a midwinter night's scheme

designing for all seasons 

my favorite garden tool!
In the bleakness of winter it feels like a great accomplishment to clean up the garden. While many plants 'sleep' in their dormancy: the wet loose soil makes weeding a breeze and transplanting happens with more ease. So if there is time to work during the these short days, take the opportunity! Despite the cold and dreary skies, the lingering dampness, and frequent rain its a good time to garden here in most of the Pacific Northwest. 
More importantly; winter is the best time to plan. It typically slows down for me this time of year. We designers have less on our plate and are happily able to focus on one project at a time! In early part of the year our homeowner clients are recuperating from the holidays and due to the cold short days are not thinking about 'outdoor living'. Which is precisely why January is the best time to get started on a new design project. 
In the design studio its also a great time to be mindful of winter and in practice how to incorporate features such as fireplaces and covered patios that can coax you outdoors. 
most popular request of 2016...fire-pit!
The evolution of the outdoor heater is another one. 
Thankfully they've come along way from 'droid-looking' standing lamps. Look for one that can be discretely tuck under a roof line or a smaller, sleeker portable device. 
Another great trend that I find our residential clients are very receptive too is LED low-voltage landscape lighting. Seeing a warm-wash of light on the trunk of a mature tree, or a down lit path to a front door makes one feel more welcome and safe. This past year several of costumers told me the favorite feature of their new landscape was how wonderful the lighting looked when they came home from work. Not only did it create a better ambiance outside, the visual impact of the views from inside the home was more dramatic and interesting. Lighting is simple and typically quite cost effective. Though string lights and solar-powered luminaries have become more popular; an installed LV system is more effective and can easily be switched on/off via a timer or daylight sensor. I predict we will be completing more lighting plans in 2017.
low voltage landscape lighting the way

As for winter planting....
We often get asked by clients if winter is a 'safe' time to plant? The answer is 'yes'! Though I do not recommend planting in temps below freezing for fear the exposed roots could be harmed by freezing. Lucky or us here in Pacific Northwest most of the winter is safe. The main advantages to installing new plantings in winter are: less potential for drought and stress on the plants, less watering required (regularly), and that the soil is typically looser and easily to mix. Its also helpful that weed growth is stunted during winter. 

red & yellow stem dogwood in winter
A great approach to design is the massing of winter-interest plantings throughout the garden. I find especially pertinent when configuring what is seen from a window or against a backdrop such as a fence or evergreen hedge. The fun and challenge of planting design 'stems' from the way trees, shrubs, and perennials change seasonally, as well as mature over time. 
Species such as red, orange, and yellow-twig dogwoods can really brighten up an otherwise green and brown affair. 
 Cornus sericea 'Isanti' is one of my favorites. 
Corylopsis pauciflora flowering
Another gorgeous variety is Cornus sanguinea 'Midwinter flame' (Bloodtwig dogwood). There are other notable shrubs for winter interest; many of my favorites are discoveries from walking in Washington Park's Witt Winter Garden. I highly recommend a trip there in mid February. You will be amazed; if not overwhelmed by fragrance, texture, and color. 
Other favorites include Corylopsis pauciflora (Buttercup winter hazel), Garrya (Silk tasselbush), and the indisputable lovely, persistent, simple flowers of Helleborus orientalis (Lenten rose). 


Shifting Visions

Since starting my design career in 1999 I've designed hundreds of landscapes, mostly here in Seattle. The design process and path to completion of a garden varies. The very first step in the process is always getting a recent survey and measuring the site. Typically the more thorough, the better. A base map plan is then generated as a platform to build the schematic design upon. The schematics (concepts) are then developed as much as needed to yield an estimate for installation, construction documentation, or to obtain permits. 
'hero shot' for a small development

modelling allows for shading & various perspective
elevation sketch version
Working in all facets of drawing capability over the years; I've transitioned from straight-up hand drawing and drafting with pencil & ink to using software (in may case Autocad) and now using Google sketch-up. 
What I've found is that the finished sketch-up model; though not as accurate as a plan is very well received in presentations. At first I was frustrated by the inaccuracy, but now I realize that its the visual translation that counts. So here at Studio AB we have begun to use SU (Sketch-Up) modelling as an additional tool to planning. The main advantage is having the ability to view as a perspective versus always viewing in plan view. Though I still feel that elevation drawings can also be quite useful in this regard (and more accurate). Due to client budget constraints we usually offer elevations and sections for more technical drawing sets on an as needed basis to obtain a permit (or so a contractor can build the thing).  
concept plan

