Garden design tips

Garden ideas for Tacoma and Olympia

We came back from the 2021 Portland Landscape Architecture + Design Tour with some great pictures to help you with some design choices in your own garden. We managed to see eight of the nine gardens on display (we had six hours to do it and some gardens were 30 minutes of more apart from each other). We were pretty excited to see as much as we did. Following are photos and notes of what we liked.

We not always a huge fan of modern design, because many folks make these gardens look more like a quilt or a grange’s county fair display. But this work by Fusion Landscape Design rooted their work to form a solid, strongly structured composition that had us standing across the street looking for the secrets that made this design work. We walked away convinced it was the repetition of miscanthas grass moving in perpendicular fashion and mirrored through the back gate, as well as the second tier of the front beds plus the steps down from the door forming the basic principals of the Golden Ratio, offset, by the front row of grass, closest to the street, split in a different geometry. The whole thing is a lovely movement rooted in classic shapes. We also loved how the designer took the age-old concrete steps that are a fixture of the neighborhood, which harkens back to the 1940’s, and repeated that style in the backyard, plus, whimsically, brought the line under the fence to the front. Here are three other photos from the garden …

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This garden designed by Olivine Land showed us a couple things we found delightful. First, we loved the off-kilter facing half circle shapes formed in a rectangle side yard (try saying that ten times fast). This creates great movement and unpredictability plus runs counter to its location to the street that runs straight on both sides. Second, here is an awesome use of pampas grass in a layered bed … loved it!! Here are a couple other beds created by Land on this property …

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How about a 60 foot putting green in your yard? The folks at GRO Outdoor Living put this bad boy on the third level of a retained backyard. Not only was that super cool, but check out the outdoor speakers.

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Talk about an awesome focal point. Casa Smith Designs put this in a Lake Oswego home to provide a wonderful mid-break in the long view from the house and front patio down to the lake. Breaking up a long view to let the eyes rest for a moment is a key design concept. This fountain was perfectly set to the scale of the front yard and house which makes such a large one work (you can’t carry this off in a smaller space). The proportions of this focal point are spot on!!! Here is what we also like about this design. Check out the orange edging on the circle drive. The contrast to the other colors are stellar, but also complimentary to some of the orange colors in the other stone.

Moving on to the next house …

Bethany Rydmark :: Landscapes tackled a small backyard for homeowners looking to mix a Mediterranean feel with Scandinavian influences, calling it Puglia surrounded by coastal Denmark. The paths are a nod to Danish runes with sharp angles and natural stone (incredibly unique and well executed) while the plants are for a drier climate packed with grasses and sun loving perennials and shrubs (and a few ferns in the shady spots). It’s a lovely balance. Here is more …

Also from Rydmark …

This Beverton home is a combo of formal and informal that is solidly rooted in the space offering a balanced left and right but not a 100% mirror on both sides … which is what makes it so well designed. There is just enough formal structure to make us feel safe and comfortable in the space, but entertained by the whimsy at the same time. We are also huge fans of sitting spaces further inside a garden to move the homeowner into the entire space and not just an observer from inside or the main deck. The garden also features a nice cutting garden with fountain …

And now for something a little different …

This is not a garden installation by a designer … it is a designers garden that has been curated for 18 years. Which is so cool it was included on the tour because for many of us designers, we cut our teeth in our own spaces where we’ve had the benefit of years to work the space. This garden in Clackamas by 4 Seasons Gardens is a delightful peak into an Asian-themed space that has been tinkered with by a professional for decades. The layers, hardscapes, dry creek bed, art and more bring all of the key elements of design into a classroom. This is a study in texture, color, shape, scale, and so much more. A treasure!!

The homeowner in this north Portland home says they wanted a drought-resistant garden with a beach theme, and the designers at LEVER Architecture accomplished that in spades. Working around the sides and back of the house are vignettes of beachy grasses with dark railings and burndt orange screens. The effect is marvelous. On the shady side the grass gets more lush, as seen here …

Garden design tips

The scary sounds of silence

Three “sound” principles guide our design choices with customers.  1. Natural sounds like water and birds have been proven to relieve stress. 2. A silent space means danger and should be avoided.  3. Studies have proven that urban noise has a negative effect on health.

“Nature sounds have been used therapeutically to relieve stress, and perceived restoration and attention recovery have shown positive reactions to birdsong.” (A Review of the Benefits of Nature Experiences: More Than Meets the Eye, Franco, Shanahan, Fuller, 2017, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.). According to this research, forest sounds have been found “to improve stress recovery more than the same forest without sound, implying that the sympathetic nervous system shows increased recovery with nature sounds.”

