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Natural Beauties: Two Seattle Award-winners Showcase the Beauty of Native Plants

Articles: Natural Beauties: Two Seattle Award-winners Showcase the Beauty of Native Plants

Summer 2024 

2023 saw the debut of Pacific Horticulture’s landscape design contest, the Design Futurist Award, highlighting visionary projects with a focus on climate-resilient garden spaces embodying our core themes: Growing for BiodiversityDrought and Fire ResilienceNature is Good for YouGarden Futurist, and Sustainable Gardening.

Top Prize is awarded to the design that best exemplifies multiple themes. A jury of highly experienced horticulturists, landscape designers, and landscape architects were so impressed by the quality of submitted designs, the judges awarded Top Prize to two standout residential gardens.

While 2023 Design Futurist Award submissions came from all across the West, both winning gardens are set in urban lots in Seattle, Washington—each creatively showcasing the beauty of native plants in ways that nurture the land. In both cases, the homeowners are passionate about native plants; one is a volunteer conservationist, and the other, a native plant nursery co-founder. Ahead, the designers share insights and vision that any garden maker can apply to their space.

Header Image: Hummingbird feeding on Checkerbloom (Sidalcea sp.) with Aquilegia formosa red columbine in native plant garden Seattle, Washington; Jonathan Hallet design – Supernature. Photo: Saxon Holt, PhotoBotanic

A Diverse All-Native Garden with a Beautiful Sense of Place

Vine maples (Acer circinatum) support a native-led border of showy red columbine (Aquilegia formosa) and lupine (Lupinus sp.) in spring. Design GGN Landscape Architects. Photo: Saxon Holt, PhotoBotanic

Seattle Residence: Repairing the Land 

Seattle, Washington

Design: Design Principal Shannon Nichol, Design Principal and Managing Principal Tess Schiavone, Technical Designer Fred Jala, and Construction Administration – GGN 

Installation: Landscape Contractor Dean Backholm

Size: 5,001 – 10,000 square feet

Budget: $250,000-$500,000

Chosen Themes: Growing for Biodiversity, Sustainable Gardening, and Garden Futurist

Designer Shannon Nichol and Managing Principal Tess Schiavone of GGN say the client’s dream was to create a neighborhood garden that was a “rich, beautiful experience for the senses and could be revealed as a sustainable, all-native garden, authentically expressing the character and ancient life of the region.”

GGN has offices in both Washingtons—Seattle and the D.C. The firm’s cutting-edge public-facing projects worldwide include the Lurie Garden in Chicago’s Millennium Park and installing a prairie at the Burke Museum in Seattle. It creates landscapes born of their environment, with a focus on native plants, and works “to express hidden histories and repair connections in the landscape.”

They hope to use their platform to “exemplify an urgent commitment to restoring habitat and cultural connection to place,” the website says. In fact, the Seattle designers recently launched a residential program called Meadowshop to make “our site-specific design approach more accessible” to people in the Northwest.

This design exemplifies that dual mission in expressing the site’s unique history and restoring the landscape. Nichol says the client Judi Beck, a co-founder of Oxbow native plant nursery, wanted to be able to surprise neighbors who complemented the lush oasis by saying, “Thank you, it’s all native!”

Stumpery garden between home and privacy hedge of Myrica californica (syn. Morella californica), Pacific wax myrtle in naturalistic garden design with Washington native plants. Design: GGN Landscape Architects. Photo: Saxon Holt, PhotoBotanic
A shade-loving study in contrasts creates a soothing spot for the eye to rest. Design: GGN Landscape Architects. Photo: Saxon Holt, PhotoBotanic

Natives aren’t just for wild and woodland spaces

By focusing on native plants, the design pays tribute to the urban site’s ecological history while painting an aspirational picture of healing after disturbance. After a two-year design process, the garden was installed in 2016. Public-facing planet-friendly solutions show that natives aren’t just for woodlands, starting with drought-tolerant wild strawberry (Fragaria vesca) and sedums (Sedum spp.) near the street and welcoming entry containers filled with native plants like seaside daisy (Erigeron glaucus) and frothy seablush (Plectritis congesta).

