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Sunday, July 8, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Pacific Northwest Magazine

Behind The Bungalow

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It was only when Barbara Huston turned 40 and was past the push of raising children that she became interested in plants and gardens. Intrigued with plants that, in her words, "made themselves useful," she began by growing herbs. A feature writer for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer for many years, Huston happened to interview someone about old roses, and became fascinated by their history and fragrance. Finding them as intriguing as antique furniture, Huston took up growing moss roses, old roses and David Austin English roses.

A less resourceful person might have been dissuaded from gardening on Huston's hillside Queen Anne property. She describes the lot as "bumpy, steep and small," the antithesis of the sunshine and space needed to grow roses and herbs. The house, built in 1913 and formerly owned by Seattle art patron Betty Bowen, is on the Seattle historic register, an anchor of architectural integrity in this west-slope neighborhood. Huston left the small front garden of boxwood hedges, ferns and lady's mantle that surround the classic bungalow just as she found it, preferring to indulge her enthusiasms for water, roses and herbs on the sunny back deck and in the sunken garden behind the house.

Huston's passion for water in the garden was born of a trip to Jerusalem, where she dined next to a fountain in the garden courtyard at the American Colony Hotel. "It turned me around on water," she says, giving full credit for her garden's mysterious and musical watercourse to landscape architect Tom Zachary, the latest designer to have a hand in Huston's garden. "Tom conceived the totality of water in the garden," Huston explains. In a narrow space along the house's south side, beside steps and pathways leading down into the back garden, runs a unique series of water features elegantly adapted to the steepness of the site.

A round well or cistern appears darkly enigmatic, its still water setting the mood for the secretive feel of the secluded back garden. The cistern drips into a granite watercourse that runs along the walkway into a square pond, then descends as a smooth sheet of waterfall into a stone pond. A bamboo privacy screen and gate, along with the deepness and gush of water, add to the pleasantly dislocated feeling of walking around the corner of a historic Northwest bungalow smack into exotic Morocco. The steps down into the back garden are lined with Huston's favorite herbs, including lemon balm, germander, sweet woodruff and santolina. A hedge of rosemary edges the stone pathway, and the many roses farther down the slope are underplanted with purple sage and catmint. Huston particularly loves scented geraniums, growing more than 20 different kinds at one time. She is never without 'Mabel Gray,' whose leaves smell enticingly of lemon.

A deck off the main level of the house, cantilevered out over the back garden, holds the many pots where Huston grows roses. Here is the sunniest area of the garden, and she takes advantage of it by growing many David Austin roses that bloom all summer long. 'Sharif Asma,' a ruffled peachy-buff beauty, and 'Playgirl,' a bright pink with twisted layers of bloom, are two favorites. Even a climbing pearl-pink `New Dawn' is containerized, winding around a trellis, and fruit-scented, apricot-colored `Abraham Darby' grows up to cover a wire cage. The pure white, ruffled damask 'Madame Hardy,' Huston's pet rose, has pride of place in its pot on the sunny deck.

Old roses and moss roses, which Huston loves for their individual ways of growing, abound in the lower garden. "I really chose them for their shapes, and ended up with lots of pink," she laughs. Not a single yellow or orange rose has a home here; the garden is filled with all the tones of pale pink through red, plus some whites. The rose-pink buds on the crested moss rose 'Chapeau de Napoleon' are an unusual triangular shape, and the creamy, fragrant flowers of 'Felicite et Perpetue' bloom in fluffy clusters. The laurel hedge at the back is festooned with climbing roses, including the soft pink, repeat-blooming, hybrid musk 'Cornelia.' The oldest rose in the garden is the gallica Rosa Mundi, which was discovered late in the 16th century. "It is so willing," says Huston appreciatively of its fragrant flowers, no two alike in their striped and splashed shades of palest to darkest pink.

If a rose doesn't make it on the deck, it goes down into the garden, where roses grow in the ground and in containers. "I love having pots scattered about the garden," Huston says. The exuberance of the lower garden is pulled together by the focus of a circular, poured-concrete terrace paved in stone and planted with Irish moss and creeping thyme. This formal, clearly defined open space serves as counterpoint to the wildness of the garden around it. A fallen statue lies close by, appearing at first glance to be an old tree root overgrown with herbs and grasses. "I bought that statue for the garden but it looked silly," says Huston, "so I tipped it over. I think it's my statement about the decline of formal gardens in Western civilization." Hostas, ferns and Solomon's seal crowd this shady area, furthering the contrast between formality and wild abandon in this most personal, quirky and comfortable of urban gardens.

Valerie Easton is a horticultural librarian and writes about plants and gardens for Pacific Northwest magazine. Her e-mail address is vjeaston@aol.com.

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