This Self-Sustaining, Japanese-Inspired Oasis Used to Be a High-Maintenance English Garden
When the constant demands of an English-style garden became more work than pleasure, a Washington State landscape architect decided to make a change. A trip to Japan inspired this stunning, more self-reliant design, and taught him that pared-down can be plenty.
By the spring of 2012, landscape architect David Pfeiffer's home garden on Vashon Island, Washington, was long completed. He'd designed it in 2001, taking a cue from iconic English estates and planting lavish perennial borders, tightly clipped hedges, and abundant flower beds around his striking galvanized-metal-and-wood house overlooking Colvos Passage, a picturesque tidal strait of Puget Sound. There was just one catch: A decade of constant upkeep had filled Pfeiffer, who shares the place with his husband, Dan Klein, a retired psychiatrist, with a growing sense of dread. His garden was too high on maintenance, and too low on pleasure. "The tipping point was when I'd see it through a window, and all I'd notice was perennials that needed to be divided, and pruning and weeding that needed to be done," he says. A change was in order, but where to begin? Pfeiffer has laser vision when designing for clients, he says, but when it's personal, "I get flooded by a bazillion options."
As he cycled through possibilities, Pfeiffer thought back to a momentous trip in 2007, when he'd found clarity strolling along the stone paths in Kyoto's Katsura Imperial Villa, a stellar example of design during Japan's Edo period (1603–1868). The carefully considered use of rock, gravel, and water had moved him deeply. "The same materials that can make waterfalls stick out as disproportionate to their surroundings were used there to create harmony and quiet," he explains. And so was a refined combination of plants chosen for their color, texture, and movement. He recalled that some of them, like simple grasses, would translate well to his Pacific Northwest plot. "The garden there highlights the landscape over artificial ornamentation, and seamlessly integrates architecture and nature," says Pfeiffer. "My imagination started firing as I thought about it. I was filled with ideas."
And with that, he got to work. He pulled out the intricate perennials near the columns of the grape arbor on his back terrace, and let the graphic structure be the star. The nearby fountain gives him a soothing view from the kitchen sink when he's doing dishes. For a sense of order, he organized the landscape with a distinct center line and axis. "When you have those, you can messy-up the rest of the garden and be much more casual with plantings," Pfeiffer says.
On the northwest side of the house, he got rid of multiple raised beds for growing vegetables (the couple now happily support their local organic farmers) and laid down a 60-foot bocce court; when not in use, the swept gravel has a serene, zen-like effect. "I didn't know the first thing about the game, but I liked the geometry of it," admits Pfeiffer, who loves to have friends over for cocktails and a round or two. "Anyone from ages 8 to 80 can play."
The most dramatic additions are a lap pool, where the couple swim each morning when weather permits, and a poured and sandblasted concrete patio that offers breathtaking westerly views of the Olympic Mountains across the waterway. "To plan an outdoor space, first consider how you live and like to entertain, and include dining and conversation areas to accommodate that," suggests Pfeiffer. In summer, the door swings open from their living room to create a natural transition to the patio. Pfeiffer designed the pool to mirror the size of the bocce court, and repurposed the dirt excavated when digging it to create a nearby sculptural berm, or small hill, which he seeded with low-maintenance rye, fescue, clover, and white and blue wildflowers.
The result is minimalist but impactful—and enchanting from every angle. Most important, it requires far less toil than its previous incarnation did (sweeping and raking gravel and grass-cutting, mostly), so Pfeiffer and Klein have a lot more time to soak in what originally drew them to the property: "its ethereal light, majestic views, and glorious sunsets," Pfeiffer says. "Now there's a restful quality to the garden. I feel a calmness, a joy."
Pfeiffer thinned the dense forest on his property for better views of Colvos Passage, leaving handsome fir, madrone, and cedar trees. In a clearing visible from the outdoor seating areas, he plotted a labyrinth out of a low-growing meadow mix. It gets mowed throughout the growing season, but the surrounding field is cut only once a year, in mid-May. Pfeiffer walks the labyrinth every morning as part of his meditation.
Outside the kitchen, Pfeiffer kept a few edible beds for herbs like chives, lemon balm, marjoram, parsley, rosemary, and sage. "All the classics," he explains. Dwarf boxwood shrubs surround each bed, and red metal tuteurs in their centers support cherry tomatoes in summer and offer structure and color in winter.
A bocce court filled with crushed granite from a local pit replaced the couple's labor-intensive vegetable garden. "It's definitely austere," Pfeiffer says of the new addition. "I had friends asking when it was going to be finished. But I absolutely love it." It's lined with globe locusts, a popular Parisian street tree known for its soft yet formal symmetry.
Pfeiffer kept all the topiary boxwoods from his English-garden days when he reimagined the property. "We probably have 60 balls and cones throughout the garden," he says. "You can put looser grasses and ground covers around them without the whole thing looking like a mess." Here, the wispy seedheads of Deschampsia cespitosa 'Goldtau' catch the afternoon light. 'Capron' musk strawberries, prized for their tendency not to invade and their "perfectly sweet strawberry flavor," Pfeiffer says, grow below.
A Swell Scene
In the foreground, a berm (made from the dirt dug out for the pool) offers privacy to swimmers, hides equipment, and makes a sweet spot to take in water views and the house. The arbor just outside the house is covered in seedless table grapes, and the concrete planters that line the steps to the pool contain red Japanese bloodgrass and purple-flowering Verbena bonariensis.
Drainage culverts (large pipes) were repurposed to house an orchard bearing plums, apricots, pears, and apples. Their open bottoms allow the tree roots to reach deeply, while the material plays off the industrial architecture of the house, which was designed by the Miller Hull Partnership. Golden Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola') spills out of each planter, softening the edges.
The Mountains Are Calling
The majestic Olympic Mountains are visible from most areas of the garden.
An Ideal Overlook
A mowed path leads from the house through a meadow to a hundred-year-old, hand-carved Javanese teak structure called a joglo. Just beyond it, the land gradually drops almost 300 feet to the beach. Pfeiffer and Klein meditate and practice yoga here, and often bring friends to share a cocktail at sundown. You can see more of Pfeiffer's designs at davidpfeiffer.com.