“By staying with plants that are local to this bioregion, to this site, it forced us to be creative and experiment. I learned a lot from that,” says Nichol. “We can do things we’re a little afraid to do with native plants.”

To balance and echo a neighbor’s adjacent hedge, designers added a hedge of Pacific wax myrtle (Morella californica, syn. Myrica californica) with a bit of Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium) and silk tassel bush (Garrya elliptica) mixed in.

The journey continues through a series of garden rooms including a meadow and a sunken garden surrounding a tall modern home. The house, painted black, is nestled in a green tapestry of richly layered native plants.

The meadow sings with life throughout the growing season. “At the heart of the project, next to the dining terrace, a meadow is planted with colorful sedges, perennials, bulbs, and annuals,” they write in the submission. “Amongst many other natives, thimbleberry and salmonberry interweave throughout the garden, bringing a strong, wild feeling to this urban space and providing a familiar haven for local insects and birds.”

Naturalistic garden design with Washington native plants. Design: GGN Landscape Architects. Photo: Saxon Holt, PhotoBotanic

Fast-filling layers help to make a city space feel larger

Packing as much diversity as possible onto the city site, the designers chose fast-growing species to create community quickly. “You can layer the planting and have so much diversity in a small footprint,” says Nichol.

“These colonizer plants grow so quickly and get really good cover in just few years.” Examples include thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus), cow parsnip (Heracleum lanatum), Douglas aster (Symphyotrichum subspicatum), and bigflower tellima (Tellima grandiflora). “It’s pretty tight,” says Nichol, “basically a couple of L-shaped spaces around an L-shaped house, so it was a bit like playing Tetris. A lot of the planting is to create the illusion that it’s bigger than it is, and to look more natural.”

One way they accomplished this was by building up the planting progressively. According to the submission, “The framing walls step up and away from the center, gradually opening up the space and offering soil in the breaks between walls. Planting similarly graduates in height as the garden rises, exaggerating the feeling of being in a “green bubble” that arches over your head and curves intimately around you.”

Naturalistic garden design with Washington native plants. Design: GGN Landscape Architects. Photo: Saxon Holt, PhotoBotanic

Remains of the past create intriguing structure

The biggest surprises, however, are likely the massive old-growth Western redcedar (Thuja plicata) stumps salvaged from the client’s second property punctuating the tapestry. These centuries-old stumps, relics from commercial logging, are a testament to the “forest of giants” the Northwest once was, the submission says. Here they are used as sculpture, and even natural planters echoing cyclical themes of growth and decay in the forest.

Nichol and Schiavone drove out to the site to select the stumps. “We tagged the panels and developed the details for the site, making sure the stumps weren’t touching soil anywhere,” says Nichol. “Now, on that lot in the middle of city, it’s a reminder of the real scale of this place. We should have a giant tree every 40 to 50 feet on average,” she says.

While often we think of garden designs as a static picture frozen in time, this garden was designed to be dynamic, full of rampant growth and change. Central to the design were fast-growing stoloniferous natives that would romp to fill the site with abandon. The clients adore edible natives, so there’s salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis) trailing blackberry (Rubus ursinus), and an espalier of red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum).

Yet there are still “cues” we understand as traditional garden elements, Nichol says.

“Combined with the client’s love of trimmed hedges and darling groundcovers, they have a few places that are a little more civilized.”

Blue Lupine: Blue lupine at the height of its powers mixing nicely with vine maple and other cast members. Design: GGN Landscape Architects. Photo: Saxon Holt, PhotoBotanic
Rubus parviflorus, thimbleberry shrub in naturalistic garden design with Washington native plants. Design: GGN Landscape Architects. Photo: Saxon Holt, PhotoBotanic

Expecting wildness and change are keys to success

Wilder landscapes are expected to evolve, and GGN is working with Sue Dixon, of The Artful Garden, to steward the garden’s changes. As the tree canopy knits together, the salmonberry is getting lankier, and the red-flowering currant may need to be replaced with a blackcap raspberry (Rubus leucodermis), Nichol says.

A labeling mix up landed slough sedge (Carex obnuptaI) in the sunny meadow instead of the shady sunken garden, where it’s thriving perhaps a bit too well, but the resident towhees don’t mind. “The ground birds are using it to nest in,” says Schiavone.