Lately I am realizing that modelling especially, can be a powerful tool to convey the concept; as not everyone can visualize a plan view. 
Other cool reasons for model-making: to show sun/ shade, times of day/ year, maturity of plant material (size/ shape), and of course to view the potential garden at various 'viewing' perspectives. These are also the reasons why I feel that the modelling process; though it takes longer to finish has made me a better overall designer. 
our first attempt at SU model building for a residence
Overall we can now provide a more effective, powerful visual aide using SU.  An added bonus is that often these 'screenshots' become valuable marketing pieces for our developer clients.

Since the trend of modelling/ rendering keeps advancing and has already become a standard deliverable for most architecture firms there is a expectation for the garden designers (like us) to follow suit. Therefore we look forward to offering our clients modelling and illustration services in addition to providing complete conceptual and/ or technical drawings! 


serenity now

This is for those (like myself) that seem to get caught up in the 'hustle' of the daily grind and all those extra curricular activities that 'free time' demands of us. Most of us would like to de-stress our lives. One step at a time we can do that from the inside to the outside.  
So I feel important to take a moment to write about creating a sense of calm in your garden. There are simple design principles to take to heart when creating your very own private oasis. This could be an extension of your home; fit for everyday use or simply an effort to enhance visual appeal and beckon you to find your inner peace.  

schematic rendering of a backyard retreat
Use subtle color changes. I tend to like gray, silver, and blue hues for setting a tranquil scene. Inevitably, most plants are predominately greenish in natural light so the pairing of foliage color and texture counts. Since plants have limited bloom times- 
shapes, size and contrast of these elements is more important than 
flower color.


Plan to have a destination for relaxation like a hammock or a lounge chair/ chaise, or if space is limited; just a place to place a mat and some pillows. Orient this feature toward your most relaxing view. Encourage the desire to use the space for meditation, or napping, reading, etc. 

Repetition and mass planting with simple lines
A great approach is to copy.  We can learn much from 'the Zen masters'....the Japanese and the Scandinavians.
Though I've never been to Japan, I have traveled through Sweden, Finland, and Denmark. What I found most inspiring was how their modern 
design takes the idea of 'form follows function' to the next level. 
Simple lines, mass plantings, and subtle color changes all play their part. 
I find that straight lines can be calming, but curves can soften; which ultimately feels more laid-back. 
I typically implement a combination- using curvelinear arrangements 
for planting bed lines against lawns and hardscapes (such as paths, patios), and rectilinear configurations for patios and deck. This is often implemented to maximize space and ease of construction.
Another good practice is to plant in masses, yielding long swaths of of color and texture, limiting the variety. 


Creating continuity in a garden is a balancing act. Though I love a limited palette, I sometimes feel the need to add a pop of color for drama. Besides using art or flower color this could be a material choice such as wood, copper, or steel. The patina of those elements can create interest and add warmth and vibrancy to a garden scene.
Adding other amenities such as a fountain for some sound ambiance, lighting, and/ or a fire feature for night enjoyment. 
It is good practice to encourage privacy and at the same time direct the good views, or vistas that reveal a focal point (art or artifact perhaps). Basic planning should work to hide any eye-sores as well. 
The plants, stone, and other elements in the scene should be viewed and designed as a whole.This holistic approach can be planned in advance and implemented over time; evolving with maturity. 
Whether it be creating a place for private contemplation, outdoor yoga practice, reading, napping, enjoying a cocktail, or a cup of tea; having a usable space to escape to is a valuable and functional addition to any home.

elegantly minimalist roof deck


A Vision of Thanks

Madrone tree, Orcas Island in late November sun
Finally the crisp, clear winter days when the sun permeates a palette of intense pastels at sunset. Comfort food consumption goes up as I aim to stay in motion. 
With the onset of winter I think about health and family more; as well as the well being of others in my community. I would like to think that this is trend in modern humanity. Breaking out of the ridiculousness of materialistic pursuits and overindulgence and embracing a simpler, more active, productive, and planned lifestyle. 
I believe that true 'living' means constant catharsis, changing one's outlook, re-education, and listening to inner intuition.
Not your everyday roof-top! Room for play and more
During the holiday season especially; it is important to feel good and be able to project it outward. It is easy to caught up in the routine of life and not the experience. I feel like I am always working; trying to secure clients and projects in effort to make a living. These are once again times of 'boom' in Seattle. I am grateful for it!

