EVEN THE MOST dramatically sited and well-maintained old gardens need help as they age. Take a grand property atop Magnolia Bluff. The grounds have a full-on view of Puget Sound and the Olympics, plus a putting green so photogenic it was used in a promotional image for the U.S. Open. But the garden seemed stuck in time. It took the teaming up of the lively nonagenarian owner and a designer with an eye for scale to modernize this grandest of old city estates.
Rita Daubenspeck and her husband, Harold, ran a fishing fleet and salmon cannery in Alaska for years before they bought the historic Seattle home in 1984. The house and garden have gone through many changes over the years, including installation of the Nike Grind putting green in the backyard. The turf is made of recycled sneakers, porous enough so that water percolates through its synthetic green blades.
The couple extensively remodeled the house in the late 1980s, adding a new wing, patios and a white-painted gazebo. But a decade into the new millennium, the 1.4 acres of garden no longer suited Daubenspeck, nor did the grounds relate to her Tudor Revival home. Designed in 1929 by George Wellington Stoddard for Seattle newspaper editor H.W. Parish, the house is 11,000 square feet of leaded glass windows, peaked roofs and timbered facade. It deserved better than a garden Daubenspeck describes as “mostly green with bare spots.”
Daubenspeck has gardened her whole, long life, including growing vegetables on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula in the 1940s. Now widowed, and at 92 a Pilates devotee, she’s still known to pull a few weeds. In 2010, she hired landscape architect Alan Burke, owner of Classic Nursery and Landscape Co., to refresh and update plantings and hardscape. Daubenspeck wanted a year-round garden that was neat, but not formal. “Let the plants grow the way they’re meant to grow,” she insisted. She wanted less lawn, fewer perennials, more color.
“The place needed more beefy evergreens,” says Burke of the new hebes, nandina, abelia and Eleagnus ‘Gilt Edge’ that carry the garden through the winter months. He planted golden-leafed smoke trees and lots of ‘Lime Mound’ and ‘Magic Carpet’ spirea for their vivid foliage. Coneflowers, hydrangea, lavender and crocosmia bloom through the summer.
“The property has really gone through a metamorphosis,” says Burke, who removed a massive, messy walnut tree, added a gate and replaced a tired old fountain with three basalt columns that drip water onto cobblestones. He laid a bluestone path that winds 200 feet from the driveway, around the house and down into the back garden.
Speaking of driveway, the old home has plenty of it. The front is pretty much motor court, and Daubenspeck hoped for an entrance that would better reflect the elegance of the home’s facade.
Burke saw the need for larger-scale plantings to relate to the house and a focal point to replace a small, too-sweet statue in the motor court’s center bed. Now a 2-ton polished stone of Chinese jade and marble holds pride-of-place. Burke planted a pink saucer magnolia (Magnolia x soulangeana) next to it. The tree arrived on a flatbed truck; at 45 feet, it was tall enough to create an instant canopy. “Rita pointed out that at her age, she can’t wait for an 8-foot tree to grow large,” says Burke. He replaced aggregate paving with colored, stamped concrete. He ripped out the lawn between driveway and house and planted masses of colorful shrubs
Even with the fresh layers of textural plants, the spectacular boulder from China’s Yangtze River Valley, and an expanse of artificial turf, the property’s essential nature endures. “It’s a wonderful place,” says Daubenspeck, sighing. “We have gorgeous sunsets, the weather blows through, the ferries go past . . . I’m content.”
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Reach her at email@example.com. Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.