Tips for a More Playful Garden

Embrace imperfection with these delightful backyard accents and decorating ideas.

Every corner of Eric Swenson and Holly Weese’s North Seattle yard harbors a carefully orchestrated surprise. There’s an iron chandelier hanging 60 feet up in a towering fir tree, and a small bog of carnivorous plants flanking a front walk. (Swenson, an avid gardener and the sole designer and chief laborer in the yard, likes to call this a “no fly zone.”)

There’s the fiberglass hot tub, which came with the house, and which Swenson converted into a cold tub where he grows water lilies and water cannas and keeps fish to prevent the mosquitoes from taking over.

The garden also contains a bamboo gazebo with cozy chairs, a planting bed full of purple foliage, a larger bog and a grotto in the making (the last of which will feature a waterfall and underground sweat lodge). “My lot is .19 acres, but people don’t believe it because I use every square inch,” says Swenson. “If you see any unused spots, alert me, would you?”

This playful garden style might be just the ticket for those who can’t—or don’t want to—keep up with hard-core urban farmer neighbors who grow every organic carrot, cabbage and chicken from scratch. Consider this motto for your garden planning: Less virtue, more whimsy.

Unlike the “forced labor” involved in his father’s vegetable garden when he was a kid, Swenson says his creative gardening doesn’t feel anything like drudgery. When planning his fanciful garden, he thinks about what would delight a child—more specifically, his four grandchildren, who visit regularly.

Part of a bamboo fence, photo by Allan Mandell

Quick Tips

1. Make straight lines curvy. “I don’t like straight lines, and neither does nature,” says lifelong gardener Eric Swenson.

2. Try planning from the bottom up. The ground is a logical place to start when choosing how to create different spaces in your garden, and it’s also a fun place to play, by making mosaics, using colorful stones and marbles, or installing custom pavers.

3. Engage all your senses. A fountain or pond can drown out noise, and attract birds and butterflies. Scented plants seduce. Color and texture delight the eye.

4. Get creative with salvaged materials, like the canning jars turned into lanterns in Lorene Forkner’s book, Homemade Garden Projects, or the birdfeeder Swenson crafted from an umbrella stand.

5. Just because you’re being playful doesn’t mean you have to be messy or informal. Topiaries, formal borders and, yes, even straight-rowed vegetable gardens can be fun, too, in the right context.

To West Seattle gardener and writer Lorene Edwards Forkner, playful gardening harks back to the age when we first explored our surroundings. “When we were children, we used to just go outside and make stuff up,” she says. “You’d eat your way through your neighbor’s herb garden and build forts on the beach.” At some point, mowing, edging and yard work took over; either because we’re working to blend in with the neighborhood and avoid offense, or because we’re putting our gardens to work, feeding our families on the proceeds.

Forkner encourages growing vegetables (and coexisting with your neighbors), but she says we shouldn’t forget to make space for our own imaginations. Her new book, Handmade Garden Projects: Step-by-Step Instructions for Creative Garden Features, Containers, Lighting and More (Timber Press; $19.95), highlights several quirky Seattle-area gardens where whimsy has kicked sobriety to the planting strip. In her own garden, a salvaged cast iron tub provides her with a cooling summer soak (with water poured from the hose and left to warm for a day) hidden behind a stand of ornamental corn; in another, custom pavers are embedded with lucky horseshoes and cast iron stove grates, a look Forkner dubs “urban cowgirl.”

Like Swenson, Forkner suggests looking to motifs from your own childhood to help make your garden feel more playful. Someone who grew up fishing or swimming might add water features to his yard. Forkner’s husband grew up hiking, and the rounded rocks they’ve placed in their landscape draw him outdoors. One of the projects in Forkner’s book came directly from her firefly-free western childhood and her longing to see the insects in her yard: artificial “fireflies” crafted from LED bulbs and metal hooks, which wink on at night among the perennials. A mini-orchard of dwarf apple trees planted in a stainless steel agricultural watering trough—accessorized with a miniature windmill—shows there’s room for fun in growing food, too.

Graphic designer Heidi Smets deliberately worked early memories of gardens in her native Netherlands into the modestly sized yard outside the 1910 bungalow she shares with her husband in Wallingford. Her method is to think of the outdoors as an extension of the indoors.

“Lots of people in Holland have small houses and small gardens, so they sometimes make the garden feel like part of the house,” she says. For the designer, that means the artful motifs inside her house pop up outside as well. Smets displays salvaged chandeliers indoors, so she’s also hung one on her front porch, and another over the brick patio in her backyard. She pulled out all the electrical wires and draped Christmas lights over it (and over much of the rest of the yard), so she and her husband can see twinkling lights while soaking in their wooden hot tub.

Faux cow skulls (which Smets crafts from salvaged materials; shown below) adorning the kitchen and living room arze echoed in the backyard by one made from bluestone and driftwood. All of which means her yard is as lovely—and low pressure—as her home.