Since it is no longer a torturous time for my industry I am striving to shift more gears, push some creative boundaries, and finally; approach life in a more holistic manner to connect people with their outdoor spaces and communities.
Gather around the warmth! Functional fire-features are HOT 

When we are young children we tend to dream and think we can do anything, which we all could; depending on some factors.Then things change and there are causes and effects. Of course we are not all equally dealt the same hand. What always matters more is how we use what have and found, have worked for, and earned. I used to resent growing up with less; even feeling inferior at times, but I grew into a place where it does not affect me and I am better for it.
So here and now, in my lovely little world that is what I am most grateful for this Thanksgiving!
I find such beauty in the small comforts at home, in my community, and through making future travel plans. All feels well and good inside and out. Happy Thanksgiving! 
Looking forward to wintry days! Plain, WA


meet me at the beach

experiencing the islanders' garden

I was ecstatic to take on the challenge of helping a lovely couple realize the garden for their newly remodeled beachfront retirement home, though I soon felt a bit intimidated as the design parameters of being on the shores of Puget Sound began to unfold.  For one, the views...I mean, the garden has some stiff competition for attention with this scene unfolding out the front door!
year-round drama...sunset view from the front deck
The site is perched on Utsalady Bay on Camano Island; the foundation literally just a few footsteps from the water's edge. 
Jeff & Bonney affectionately referred to their home as a 'cottage' before it transforming it into the fabulous, custom-built, contemporary, comfortable water-front home it is today.  Throughout the new home there are several 'beach cottage' elements tastefully incorporated in both interior and exterior.  So we all agreed when embarking on the garden's design that it felt natural to keep the feel of a casual, cottage-like garden as the material choices for stone and other details presented themselves.  
Covered composite deck
The proximity to Puget Sound presents special environmental considerations when it comes to planting.  Especially challenging were conditions were salt, high winds, and flooding.  Over the past three years since this garden was substantially completed the weather has taken its toll.  However, I am happy to report most of the plants have proved to be survivors, and the stonework and deck remain securely in tact.  

Front view
For the front (sound-side) the resilient  rosa rugosacryptomeria, and shore pine (pinus contorta) have proven to be the best enduring species for ornamental woody shrubs.  Keeping it simple was key to planning for this mico-climate.  It's only a small space between threshold and bulkhead and the focus of course is on the expansive view and great water access.  To maximize enjoyment and keep the maintenance low there is an all composite deck; mostly covered to keep it cozier.  For site specific 'mulch' we allowed the sound to add its personal touch with the addition of beach debris in the form of shell fragments and driftwood (as you can see in the beds). 
Stewartia psuedocamellia
Much to my delight, Bonney is an avid gardener. She really took the reigns and realized the palette that became the fabulous 'entry courtyard' garden. Once the flagstone path was laid, the soil and rock placed we focused on the primary trees and shrubs and lighting locations. I guided her with selections, but overall, this garden was a family effort.  I simply supplied a solid schematic layout and some coaching from my year of experience.  

Bonney fastidiously weeding
Now in its 4th full season, this sweet seaside garden is looking better then ever, yet still evolving (as a good garden should).  Though the past few years, Bonney and Jeff have add hints of personality, herbs and veggies, and some new plants here and there.  

Glamour perennial of 2014- Digiplexis

You can check out more of this sweet 'beach strolling garden' on June 28th during the 7th Annual Camano Island Habitat Garden Tour. It is one of several lovely private island gardens that will be open to the public from 10am- 4pm. The focus is on the establishment of wildlife habitat. 

