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
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