The wildness has come into its own. “You can’t really tame these plants,” Schiavone says. “When you visit, it doesn’t feel like it’s this story of aesthetics. It’s its own story. The right plants are all together.”

One of the judges commented, “It had all the wildness that you could ever want, just cheerfully tamed. Everything felt like it had migrated into its place and was happy there.”

See our other Winning Garden Below

More from Design Futurist

And the Design Futurist Award goes to…

The Design Futurist Award collects the very best, most exciting examples of problem-solving by visionary designers and regional plantspeople. The Award exposes the “inner beauty” of landscapes built to conserve plants and wildlife, treat our water and soil as precious, and hold the well-being of human beings at the center of our gardened environments. >> Read More

Ready to Submit your Garden?

Pacific Horticulture’s Design Futurist Award elevates the power of garden design to achieve climate resilience, steward biodiversity, and connect people with nature. 

The Design Futurist Award celebrates garden design that is easily replicable, modest in scale, or designed for intimate neighborhood community use.  

Learn More

A Modest Footprint with Vibrant, Sustainable Layers of Nature

Birdfeeder hanging from old cherry tree in native plant garden Seattle, Washington; Jonathan Hallet design - Supernature. Photo: Saxon Holt, PhotoBotanic

Native Plant Steward’s Home Garden 

Seattle, Washington

Design: Designer Jonathan Hallet—Supernature https://www.supernature.la/

Installation: Dirt Corps., Gaudancio Rodriguez, Ann Stevens, Jonathan Hal

Size: Under 500 square feet

Budget: Under $50,000

Chosen Themes: Growing for Biodiversity, Drought and Fire Resilience, Nature is Good for You, Sustainable Gardening, and Garden Futurist

Tucked between two ridges in Seattle’s Ravenna neighborhood, this design lives large despite a modest footprint. In realizing his first Seattle project, designer Jonathan Hallet of Supernature took his cues from the clients—his aunt-in-law Ann and her partner Debra—and their passion for native plants. Ann volunteers almost full-time tending native plants in nearby Ravenna Park, and often donates plants from the garden there.

The clients had lived on the property for more than two decades in a standard lawn/narrow planting bed formation and was ready for a plant-centric garden that better reflected her love of nature. Hallet, who studied at University of California-Berkeley’s School of Environment and Design and worked at Lutsko Associates before coming to Seattle to start his landscape design firm, has been working in horticulture and landscape design for over 14 years and was ideally suited for this project. His evolving approach to landscape design shows in his firm’s name. About a year ago, the firm changed from Beautifier to Supernature.

 “The best designs usually do the least,” says Hallet. “Design can and should look many different ways. I want an outdoor space that feels wild, wears neglect well, and brings birds and insects in. I’m all for beauty and vanity too, but let it be fun and easy.”

Walkway through front yard native plant meadow garden Seattle, Washington; Jonathan Hallet design - Supernature. Photo: Saxon Holt, PhotoBotanic
Water trough stock tank tubs of vegetables growing in native plant garden Seattle, Washington; Jonathan Hallet design - Supernature. Photo: Saxon Holt, PhotoBotanic

Work with nature rather than trying to control it

Hallet says gardens shouldn’t be hard work to enjoy. “Traditional styles of landscape design in the Pacific Northwest set us up for so much maintenance,” he says, promising to design “gardens that are manageable and that you love to be in.”

Of late he’s been experimenting with meadow plantings from seed in a Seattle community garden, collaborating on a public meadow planting project, and moving toward teaching gardeners to steward their lands lightly, “with a gentler and more accepting mindset.”

With any project, Hallet says starts by identifying the atmosphere he wants to create. “I like to start with an environment as opposed to a collection of plants,” he says. “I definitely want it to feel like a place as opposed to something to look at, if that makes sense.”

In this case some existing aspens (Populus sp.), an uncommon find in Seattle gardens, sparked the idea he calls a “Colorado meadow,” which he admits may only exist in his mind and now on this site. He says the planting now, especially the meadow itself is about 75% regionally native plants.