Fun details- imprints of sea life in the concrete
remnants of coral and beach glass as a decorative gap along the foundation
Crabs like pineapple sage...who knew?!
A big thanks to both Bonney & Jeff for being so wonderful, fun to work with, and hands-on.  Not to mention the bonus of fresh crab, incredible views, and giving me good excuses for more island excursions:-)

Happy summer everyone...enjoy your garden, the beach, or wherever you wander! 


Waiting for the Night to Fall

The days are noticeably shorter and the weather a cooler shade of gray.  Welcome to that season that seems like endless fall!   These are the days that darkness seems to be a way of life for us here in Pacific northwest, especially before the holiday start revving up.  
Earlier this month I went to a great 'lunch & learn' on using lighting in the landscape; particularly LED.  
Makes sense to me.  Enjoy your garden at any hour...all you need is a bit of lighting in the appropriate places and you are set!  
subtle illumination for pool deck
by Chris White Inc
I love experiencing gardens at night.  Beyond using white flowers, and playing with night-bloomers for scent and water for sound; lighting can be a key component.  Lighting design not only is great for safety considerations; just the right spectrum and intensity can provide a soothing sense of calmness, a feeling of mystery and magic, or direct what the eye should be drawn too.  
My clients have often expressed that their favorite thing about their new garden or landscape is coming home from work (when its dark by 5pm) to a warm-looking home; complete with an illuminated path to the front door and trees that appear to be impressive 'sculptures' due to a glow coming from a carefully composed directional spot light.  
Get beyond the basics:  go for up-lighting significant features garden features such as arbors, or better yet; set off elements that one may not even notice much during the day for a 'surprise effect'.  
Lighting a piece of art or water feature and hanging fixtures for mature trees are even more ways to create ambiance.  

The Northwest Flower & Garden Show
features many great, fun lighting ideas, like
highlighting this kinetic piece by Troy Pillow
These new LED fixtures are aesthetically a simple, clean design; though burly (in a good way) and seemingly solid. They are a bit more of an investment initially when compared to regular low-voltage, but companies like LumaStream seem to have it 'dialed-in' for the residential design-build market.  I'm looking forward to designing with them soon!      
Please don't even bother with those solar-powered and 'low-budget' lights you can get at various home-improvement stores.  I see more cracked, discarded remnants of them tossed aside in clients' yards and garages.  
My dream project would be to experiment with how to create the illusion of a backyard full of fireflies (some serious simulation) or perhaps special lighting for a garden party featuring a life-like aurora borealis!  

Other considerations as we look outward this time of year is of course warmth.  What shelter and several layers of wool, down, and gore-tex can't provide us; a fire-feature surely can.  I've designed many in the past.  Most are rustic; of natural stone or sleek and modern and of steel.  Others have been recessed (built into) patios and decks; to be easily kept concealed, take up less space and keep things cleaner.  
instant winter warmth
However I am becoming more and more a fan of fire bowls as of late. The greatest thing about them being that they are easier to transport and seemingly most can convert to a table with a simple cover.  Eldorado Outdoor, a manufacturer offers some nice options for these.  However, I would prefer to explore more custom options and work them into the overall design of the garden.   Additionally, this site has some decent 'basic considerations when getting a fire bowl'.  

Next up....more encaustic painting, plans for a backyard studio, and tasty winter cocktails! 

Inspiration for a winter painting


walk on the wild side

Once again, I feel fortunate to live in such an amazing place! One of the prominent reasons being that I am surrounded be an abundance of amazing, natural beauty.  From Mount Baker to Mount Hood the forests and alpine meadows are alive with native wildflowers that provide a showy display of fireworks from late spring until the snow settles in.
Goat Rocks wilderness in early September
Paradise Park on Mount Hood in late August
The more I explore, the more fascinated and appreciative I become. So far as to join the Native Plant Society...a tremendous resource for all that is growing wild.  Along with their  classroom style format of consulting, there are several local events including plant sales, demonstrations, and educational opportunities.  Check out their blog! 

trillium- a good accent for shade gardens

If I'm lucky my attempts to transform shady corners into 'forest sanctuaries' and a high & dry patch of my boyfriend's yard into an 'experimental alpine garden' of sorts; featuring three rather pricey mountain hemlocks and several species of erica and calluna (heather & heath) will endure as well as teach. 
cornus (bunchberry) good groundcover for shade

