Pacific Northwest | August 31, 2003Pacific Northwest MagazineAugust 31, home
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In the shelter of a beachside slope
A profusion of berry, bush and bloom
The garden of Ralph and Lynn Davis is intensely flowery and fragrant. "I like color and mixing things up," says Lynn of the many perennials, annuals and blooming shrubs used throughout the waterfront acre.
IT'S MAGICAL to come upon a garden hidden from the street, secluded behind a wrought-iron gate. It is especially surprising when the garden is as vast, complicated and soaked in history as the Davis property on Crescent Beach in Normandy Park.

After turning off a steeply curving road, you enter a flower tunnel of a pathway through the gate. A slight scent of salt air gives a hint of what's to come, and if you listen closely you can hear the distant lap of waves against the beach.

But the faint noise of the water is nearly drowned out by the hum of the bees working the cutting garden, and by Colette, the little black-and-white Tibetan terrier, rustling busily through the shrubbery. Descend the path through the flowers, and all of a sudden a wide bowl of lawn and gardens opens up, sweeping down to the darkly shingled Arts and Crafts-style house above a wide stretch of beach. A century ago, this same dip of a hillside served as a skid road for loggers to move trees from Gregory Heights above to the beach far below; there, the logs were floated off to nearby mills.
Hundred-year-old Japanese maples, pruned to reveal their curvaceous trunks, clearly tell the story of how long ago this seaside garden was planted. The Davises are researching the role landscape architect Otto Holmdahl may have played in designing the early garden.
The concrete rail fence, entwined with clematis, was inspired by fences the couple saw in Europe.
When the rustic, sprawling house was built in 1916, the only way to reach it was by boat. Old pilings still visible along the beach are a reminder of the "mosquito fleet" steamers that ran between Tacoma and Seattle, serving the little summer communities along the shore. On one side of the property a hill rises up steeply with a dramatic view through craggy madrona trees. The topography of the garden and its close proximity to salt water create a warm, protected garden where jasmine and geraniums winter over, hydrangeas grow large and lush, and roses bloom early and long. Banana trees thrive in sunny spots between dignified old fir trees.

Lynn Davis has lived in the seaside house since the 1960s. She married Ralph, her partner in gardening excess, just 17 years ago. The couple have toured gardens in France, England, Germany and Italy, and European influence can be seen in the garden's many decorative elements, as well as the elegant and profuse mix of plantings.

Lynn credits Ralph with expanding the garden to its current size of a cultivated acre. He cleared the hillside of a tangled mess of blackberries, honeysuckle and ocean spray, creating a woodland garden with patio, waterfall and fish pond. While the cat contentedly and ineptly fishes at the lip of the pond, Lynn explains that Ralph dug down 40 inches, which is deeper than the legs of a heron are long. With straight sides, no plants to serve as landing places, and a fishing-challenged cat, the koi and goldfish remain safe from predators.

"Up here, we're planting a little arboretum," says Lynn, pointing to the gentle slope above the pond where maples and sourwoods add a layer of texture beneath the canopy of tall firs. The woodland greenery is enlivened by the mix of annuals and perennials trimming the walkways and in the beds around the pond. "I like color and mixing things up," says Lynn. Shrubs like the fragrant white 'King George' rhododendron, rugosa roses, gunnera and hydrangeas fill in beneath the trees. "Gardening teaches patience," sighs Lynn of the King George rhodie that didn't bloom until it was 8 years old, but was finally loaded with blossoms last spring.
The big trees, varied plantings, pond and birdhouses in the Davis garden, as well as the estuary of Miller Creek just south of it, draw a parade of winged visitors to the property.
On a sunnier slope, Lynn has a cutting garden to supply the house with flowers. Rows of lilies, sunflowers, sweet peas, dahlias, zinnias and gladiolas fill the garden with fragrance. In a second sunny spot, high on the bluff, a driftwood-fenced vegetable garden holds potatoes, carrots, herbs and salad greens. From here it is just a few steps to the "Eagle's Nest" deck, built at the peak of the cliff to capture a stunning view of the Olympic Mountains and sailboats bobbing in Puget Sound.

The descent to the house leads past century-old red Japanese maples, pruned to show off the twisting old trunks. On one side of the house is a terrace for entertaining, surrounded by an unusual cast-concrete rockery, thought to have been designed by landscape architect Otto Holmdahl. Clumps of lustily fruiting blueberry bushes, at least 50 years old, produce berries all summer. On the water side of the house is a narrow strip of lawn dominated by two huge cast urns from an ancient Irish castle. A green metal fence between lawn and beach is softened with the tendrils and blossoms of hundreds of sweet peas that twine through its rails.
The 1916 Arts and Crafts-style house can be seen from the windows of the "grown-ups' playhouse" that Lynn had built for Ralph as an anniversary gift. "It's quite a hillside, actually," says Lynn of the property's steep topography.
French statuary, wrought-iron benches from England, stone lanterns from China, plus terra cotta pieces salvaged from Seattle's White Henry Stewart Building add structure to the garden and surprises along the paths. "I love interesting garden ornaments, but I hate clutter," says Lynn. But she couldn't resist grouping birdhouses atop fence posts to give her a view of the chickadee babies from her kitchen. As an anniversary gift for Ralph, Lynn built a "playhouse for grown-ups" to enjoy the garden on a windy or rainy day, to serve tea or a glass of wine. It's hard to believe that either Lynn or Ralph ceases weeding and watering long enough to take a sip of tea, but Lynn claims a goal is to "find more places to sit and enjoy the garden." There's plenty to enjoy, but the trick will be to stop gardening long enough to notice.

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 Barry Wong is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.

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