Last week Angela O’Brien-Ruff shared some favorite photos of her Seattle garden from last year. Today she’s back, sharing a transformation of her garden space over nine years.
I am Angela O’Brien-Ruff, and I garden on a small lot in Seattle, Zone 8b. What started as a project to replace our 40-year-old wooden fence and precarious steps to the alley turned into a major project. You know how it goes. While the fence was going to be down, it gave us an opportunity to make other improvements. Below are pictures over a period of nine years that show the evolution of our garden from a kind of wild hodgepodge to one that has visual order in a small space.
We sought the assistance of local landscape designer Heidi Fehr of Ashworth Design Studio, who my husband knew, to provide drawings for the hardscape and a planting plan. I admit that I deviated wildly from the recommended plants, as I am an active gardener always tweaking and trying new things. Heidi introduced us to the idea of “sitting” stones in the garden, which created extra seating and focal points within the garden.
This picture of our wild garden, which looks toward the gate to the alley, was taken in 2012. As you may have heard, it rains quite a bit in Seattle in the winter, and a trip to the alley to take out the garbage could be a squishy one. I hoped for a flagstone path to match the Pennsylvania bluestone that is used elsewhere on our property.
In the summer of 2016 after months of planning, designing, and hiring the landscape installer Alejandro Delucio, owner of Orion Rockscapes, work began. We told all our neighbors what we were going to be doing, that things were going to get messy and that alley access would be interrupted at times. Things would get worse before they got better.
Because our lot slopes, a concrete retaining wall was designed to hold back the soil at the property line. A structural engineer was enlisted for this design, and the staff from Orion Rockscapes did a beautiful job installing the wall.
About a month later, most of the work had been completed. The fence was almost complete, new steps leading to the alley had been installed, sitting stones were in place, sod had been laid, and the Pennsylvania bluestone path was almost done. I called the installer the “stone whisperer.” No more muddy feet taking out the garbage. My work of planting would begin shortly.
About a year later the plants were starting to fill in, and the trellis my husband had built years earlier was back in place. The sunnier side of the garden was reserved for strawberries, rhubarb, tomatoes, and other fruits and vegetables. On the left near the curved steps is an ‘Autumn Moon’ Japanese maple (Acer shirasawanum ‘Autumn Moon’, Zones 5–7), with small Otto Luyken shrubs (Prunus laurocerasus ‘Otto Luyken’, Zones 6–8), Japanese blood grass (Imperata cylindrica ‘Rubra’, Zones 5–9), and Sedum ‘Angelina’ (Zone 5–9).
This photo was taken from the side garden that is mostly in shade, looking toward the back garden. This garden appeals to my preference for texture and shades of green in plants over flowers. A Japanese maple (Acer palmatum, Zones 5–9) shades the area planted with Daphne odora (Zones 7–9), beesia (Beesia deltophylla, Zone 6–9), hellebores (Helleborus hybrids, Zones 4–9), maidenhair (Adiantum pedatum, Zones 3–8) and Himalayan (Adiantum venustum, Zones 4–8) ferns, Sarcococca ruscifolia (Zones 7–9), and Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra, Zones 5–9).
An Acanthus mollis (Zones 7–10) is in the foreground, with sword fern (Polystichum munitum, Zones 3–8), Japanese forest grass, Dicentra spectabilis ‘Gold Heart’ (Zones 3–9), and Erythronium ‘Pagoda’ (Zones 4–9) lily at the top of the stone wall and arching branches of lilac ‘Ludwig Spaeth’ (Syringa ‘Ludwig Spaeth’, Zones 3–8) above. This is the transition area between the shade garden and the lower back garden.
I salvaged wheelbarrows full of stones that my neighbors were discarding to edge a mixed planting bed in the back garden. It contains Japanese forest grass, peonies (Paeonia hybrids, Zones 3–8), Osmanthus fragrans (Zones 8–11), oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia, Zones 5–9), tree peony (Paeonia hybrids, Zones 3–8), and daylilies (Hemerocallis hybrids, Zones 4–9).
This spring my husband built a raised bed for the strawberries, which will make it so much easier to pick them. I grew sugar snap peas on the trellis he built many years ago. We attach green wire fencing to the frame so the pea tendrils have something to climb on. In previous years I grew indeterminate tomatoes alongside the trellis.
In 2020, during the pandemic, we had the stone walkway expanded to include an area for a firepit and gathering space for social distancing in our back garden. To the left are the sitting stones, with Otto Luyken laurels and Osmanthus fragrans beside the curved stairs. In the right planting bed are Wheeler’s dwarf pittosporum (Pittosporum tobira ‘Wheeler’s Dwarf’, Zones 8–11) at the bottom of the stair, and daylilies, peonies, and an oakleaf hydrangea that I had severely pruned.
As we all know, gardening is a journey taking us places we didn’t always plan, but we learn to enjoy the unexpected and are only limited by our imagination and pocketbook. It slows things down and allows us to be creative, to get our hands dirty, and to listen to the birds. Any day I am able to work in the garden is a good day.
It is all so very lovely!
Angela - thank you for sharing. I like the variety of plants hardscape you chose. You really gave us a lot of information!
Thanks so much for sharing. Love seeing the process photos and the overall design and evolution of your lovely space!
Wonderful ❣️. I appreciate all the info....and your use of stone and rock in your designs!
Everything you could want in a garden is here! Stone paths, ornamental plants, vegetable garden, gates, beautiful concrete retaining wall...Love love love what you've done with your garden!
What an impressive series of photos. You have really given us the story of the development of this garden. Inspiring!
I love the way you turned the path into a patio . . . what a great idea! Beautiful transformation.
Loved seeing the evolution of your garden and all the wide shots. Beautiful job.
A Brave New World Indeed! I too took to adding the stone scaping, just begun an area, and what a relief to slipping and sliding, and the woodland look we enjoy. Your handy hubby certainly helps contain those costs, gorgeous. Plant choices of opportunistic gardening is what I say about mine, there is 'always room for one more'. Enjoy and keep sharing different times of the year please.
Love everything about your garden! Wonderful!
Great stonework, fence, steps, patio, etc.
An absolutely stunning garden. Love the before and after photos. Thank you for sharing.
My kind of garden. Lots of shrubs with touches of color.
Love the way you allowed the lilac to grow naturally and gracefully. It must be gorgeous in bloom as well. I'm keeping some of your pics for inspiration. Thank you.
Is that really a lilac!? I love it- is it very old? I live outside of Seattle, and love your photos, and hope to add some of the same plants that look so wonderful in your garden. Thanks so much for sharing!
Yes it really is a lilac, about 15 years old. Many years ago we had a heavy, wet snow and the weight of it pushed the lilac over and it never wet back to its original position. It has beautiful, dark purple blossoms.
Great transformation! Thanks for sharing your garden :)
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