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The Seattle Times | Pacific Northwest

Northwest Living Valerie Easton

Sociability To Spare

Bright, witty and arty, this garden is a fashionable place for entertaining

Landscape architect Thomas Church declared that gardens are for people. Most gardens are more about growing food, flowers or shrubbery; some are just landscaping to cover the ground. When Annette Althoff hired Richard Hartlage to design her new back garden, she had entertaining in mind.

Althoff has refashioned and updated her North Beach home for more than 25 years. "It was a dump of an old beach cottage, all slanty and with rats," she says of the little place she bought in 1979. Now her house is filled with light and a fun, funky collection of contemporary art. But the back garden remained a skinny strip of wasteland, with an uninviting old porch and shed.

"It was either move to a condo or stay here and get the garden done," says Althoff. So she set to work leveling out the space herself, then called in Hartlage of AHBL to help her create a fashionable, sociable space where her collections could spill outside. "Plants are the least of it," says Althoff of the warm, sheltered garden she calls "My Ballroom." Pale gray Trex decking laid on the diagonal optically widens the narrow space, creating the easy-care stage setting Althoff hoped for. "I love function," she says. "This just works; it makes me want to dance."

"Annette was open to any elements and forms," says Hartlage. " I wanted to give her space to do her thing." He came up with four possible designs for the 20-by-50-foot back garden. Althoff chose elements from two of the plans for her highly original new deck garden.

The stylish space is furnished with perforated metal pieces in Crayola colors, custom-designed by Hartlage. The pedestals and stools are lit from within so their frosted acrylic tops glow as dusk falls. Enough light filters through the perforated metal to light evening soirees in the little garden. The furniture's Popsicle-bright shades of red, orange and yellow are set off by the gray decking and concrete-block walls. Lime-green and royal-blue plastic chairs are curvaceously comfortable, and the dining table is made of clear, laser-cut acrylic.

While the primary colors enliven the metal and concrete, it's the masses of textural plantings that soften it. Hartlage chose slow-growing, easy-care plants like the golden ornamental grass Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola,' mounds of Hosta 'Halcyon,' mondo grass and phormium. A rustling, leafy screen at one end of the deck is the golden groove bamboo Phyllostachys aureoselcata 'Spectabilis.'

On a warm summer evening, six of Althoff's close friends and neighbors gathered to celebrate the new garden with a light summer meal prepared by Hartlage. Althoff says happily, "Before, this was the outback, and now it's my sanctuary. I'm going to keep it simple." Hartlage laughs when he tells her, "Get over the sanctuary — this place is designed as a vessel for all of your interests." The sociable guests sipping wine on the deck, the eclectic art, glowing metal furniture and wild flower arrangements suggest this is advice Althoff has already taken to heart.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "A Pattern Garden." Her e-mail address is Jacqueline Koch is a Seattle-based freelance writer and photographer.

Dinner al fresco

Richard Hartlage prepared this elegant summer menu for Annette Althoff's dinner party, served in her new "Ballroom" of a back garden:

Salad: Roasted beets with fresh figs over baby greens, with a simple olive oil and balsamic vinaigrette.

Soup: A clarified broth of heirloom tomatoes and fresh Dungeness crab with a dash of Pernod, garnished with cherry tomatoes and seeded cucumbers.

Main course: Halibut with lime-cilantro butter, served with roasted baby zucchini and patty pan squash.

Dessert: Fresh, local red raspberries over vanilla ice cream.