While this is desired, it is also important to avoid what is not positive for health and healing. Spaces without sound, or completely quiet, are not considered “zen” or anything like it, and spaces with urban noise are equally disturbing.  “Together this suggests that to animals (including humans), a silent landscape would generally prove disturbing or unnerving. In the urban environment, we are often faced either with situations that have an overabundance of anthrophony (human-generated noise), or an absence of any noise at all (e.g., a deserted alleyway late at night). Both situations are devoid of the reassuring animal noises that can be identified with a safe (i.e., predator-free) and abundant (i.e., prey-full) environment,” the study concluded. “Therefore, in addition to nature sounds providing the positive benefits described above, a lack of nature sounds could contribute to negative outcomes such as apprehension and anxiety.”

Our designs chose to focus on bringing in positive sounds through birds and water, while using those and the plants to dampen out any possible urban noise emanating from outside the space.  We do this consistently in two ways. 1. We choose plantings that support birds and their need for food and shelter to encourage their presence, and we often look towards water features to carry the sound to all corners of the space.

All sound choices!

Garden Health

Take your phytoncides

Biologically speaking, we need to ingest a certain amount of nature.  No, seriously.  In a Review of the Benefits of Nature Experiences: More Than Meets the Eye, Franco, Shanahan, Fuller, 2017, in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health stated, “Phytoncides are antimicrobial volatile organic compounds emitted by plants typically for defense against decay or attack by herbivores. Phytoncides permeate the air in natural environments, and are directly ingested by visitors to environments containing plants emitting them. They are not smelled or tasted as such, but simply ingested through inhalation.”

So why would we want that to happen?

“Two kinds of phytoncides have been found to be antimicrobial on inhalation, while three have been found to increase immune system activity in vitro,” Franco, Shanahan, Fuller found. “Overall, phytoncides are believed to decrease stress and increase relaxation, as in rats, they decrease spontaneous activity and reduce cardiovascular response to the stress of restraint. They also prolong sleep, decrease anxiety, and depress the central nervous system in mice.”

The study mentioned was supported by many other studies, including this report at

The home environment is the perfect place to up the phytoncides. Choose plants best known for giving us these goodies, namely Cedar, Rosemary, and Pine.  You can space them throughout the walking space to give, what the Japanese call, A Forest Bath.


Build a Hügelkultur raised bed

Looking to build a large raised bed? Want to borrow an age-old German tradition focused on enriching the soil? Try a Hügelkultur.

Hügelkultur (HEW-gul-kul-TOOr) goes back centuries eastern Europe and Germany, as part of a permaculture system.  In essence, you build dirt six or more feet up and over large logs and wood and plant debris which will break down and provide nutrients over the decades.

Most are build as mounds where the bottom area is larger and tapers as it grows, however the same premise can apply to a very large raised bed in a square or rectangle box.

Inexpensive and locally sourced downed trees, fallen branches and scrap, rough lumber can all be used. This wood is perfect for a fertile, moisture-retaining garden bed.  Other materials to heap in there could be newspapers, straw, manure and other compost.

Of course, these mounds will shrink in size over time, and will need to be replenished with soil.  Ideally, each year you’ll throw six inches of rich soil followed by a mulch.  Eventually, from top to bottom will be packed with nutrition for the plants.

To layer a hugelkulter, create a shallow pit at the bottom and put in a layer of crushed rock or bedrock.  Next pile in your large, downed logs and lumber, then add the other woody material, branches, and other woods.  Be sure not to use wood treated with chemicals, or toxic woods like black walnut.  Slow rotting wood is also not recommended such as cedar or redwood.

Next step is to layer in like a lasagna with grass clippings, leaves, newspaper and other organic materials.  If you have sod, turn it root side up and pile it on.  Continue to pack down the materials, filling in cracks with manure, leaf litter and grass.  Then water the layers well.  Finally, add three inches or so of nutritious soil and a layer of mulch.

The pile will need to be watered the first year during dry spells if rainfall is lacking.  After that, irrigation won’t be required – the hügelkultur will be moist because the underlying wood will act as a sponge.  It will also be incredibly fertile, rich in bacteria, fungus, worms and microbial growth so make the most of it.

Photo from – HUGELKULTUR by James Paris HERE

Garden design tips

More questions to ask your Seattle, Tacoma Garden Designer

Part #2. Looking to hire a garden designer for your Tacoma, Seattle, Olympia home? For life in this part of the country, here are even more questions to ask when choosing your team.

  1. How do your designs take advantage of borrowed space from the neighbors?
  2. How do your designs maximize cuttings and division of plants to reduce my costs long term?
  3. How do your designs evolve over five to ten years as I evolve too?
  4. How do your designs create the least impact on my envoronment?
  5. How do your designs provide space for guests, kids and quiet moments alone?