Queen's cup
Please enjoy some of my photos.  Happy fall and happy fall planting...the best time to plant!
Arrowleaf balsamroot

(bearly thawed) September near goat lake
Also check out the Washington Trails Association for recommended wildflower hikes to put on your list for next year, plus a great downloadable native flower guide (at the bottom of the hikes page).  Happy trekking!

maidenhair fern & dicentra (bleeding heart)
Columbia lily

sedum the 'go-to' succulent groundcover for dry sun

paint brush, a burst of bright vermillion

sub alpine mariposa lily

Though I thoroughly enjoyed my recent trekking in the tundra of the Kenai (Alaska)...
tundra floor
me hiking Glacier Peak wilderness


side effects may vary

troubleshooting the illusive 'no man's land' between property lines

narrow sites call for simplicity...bamboo & a crushed stone path
it seems commonplace that most homeowners regard the side yard as an afterthought.  As in  not much more than a thoroughfare, a place for rubbish storage, or in some cases a dog run.  However, there could be a missed opportunity here to get creative, maximize function, and enhance the viewing pleasure from within the home.  
one bright color in this small side yard pulls it together; with just enough greenery to soften the edges


the secluded strolling garden...

even long, narrow 'right of way' spaces along property lines (sometimes not much more than 5 feet wide) can be transformed into a pleasant journey between a front yard and the more private backyard living space.  I tend to downplay the end of the path from the front; as not to draw attention (or intention) away from the front entry.  A path less grand and more casual, perhaps even meandering is more suitable.
detail of concept plan

small secret sanctuaries.... 

which would you rather have outside:  a place to meditate, drink your morning coffee, take a shower after a long hike, or enjoy an intimate 'al fresco' dinner for two?
Try installing a small bench or bistro table on a tiny patio, or float a small platform deck in a lush 'sea' of green.  
dine in style within a dreamy garden 'vignette'

relax already! sip your coffee, tea, vino...or take a nap

add good, clean, (& functional) fun with an outdoor shower
a small garden retreat can be melodic or quiet; a nice break from the kitchen or the  entertainment 'room' of the main backyard patio or deck. 

screening undesirables...

hiding utilities; such as the unaesthetic gas and electrical meters while keeping them accessible can be challenging.  For this purpose, I am a big fan of custom-built containers and enclosures.

As for unappealing trash & recycling containers- sometimes a structure is the best solution; doing a double duty of masking smells and keeping critters at bay.  
horizontal slatted cedar forms a nice screen panel & access gate
this shady side yard adjacent to a ravine is actually a front yard too!  screening various utilities and locating the right place for recycling, etc was tough but as the carefully considered plants fill in and wood starts to 'petina'; the garden grows into a lush & beautiful oasis

be a good neighbor

keeping on the subject of screening, sometimes the neighbors are too close  for comfort (even if y'all get along!) so planting a viable screen that both homeowners can enjoy becomes paramount.  I like bamboo in large troughs (or in deep root barrier), and evergreens such as columnar Irish yew Taxus baccata 'Fastigiata' (shade) and a few strategically places Italian cycpress  cupressus sempervirens (sun).  However, beware of the mature growth habits and the pest problems especially when considering planting dense in small spaces.

also, I dig the presence of a 'good neighbor' gate, no matter if it is in fact functional or not.  Keep in mind that fencing need not be limited to just wood panels.  A creative play on enclosure can not only keep the kids and/or dogs in, it can be a fun, colorful way to frame views, let light in, or provide a supportive structure for vines. 
your neighbors will either envy or enjoy!  small water features such as the 'eclipse fountain' = both a pleasant sound & color splash

raise it up! 

if there is an opportunity to go vertical, try growing some edibles. Fruit producing vines such as golden hops and red grape thrive here in sunny conditions.  Raised garden beds for edibles can also be a great fit if the width is there.  Two to four foot wide wood boxes are perfect for easy picking and maintenance.  
cool raised planter for veggies- built from salvaged wood (from the Re-store)
espalier apple trees...eat your yard!

golden cascade hops- why not! its a great durable summer vine; perfect for a bright filtered screen

so obviously the sky is the the limit!  Do you want to explore the possibilities?  we can help realize your yard's potential.
in the field measuring a side yard circa 2010