Tips for a More Playful Garden

Embrace imperfection with these delightful backyard accents and decorating ideas.
FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

Every corner of Eric Swenson and Holly Weese’s North Seattle yard harbors a carefully orchestrated surprise. There’s an iron chandelier hanging 60 feet up in a towering fir tree, and a small bog of carnivorous plants flanking a front walk. (Swenson, an avid gardener and the sole designer and chief laborer in the yard, likes to call this a “no fly zone.”)

There’s the fiberglass hot tub, which came with the house, and which Swenson converted into a cold tub where he grows water lilies and water cannas and keeps fish to prevent the mosquitoes from taking over.

The garden also contains a bamboo gazebo with cozy chairs, a planting bed full of purple foliage, a larger bog and a grotto in the making (the last of which will feature a waterfall and underground sweat lodge). “My lot is .19 acres, but people don’t believe it because I use every square inch,” says Swenson. “If you see any unused spots, alert me, would you?”

This playful garden style might be just the ticket for those who can’t—or don’t want to—keep up with hard-core urban farmer neighbors who grow every organic carrot, cabbage and chicken from scratch. Consider this motto for your garden planning: Less virtue, more whimsy.

Unlike the “forced labor” involved in his father’s vegetable garden when he was a kid, Swenson says his creative gardening doesn’t feel anything like drudgery. When planning his fanciful garden, he thinks about what would delight a child—more specifically, his four grandchildren, who visit regularly.


Part of a bamboo fence, photo by Allan Mandell

Quick Tips

1. Make straight lines curvy. “I don’t like straight lines, and neither does nature,” says lifelong gardener Eric Swenson.

2. Try planning from the bottom up. The ground is a logical place to start when choosing how to create different spaces in your garden, and it’s also a fun place to play, by making mosaics, using colorful stones and marbles, or installing custom pavers.

3. Engage all your senses. A fountain or pond can drown out noise, and attract birds and butterflies. Scented plants seduce. Color and texture delight the eye.

4. Get creative with salvaged materials, like the canning jars turned into lanterns in Lorene Forkner’s book, Homemade Garden Projects, or the birdfeeder Swenson crafted from an umbrella stand.

5. Just because you’re being playful doesn’t mean you have to be messy or informal. Topiaries, formal borders and, yes, even straight-rowed vegetable gardens can be fun, too, in the right context.

To West Seattle gardener and writer Lorene Edwards Forkner, playful gardening harks back to the age when we first explored our surroundings. “When we were children, we used to just go outside and make stuff up,” she says. “You’d eat your way through your neighbor’s herb garden and build forts on the beach.” At some point, mowing, edging and yard work took over; either because we’re working to blend in with the neighborhood and avoid offense, or because we’re putting our gardens to work, feeding our families on the proceeds.

Forkner encourages growing vegetables (and coexisting with your neighbors), but she says we shouldn’t forget to make space for our own imaginations. Her new book, Handmade Garden Projects: Step-by-Step Instructions for Creative Garden Features, Containers, Lighting and More (Timber Press; $19.95), highlights several quirky Seattle-area gardens where whimsy has kicked sobriety to the planting strip. In her own garden, a salvaged cast iron tub provides her with a cooling summer soak (with water poured from the hose and left to warm for a day) hidden behind a stand of ornamental corn; in another, custom pavers are embedded with lucky horseshoes and cast iron stove grates, a look Forkner dubs “urban cowgirl.”

Like Swenson, Forkner suggests looking to motifs from your own childhood to help make your garden feel more playful. Someone who grew up fishing or swimming might add water features to his yard. Forkner’s husband grew up hiking, and the rounded rocks they’ve placed in their landscape draw him outdoors. One of the projects in Forkner’s book came directly from her firefly-free western childhood and her longing to see the insects in her yard: artificial “fireflies” crafted from LED bulbs and metal hooks, which wink on at night among the perennials. A mini-orchard of dwarf apple trees planted in a stainless steel agricultural watering trough—accessorized with a miniature windmill—shows there’s room for fun in growing food, too.

Graphic designer Heidi Smets deliberately worked early memories of gardens in her native Netherlands into the modestly sized yard outside the 1910 bungalow she shares with her husband in Wallingford. Her method is to think of the outdoors as an extension of the indoors.