Additional photos by Allan Mandell (2) and Sean Gumm

Kitchen of the Week: A Bright Update for Seattle’s Gray Days

Kitchen of the Week: A Bright Update for Seattle’s Gray Days

An interior designer improves the flow, brings in light and adds unexpected touches in her family’s kitchen
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A small kitchen can work if you lay it out right,” says interior designer Harmony Weihs of Design Harmony. Unfortunately, her family’s small, dark 1960s kitchen wasn’t working. “The ceilings were under 8 feet high, the cabinets were falling off their hinges, and two people could not do anything in here at the same time without bumping into each other,” she says. By adding a modest extension and remodeling the rest, she brightened up the room and created a layout that functions without all that bumping.

Kitchen at a Glance
Who lives here: Interior designer Harmony Weihs and her family
Location: Seattle
Size: 170 square feet (16 square meters)

Here we are looking at the new portion of the kitchen, which extends just 7½ feet but makes all the difference. A view out a large picture window enlarges the space visually.

The 4-by-6-foot window provides a lovely focal point and is surrounded by a stacked slate accent wall. The slate is a natural stone veneer on mesh-backed tiles that can be installed by a tile installer rather than a mason.

“When you’re designing for yourself, you’re able to take more risks,” Weihs says. “Not having the sink in front of a window with cabinets on either side is not typical of what clients usually want, but I wanted the new design to focus on the evergreens outside.”

Refined Midcentury

A poppy-red Dutch door provides access to the deck. “It’s better to do the riskier things less expensively,” she says. She can always paint the door another color down the line if she wants a new look, whereas something like a bold backsplash would be more involved and expensive to replace.

Related: More Storage and Light for a Seattle Kitchen

To the right of the door is a coffee and tea station. She placed it out of the way of the main work zone so that there would be no more bumping into each other. The drawers are just the right size for supplies like coffee filters and tea bags.

BEFORE: “When the range door was open, you couldn’t even fit by it,” Weihs says.

Kitchen of the Week: A Bright Update for Seattle

AFTER: This plan shows the existing kitchen on the left side and the new addition on the right.

Refined Midcentury

From this vantage point, we are looking toward the existing part of the kitchen. The ceiling had been under 8 feet high. The new vaulted ceiling extends the entire length of the kitchen, tying the new addition into the existing room seamlessly. She outfitted the ceiling with four skylights and white, 5½-inch tongue-and-groove paneling.

“We have a lot of gray days in the Pacific Northwest, so making things light and bright is important here,” the designer says.

“Kitchen design is moving toward less upper cabinets with more windows. We had enough cabinet storage in this design to make this possible,” Weihs says. She strategically added open shelves for glassware above the sink. “They keep a clear, open and airy look, and it’s really convenient to put them away because the dishwasher is right there,” she says.

She left enough room for a window and a small wine refrigerator.

A two-tone cabinet strategy means that the top half of the kitchen can stay light and bright, while dark lower cabinets deliver the bold contrast the designer loves. “Originally I wanted walnut cabinets, but there was too much movement in the pattern on the original oak floors — they would have clashed,” she says. Instead, she opted for alder with a dark espresso stain.

Related: Remodeling Your Kitchen? Browse Cabinetry

Cabinets: Cabinet Connection

Refined Midcentury

“I like to incorporate older elements into my designs, and we have great architectural salvage places here in Seattle,” Weihs says. This slate was from a UPS office; she had it fabricated into three panels to cover this wall. Weihs loves it because it adds an element that doesn’t look “all squeaky clean” and is the same material she used on the picture window accent wall.

“We wanted a TV here, but I didn’t want it to be a black hole on the wall when we weren’t using it,” she says. Placed on a swing arm, it disappears visually into the slate wall. She can make lists and notes on it, and her 5-year-old son and daughter, 2, can doodle with chalk.

“I wanted an island in here, but it wasn’t possible, so I designed the peninsula to function in the same way,” she says. The TV swings out for viewing cooking shows or football games while working in here, and the kids can cozy up on the stools on the other side.

You can see how the kitchen relates to the dining area, above.

Related: DIY Chalkboard Paint

Weihs located the pantry strategically so that when they come in with groceries, they can place them on the peninsula and put them away right here. Deep pullouts blend in with the home’s architecture on the side facing the dining room. On the refrigerator side, the cabinets and drawers are shallow — no digging to find things. The lower drawers are filled with snacks for the kids so that they can help themselves.

Refined Midcentury

The peninsula plays an important role in the work area, as it’s close to the refrigerator, range and sink. It also provides a spot for a microwave drawer.

“I see herringbone patterns in Europe a lot and noted how timeless it is.” Weihs says of her backsplash choice, which extends up the entire wall. “By using white tile with a white grout, the movement in the pattern is more subtle.” The scale of the 2-by-16-inch tiles stands up to the height of the ceiling.

Refined Midcentury

“I love the look of marble counters, but I also love red wine — the two aren’t a good mix,” Weihs says with a laugh. Instead she used a quartzite with a beautiful veining that looks like marble but is more durable. She had the veins on the edges matched up to the tops and mitered so that the countertops appear to be 2½ inches thick.

A six-burner Wolf gas range is a dream realized. In the old kitchen, Weihs used to hit her head on the low vent hood. Now there’s plenty of headroom and a pot filler to boot.

36-inch range: Wolf