Pacific Northwest | July 20, 2003Pacific Northwest MagazineJuly 20, home
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Stepping Up
An arbor thick with an old wisteria shelters the table and chandelier, creating a private dining space that feels miles from the city even though the garden hovers just above the freeway and Lake Union.
Past the stairs, a splendor of paths, ponds, unusual plants and a beastie or two

Sweat equity takes on a whole new meaning when you think that Greg Graves has to lug every pot, plant and bag of soil up 80 stairs to get to his garden.

And when you think it took months to clear out the garden and truck the underbrush and dead trees to the dump, you can understand why the house was on the market for years before Graves bought it in 1992. "I was on a first-name basis with the guys at the dump," laughs Graves. "They couldn't believe all this stuff came out of my garden."
A frog strums a ukulele beneath the hummingbird-attracting blooms of a Himalayan honeysuckle (Leycesteria formosa).
Perched a little more than halfway up the Howe Street staircase on Capitol Hill, the house and garden are accessible only by the long flight of concrete stairs that firemen and runners use to train. The fit and not-so-fit run, trudge and pant their way in streams up and down the steep stairs. For Graves, however, the steps aren't a choice. His garden hovers over Interstate 5, affording a fine view of Lake Union, but there's no driveway. The only way to renovate the 1931 house and 180-foot-long overgrown garden (safe from subdivision because it's landlocked) was to haul everything in and out by navigating the stairs.

Graves had moved from a house in West Seattle to a condo on Capitol Hill, but quickly realized that condo living wasn't for him. He found the old house for sale when he was out on a walk and made an offer, undeterred by its very-'70s olive-and-mustard look and unkempt garden. Although the property was largely buried in huge, old rhododendrons and marauding ivy, Graves appreciated its venerable wisteria and magnificent dove tree (Davidia involucrata), both of which are still covered in white bloom every May. Over the years, several good gardeners had owned the plot, and once Graves started in, it was a bit like an archeological excavation as he discovered unusual plants, stone walls and brick pathways.
The three faces in the garden represent the three gardeners who care for it and their changeable moods. A downstairs tenant whom Graves describes as "the tidier one" is the third of the trio.
Not only did Graves carry junk out of the garden, but he scavenged stuff to carry back up all those stairs. He used broken concrete from the old Hansen Baking Co. on Queen Anne to form many of the terraces, patios and paths in the garden. He and his partner, Gary Waller, have carried back in a great number of plants over the past several years, so many in fact that their garden has overflowed into the margins of the staircase and the next-door apartment building. Waller, a floral designer at Molbak's Nursery in Woodinville, couldn't leave a border untouched, so he's transformed the garden just above theirs into a color wheel filled with eucalyptus, sedums, towering echiums, colorful chard, iris and all manner of unusual and familiar plants chosen and arranged by color.
A wicked-looking Solanum atropurpureum grows 5 feet tall over a single season. Every inch, even the leaves and stem, are so eye-catchingly coated with thorns that you hardly notice the pretty little blue flowers on this potato relative.
On the lower side of the house, a little terrace is sheltered by a hedge of old plum trees pruned into an undulating dinosaur. You can peek at the lake through portholes carved into the belly of the beast. His glowing eye is formed by a red Japanese fishing float, and just in case you don't at first realize this creature is a dinosaur, there's a clue in the 4-foot-high mossy topiary dinosaur next to the patio. Where the hedge dinosaur leaves off, a narrow brick pathway retained by old stone walls runs all along the length of the garden. Graves uncovered it when he took out 20 old rhododendrons. He even found a gate into a neighboring garden. Now gate, walls and pathways are all revealed as features of the garden. The rhododendrons that remain are limbed up into tree shapes, shading the many woodland plants that line the path at their feet.
Greg Graves' garden is a collector's treasure trove, filled with unusual plants from around the globe. The little Hebe ochracea 'James Sterling' froths at the feet of the boldly architectural Phormium cookianum 'Light'; the pots hold a red-flowering euphorbia and a blue-toned echeveria.
Pots, art and three ponds have been added to enliven the garden, but its true glory is the wide assortment of unusual plants. When Graves bought the property, he clerked for the railroad, but he has since returned to school for a degree in horticulture and is now head gardener at the Miller Botanical Garden in the Highlands north of Seattle. No wonder his garden abounds in specialty plants, as well as dozens of the hostas, clematis and aroids he fancies. But how can he maintain such a large, complex garden at home as well as take care of plants all day at work?

"This garden isn't as high-maintenance as it looks," says the soft-spoken Graves. "The beds are so full they hide the weeds." Graves isn't into winter gardening, preferring to take a break during the rainy months, so in late October he cuts everything back. He recently bought a chipper/shredder to mulch the beds so he can put to good use all the biomass he had been hauling out.
This Peruvian daffodil (Hymenocallis x festalis), as exotic-looking as a parrot, is one of the many plants that winters over successfully in Graves' garden on the west-facing slope of Capitol Hill.
"I could tell that it used to be a spectacular garden," says Graves of his first visit more than a decade ago. Now it has been excavated and transformed, the heavy wisteria propped up by a new, sturdier arbor (where it's joined by kiwi and clematis vines), and a lush layer of small woodland plants added beneath the canopy of fine old shrubs.

Graves has created an impressive database that fills a fat notebook with a printout of 1,364 new plants in the garden, including details as to where the plants came from and in which bed they can be found. The old, landlocked collector's garden has found new life.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her book, "Plant Life: Growing a Garden in the Pacific Northwest" (Sasquatch Books, 2002) is an updated selection of her magazine columns. Her e-mail address is

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