The family enjoying Hallet's vision of a "Colorado meadow" named for the existing aspen trees, Seattle, Washington; Jonathan Hallet design - Supernature. Photo: Saxon Holt, PhotoBotanic

Sustainable choices are a win-win for everyone

During the garden development, a standing laurel (Prunus sp.) hedge was nixed, and Hallet negotiated the removal of the entire lawn to create a new canvas for planting a more habitat-friendly ecosystem. The design minimized impact where possible. “We are letting the garden be a living tapestry that grows,” Hallet wrote in his submission. “We kept the existing hardscape and pavilion structure because it all still works great, making this a super low impact renovation. We added pathways through planting. We planted primarily from bareroot plants to minimize the plastic and intensive resource consumption of nursery grown plants.”

Seating amid a fern grotto under this venerable apple tree offers leafy respite. Seattle, Washington; Jonathan Hallet design - Supernature. Photo: Saxon Holt, PhotoBotanic

The space is crafted as an interlocking series of gardens each with a distinct personality. The front yard is a mainly Mediterranean cast of sun-loving plants that can handle tough sidewalk living, transitioning to Salish-Sea prairie plants. The backyard includes a soft meadow anchored by a pavilion and an old apple tree sheltering a grotto filled with West coast and local ferns. The grotto “is so dappled and ferny, it’s kind of hydrating in the summer. It remains pretty darn green even in the winter,” too, Hallet says.

Evergreen plants offering winter foliage color include cascade mahonia (Mahonia nervosa), sword fern (Polystichum munitum), hellebores (Helleborus spp.), and Tracy’s hybrid maidenhair fern (Adiantum x tracyi), an unusual cross between A. aleuticum and A. jordanii.

“It’s sort of subtle maximalism,” he says. “We have a lot of plants and species, but they are put together in ways you might find them or that look natural. It’s not trying to be high contrast just a harmonious gradient with texture in complementary ways that make it feel more like an environment.”

Allow the plants’ strengths to work to your advantage

Hallet adds depth with strategically built-up levels of plantings, blurring the edges of the site. Boxleaf azara (Azara microphylla) adds dimension, acting as a “transparent baffle.”

He says some of the goals of the site were:

Highlighting mature specimen trees and shrubs through a calm underplanting,

Using billowy tall diaphanous plants to make layers in the foreground and mid ground to increase sense of depth in the garden, and

Letting plants seed around to fill in the ground plane (if bunnies will allow it).

As you walk through the spaces the character changes shape your experience. For example, plantings become more compressed right before the view opens to the meadow, making the moment more dramatic.

Fescue grass (Festuca sp.) flowering with Checkerbloom (Sidalcea sp.) in native plant garden Seattle, Washington; Jonathan Hallet design - Supernature. Photo: Saxon Holt, PhotoBotanic

In terms of maintenance on the unirrigated site, Hallet says, “I’ve been impressed how little water it takes,” saying typically the clients water a few times as needed in summer.

“The annual cutback is very straightforward—the plants were combined that can be cut by hand or weedwhacker at same time.” The meadow plantings include Roemer’s fescue (Festuca roemeri), prairie junegrass (Koeleria macrantha), veldt grass (Pennisetum spatheolatum), and Chamisso sedge (Carex pachystachya).

So, what does the client think about her award-winning garden?

“It’s definitely expanding the client’s collection of native plants that she is interested in,” notes Hallet. “She and her partner spend a lot of time birdwatching from their house, so they wanted to add diversity with a longer flowering season.”

“They feel they are seeing more species and have gotten a lot more bird life. They are really enjoying more seasonal moments.”

In winter, hellebores begin blooming, joined by a succession of iris (Iris spp.) starting with Iris unguicularis followed by I. tenax and I. douglasiana ‘Canyon Snow’ supported by native violets (Viola sp.).

“It’s created a new pattern of anticipation and excitement for what might happen in the yard,” Hallet says.

Dicentra formosa, Pacific bleeding heart or dutchman's britches flowering in native plant garden Seattle, Washington; Jonathan Hallet design - Supernature. Photo: Saxon Holt, PhotoBotanic

Resources

Seattle Residence: Repairing the Land Designers, GGN, Ltd. 

Native Plant Steward’s Home Garden Designers, Supernature

Vistit The Artful Garden

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