“Lots of people in Holland have small houses and small gardens, so they sometimes make the garden feel like part of the house,” she says. For the designer, that means the artful motifs inside her house pop up outside as well. Smets displays salvaged chandeliers indoors, so she’s also hung one on her front porch, and another over the brick patio in her backyard. She pulled out all the electrical wires and draped Christmas lights over it (and over much of the rest of the yard), so she and her husband can see twinkling lights while soaking in their wooden hot tub.

Faux cow skulls (which Smets crafts from salvaged materials; shown below) adorning the kitchen and living room arze echoed in the backyard by one made from bluestone and driftwood. All of which means her yard is as lovely—and low pressure—as her home.


Additional photos by Allan Mandell (2) and Sean Gumm

Windermere's W Collection: A High Point Market

Windermere's W Collection: A High Point Market

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This $10 million 1933 home was commissioned by nautical author James A. Gibbs, who later moved to an Oregon Coast lighthouse; meticulously restored, it is a typically lavish luxury property from Windermere’s W Collection

It’s no secret that Seattle home prices are rising dramatically. These days, even a relatively modest Seattle Craftsman can command a price topping $1 million. But the growth of the city—particularly in the tech sector—soaring incomes among some locals and the influence of international buyers have combined to increase demand in the luxury market. 

It’s this market that was the impetus behind the recent launch of Windermere Real Estate’s new ultra-luxury arm, the W Collection. Spearheaded by Leigh Canlis—who brings a familiarity with the luxury market from previous roles with Canlis Glass and JPMorgan Chase—the W Collection is a new real estate division catering to clients looking for homes in the $3 million-plus range. "Windermere is one of those companies that has been around for years," says Canlis. "But there is a new market and we needed to create an upper tier division to cater to the uber luxury clientele. I was brought in because I know this market so well and to make the W Collection stand out.” 

A high price tag isn’t the only criterion for homes featured in the W Collection. “There needs to be some pizzazz, a wow factor,” says president John “OB” Jacobi, son of John Jacobi, who founded the company in 1972. 


Images by: Matt Eddington
Above: Traditional furnishings complement the home’s architecture. Below: The adjoining lot was purchased to accommodate a pool and cabana

QUEEN ANNE MANSION

PRICE: $10,450,000 

SQUARE FOOTAGE: 6,820; 3 bedrooms, 3.75 baths 

LOT SIZE: 0.43 acre 

COMMUNITY: Queen Anne 

PROPERTY TAXES: $86,545 (2015) 

YEAR BUILT: 1933 

LISTED: April 2016 

KEY DETAILS: Secluded in-city compound with views of the Seattle skyline and Elliott Bay; an elevated pool plus hot tub with an adjoining 530-square foot-cabana, outdoor kitchen space and a fire-lit rooftop patio seating area. The home was commissioned in 1928 by James A. Gibbs, city planner, local historian, politician and founding member of the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society, and completed in 1933. 

 

Canlis notes that W Collection clients are likely to be much more understated than the properties they’re shopping for. “For the most part, Seattle millionaires look like everyone else up here. They want to stand out for their accomplishments rather than their affluence,” Canlis says. “That’s what is different about Seattle. You never know who you’re talking to here, and that’s fun.” 

Jacobi predicts a bright future for the luxury home market. “Our local economy is super strong, tech jobs are creating some pretty wealthy people pretty quickly, so price points are going to continue to grow. Seattle [may] have this issue forever.”  


Images by: Nolan Green
This $8 million property’s pool, hot tub and multiple patio spaces offer no shortage of ways to enjoy the backyard of this north-end Mercer Island home

MERCER ISLAND MANSION

Above: 22-foot ceilings top off floor-to-ceiling windows in the living room with views of Lake Washington. Below: The home’s luxe features include a wine cellar, dog run and sauna

PRICE: $8,480,000 

SQUARE FOOTAGE: 8,579; 4 bedrooms, 4 baths 

LOT SIZE: 0.44 acre 

COMMUNITY: Mercer Island

YEAR BUILT: 1992  

LISTED: June 2016 

KEY DETAILS: 65 feet of lakeside waterfront, a wine cellar, pool and hot tub combo, sauna, three fireplaces, a dog run, and views of Lake Washington and West Bellevue; dock space for a yacht; 22-foot ceilings in the living room; three kitchens (the main kitchen, full kitchen in basement and a butler’s kitchen); custom-stained white oak floors cover the first floor, and the master suite’s walk-in closet includes two washer-dryer sets (one for him and one for her), with drying closet.