers, while Gaura lindheimeri, a wildflower from the plains of Texas, sends up white blooms that float above the lower plants, giving meaning to the name of the cultivar used here, ‘Whirling Butterflies’. Yarrows (Achillea species) offer flat-topped flower heads that provide long-lasting bloom; we chose the cultivar ‘Paprika’ for its red flowers with yellow centers. Another useful plant is Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’, with green-tinted flowers that age to bronze and persist into winter. Euphorbia, a large genus of plants that offers strongly patterned leaves and lime green flowers, is another mainstay of the low-water garden. One of them is part of a stunning combination: a red-leafed barberry (Berberis thunbergii ‘Rose Glow’), gray lavender cotton (Santolina chamaecyparissus), and Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii that Shelagh says, “just put itself there.” Shelagh also grows three different species of the genus Phlomis (P. russelliana, P. italica, and P. fruticosa), and enjoys their tall pink or yellow flowers that last into winter. Penstemon has thrived in her garden, too, “if I’ve not cut them back too hard before winter,” she cautions.
The plant choices have worked well. To establish the plants, Shelagh applied about as much water the first year as she did when she had a lawn, but cut the water off by the second summer. “I haven’t watered this garden in three years” she says. She observes that part of the challenge in using mediterranean-climate plants in the Northwest is the limitation imposed by winter temperatures. We are at the northern end of the West Coast’s mediterranean climate, so some plants have been lost to cold, even though the Tucker garden is a relatively warm garden for the area, sitting close to salt water with good air drainage. Those in the cooler areas of the region must more carefully consider plant hardiness.
During construction, the contractor, Rock Solid Landscape, paid attention to soil amendment. Some books on Mediterranean gardening suggest making the soil worse instead of better, adding gravel rather than organic matter. The experience here is different. The soil is sandy and well drained, so standing water in winter was not a problem. After the outlines of the gravel paths were marked out, the landscape contractor worked compost into the top foot of the soil of the planting areas, using pick axes to loosen it and a rototiller to work it in. The plants have thrived in the resulting soil mix; those planted in April, 2003, from four-inch pots, leapt into growth and filled in by the end of the first season. Shelagh continues to topdress with compost mixed with bark and is careful to keep it away from the plants’ crowns to avoid holding winter moisture against them.
The garden behind the house is more traditional, “like the one I grew up with,” explains Shelagh, who was born in England. She had planted a perennial garden above an old wall several years before and chose to keep it in the renovation. She had always wanted a conservatory, so a new glass and wood structure is tucked into an angle of the house to give it easy access from the kitchen and family room. It is a snug place from which to view the garden on a misty winter day. New stone terraces, steps and walls connect the conservatory to the garden and create outdoor living areas. Music Hall Theater fragments, set into the walls, pool, and fountain, maintain the atmosphere of antiquity established in the front garden. Much of the lawn in the rear garden was turned into a woodland planting that visually connects to the greenbelt behind the house and strikes a contrast to the sunny front garden.
Shelagh continues to add plants to her garden and gives new ones summer water for only the first year. “I really enjoy the continued research into plants that will survive in the Seattle area without supplemental water,” she says. The garden is a testament to her ongoing effort to bring Mediterranean skies to the Pacific Northwest.