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Updated Saturday, January 26, 2013 at 07:45 AM

Laurelhurst garden gets a gracious new life

By Valerie Easton
Special to The Seattle Times

A GREAT VIEW is about all Kevin and Jean Kelly's Laurelhurst garden had going for it when landscape architect Brooks Kolb first saw it. The topography was precipitous, the plantings worn, the steep steps down to the garden cracked and broken. The handsome old house not only lacked connection to the garden, it turned its back to it.

"I grew up in San Francisco on a steep hill overlooking the bay," says Kevin. "I always felt this house deserved a great garden." After living in the house for 23 years, the couple decided it was time for a green update.

Kolb started by designing an entry terrace to connect the old house to its new garden. A geo-tech warned against filling in with heavy soil, so Kolb used foam to raise the grade about a foot. Now the expanded porch steps graciously down to a terrace at lawn level. Kolb replaced the chute-like stairs with a gentle S-curve of steps that wind their way through fragrant shrubbery.

When it came to plantings, the Kellys asked for low-maintenance. But they also wanted their garden to be colorful, textural and attractive in all seasons. In other words, a full-spectrum garden without all the work.

Kolb cleared the slope of overgrown rhodies and andromeda, keeping a single yucca for its sculptural quality. He added another Persian ironwood tree (Parrotia persica) to keep the existing one company. An ornamental cherry tree and a tall, eagle-friendly conifer from the old garden lend the house a sense of scale.

How to create a garden that's tactile, scented and seasonal, yet easy to care for? "The garden isn't Noah's ark, there aren't just two of anything," says Kolb of his strategy of massing grasses, perennials and small shrubs.

The garden relies on sturdy foliage plants to carry it through the year. "We used privet honeysuckle (Lonicera pileata) as a juniper update to cover the steep slope," says Kolb. Low-growing, red-berried Cotoneaster dammeri drapes over the retaining walls. Shrubby dogwoods with variegated leaves thrive, along with ferns, in the shade beneath maples.

The clumping bamboo Fargesia robusta, small pines and big-leafed rhododendrons carry the garden through the winter; ruffled hellebores and fragrant sarcococca cluster along walkways. Golden Japanese forest grass, hostas, blue oat grass, hydrangeas and masses of astilbe color the garden in summer. Kolb mixed in big-leafed plants like acanthus and ligularia to amp up textural contrast.

In autumn, parrotia, fothergilla and lacy Japanese maples turn the garden brilliant shades of gold, orange and red. Kolb flanked the new, wider steps with Daphne burkwoodii 'Carol Mackie' for variegated foliage all year and sweet-smelling flowers in early spring.

Both Kelly and Kolb emphasize the importance of teamwork in the garden's success. Kelly had a vision, Kolb realized it, and gardener Eileen O'Leary stepped in to maintain the place. "Gardens evolve," says Kolb, who includes a yearly post-evaluation with all his landscapes.

The refurbished garden invites you not only to the front door of the house, but also to stroll its pathways. The lawn, which originally ended in a pinched point, now curves toward a splashing fountain. Halfway up the slope, the path widens to accommodate a private little patio. Here's where the Kellys relax and enjoy their new garden in every season.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com. Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.


MIKE SIEGEL / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Viewed from the street above, the 1915 house now sports a wider, more welcoming porch and generously scaled Wilkeson sandstone terrace by Gardenstone Masonry.




MIKE SIEGEL / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Both the fluffy foliage and long-blooming blossoms of astilbe make these perennials ideal for low-maintenance massing. The snowy flowers are Astilbe x arendsii 'Deutschland'; on the right is A. arendsii 'Peach Blossom.'




MIKE SIEGEL / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Hosta sieboldiana above and astilbe below flank a pathway that winds beneath the shade of an ornamental cherry and Japanese maples.




MIKE SIEGEL / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Kevin Kelly, with his memories of growing up on a steep site above the bay in San Francisco, envisioned the garden that Brooks Kolb created for his Laurelhurst home.




MIKE SIEGEL / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Mount Rainier presides over Lake Washington in the view from the new sandstone patio and the lawn.




MIKE SIEGEL / THE SEATTLE TIMES
What used to be a deserted corner of the property now features a focal-point fountain. The silver variegated sedge, Carex morrowii 'Ice Dance,' fills in around its base.




MIKE SIEGEL / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Topography was a challenge in the steeply bowl-shaped Laurelhurst garden of Jean and Kevin Kelly. Landscape architect Brooks Kolb kept maintenance in mind when he chose sturdy foliage plants for the hillside. Golden Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola') laps at the edges of the newly widened, curvaceous lawn.




MIKE SIEGEL / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Among the nearly maintenance-free plants in the Kelly garden is fleabane, one of the longest blooming, most drought-tolerant of perennials.




MIKE SIEGEL / THE SEATTLE TIMES
An S-curve of new, wider entry stairs is flanked in variegated daphne with hydrangeas in the background. The shady pathway leads along the back of the house.




MIKE SIEGEL / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Astilbe x arendsii 'Peach Blossom' is a classic of a long-flowering, shade-loving perennial.




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