The first impression upon arriving at Mary Rae’s beachfront home was, “Where is the garden?” The house nestled into the site, positioned to take in expansive views of Puget Sound and the distant mountains. While the scenery was wonderful, the garden was not. She had inherited a non-garden, and she knew that it needed help. Lots of help! We asked her to describe what she wanted out of the redesigned spaces and were told that they should be fun. The family used the house year round, but the garden only in the warmer months. Deer run rampant throughout the neighborhood, but we knew that there would be no realistic way to enclose even a portion of the beachside garden without destroying the wide-open feeling. We all agreed, however, that the street side would be enclosed with a fence, which would help create an intimate entry courtyard. We wanted a protected spot where the homeowners could sit outdoors and enjoy some part of the garden, away from the wind off the water; that would be the role of the entry courtyard.
The most important existing plants within the courtyard were several large but ailing madrones (Arbutus menziesii). At one point, another larger tree had nestled amongst the madrones, forcing this suite of trunks to curve strongly outward. This dramatic movement really anchored the space. Unfortunately, several pathogens had attacked the trees and their health had been on the decline. To honor and repeat their shape and bark color, young trees of Arbutus ‘Marina’ have been added; to date, they seem resistant to the various pathogens that are plaguing native madrones throughout the Northwest.
Since deer can jump quite high, the fence enclosing the entry garden needed to be tall. With our associate, Jim Ellingboe, we designed and built a fence that felt neither prison-like nor stockade-like. It needed to “float,” becoming mostly invisible, as we wanted the eye to travel out beyond the barrier. The fence needed to be interesting, in itself, and to harmonize with the contemporary lines of the house. Using a combination of rolled and plate steel, we broke the lines of the top and bottom rails and thus avoided the rigid geometry that most fences suffer from. Allowing the steel to rust, rather than painting or treating it with a preservative, has helped in making the fence blend with the colors of the backdrop of Douglas-fir and madrone bark.
The Entry Courtyard
To begin, we removed many yards of soil, some of it hideous, nutrient-poor, fill soil, as we wanted to create a large level area for a terrace adjacent to the house. We left a small, existing aggregate terrace and selected our native Wilkinson sandstone for additional paving, since the color harmonized with the concrete.
A septic tank lid sat prominently in the courtyard area; since it could not be moved, we decided to capitalize on it. A round stone cover was cut, and we took this cue to add more round shapes. As the residence had strong linear lines, we felt it was important to repeat this circular motif to contrast with the linearity.
We introduced a ten-foot-diameter, round, galvanized stock tank, nestling it into the terrace with only a slight lip extending above grade. Initially, this was to be a water feature, but sediment buildup and mosquito problems suggested a better use as a bog garden; it is now filled with an intriguing selection of insectivorous and other moisture-demanding plants. To complete the circular motif, nearby rain chains drain into round catch basins, and three columnar pots are arranged under the eaves, each planted with a single specimen of Agave parryi.
We took care to not disturb the roots of the madrones when it came time to plant beneath them. We selected plants that could survive with no supplemental irrigation, such as Cyclamen hederifolium, Pacific Coast Hybrid iris, Sedum ‘Angelina’, Brodiaea, and a native grass (Festuca sp.). The cyclamen were already present on the property; we gathered all the white-flowering corms in September and planted them in the courtyard garden. All the pink-flowering ones were moved to a side garden, where they would be less likely to clash with the earth-toned colors of the flaking madrone bark.
The color scheme included quite a few plants that had emergent foliage in shades of yellow and chartreuse. These bright colors act like “sunshine” in the garden, helping to brighten an otherwise gloomy day (of which we have many). The entry garden has a predominance of evergreen plants, some with fragrant flowers. We firmly believe that all gardens should offer some sensuous pleasures, whether tactile, visual, or olfactory.
A Beachside Garden
On the waterside of the house, the site dropped precipitously, beginning only a few feet beyond the deck. The steep area below was mostly inaccessible, offered nothing visually, and was infested with ivy and other noxious weeds. To create a more usable area, some terracing was required. We returned to the theme of curvilinear forms to echo the arcs of the beach and to counteract the strong lines of the building. Working again with Jim, we looked at various construction materials for the retaining walls. We investigated using rolled metals, but since the project began at the height of the building boom, the cost of such materials had become prohibitive. After some research, we selected a product called Richlite. Extremely durable, this waterproof, resin-impregnated material is normally used for interior applications. However, we found that a double layer of the quarter-inch-thick sheets had enough flexibility that we could attach them to upright aluminum supports and achieve the undulating effect we wanted.
This side of the garden contained more madrones, and we wanted the walls to echo the bark color. One standard Richlite color echoed the bark color perfectly. With exposure to the elements, however, the color has changed from a rich orange brown to a softer grayed tone, approaching the cooler colors of sand and pebbles on the shore. We took care to retain the existing grade around the madrones, since we did not want to hasten their demise.
Quite a bit of soil was needed behind the new retaining walls to create level planting beds that stepped down the slope. Since the existing soil was free draining, we opted to use a similar mix. The relatively dry slope, combined with the intense sunlight of afternoon and evening, required that we select a plant palette that could handle these intense conditions. The plants also needed to be relatively deer resistant. Over the years, we’ve notice that deer are eating many more kinds of plants. As a result, various lists that tout supposed “deer-proof” plants are best put to use by throwing said lists at the deer—hoping, at least, to scare them away for a few minutes. We trusted our own judgment, observed what survived locally, and experimented.
A Limited Season
Since the beach gets the most use from early summer through mid-autumn, there was little need for winter interest and few shrubs were required to anchor the plantings. In addition, most of the garden sits below the floor of the house; during the winter months, people generally look out from various windows and rarely venture into the garden.
With such imposing views across the water to the mountains, we opted to plant bold drifts of plants, rather than a spotty pastiche. While some groupings are placed within a single bed, other plants move across the slope in loose diagonal sweeps. Most plants have settled in well, seeding around a bit or clumping up; others have not, because of an unanticipated issue of dormancy. With the garden so close to the water, which moderates the colder temperatures of autumn, some of these plants have shown a tendency to grow late into the year. Sudden cold snaps have cut back some plants harder than might have been expected. A few plants, especially the California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) have proven far too happy, overwhelming their neighbors with their exceptional size.
Overall, the garden on this side of the house has performed well. Snails have become more of a problem; the less vulnerable plants are now playing a greater role. Each year, different plants take center stage, so the effect is always slightly different, yet pleasing.
The latest addition to the beachside garden is a raised vegetable bed, also made from Richlite. The main portion of this bed echoes the curves of the other retaining walls. We added a metal seating bench into it; this provides a perch from which to watch bocce ball play on the beach—a perfect way to end the day.