The Urban Garden of Keith Geller
Standing on the sidewalk, looking up a steep slope towards the home of Landscape Architect Keith Geller, you know you’re about to enter a special landscape. Over the past 30 years, Geller has transformed a bare, grassy slope into an forested urban haven. His yard has been featured in magazines, books and newspapers stories and I was excited when I saw it listed on this years Washington Native Plant Society’s garden tour. It was a cloudy and drizzly day, but despite the weather, or perhaps because of it, this was the perfect example of what a Pacific Northwest garden could and should be.
This garden is a lesson in movement, from one outdoor room to another, from shade to sunlight and always up. As the description of the garden from the tour says, the garden was started in 1981 with the New England woodland as inspiration. It has a series of rooms including three different courtyards an arbor with seating and several little nooks tucked away in corners of the garden. The entire garden is on a slope and so each room is on a different level amongst the sloping plantings. This demonstrates Geller’s design philosophy, which he shared with Northwest Garden News in their August: Time to Critique article. He says he teaches how to think about the spaces in a garden and then how to link them all. Geller’s garden is linked to the sidewalk by a steep staircase which arrives in the entry courtyard where the front of the house is. To the right is a small pond area with a tucked away chair and to the left is a lookout landing with another chair. Following the gravel path along the house brings you do another courtyard.
Geller states in the same article to think about the bones of the garden first, before diving into the finer details. He also suggests considering the seasonality of each plant and what effect that will have on the garden. Also don’t be afraid to borrow elements or views from around the garden. If you have a nice view or a park next door, make use of them by incorporating them into your design.
As a designer, Geller has spent a lot of time considering movement in a landscape. In his article, Creating Garden Passageways from the magazine Fine Gardening, he describes how movement allows a person to “participate in that garden, whether I created it or not.” He also discusses the importance of transitional spaces in the landscape; “Transitional areas, by their very nature, connect two distinct spaces. These spaces may be very similar in character or vary considerably from one another. Whether paths, steps, gates, landings, grade changes, or plantings are used to segue from one garden room to another, such areas should be carefully designed to signal a change in place or experience.”
Geller states that “No matter how large or small a residential garden, there should be a sequence of experiences equivalent to an approach, an arrival, and an invitation to participate in the garden itself.” He goes on to discuss the many ways which define rooms from existing structures such as houses to trees to changes in topography. Focal points are also important to help define spaces, but also to lure you into the next room. He discussed a plant that was growing too slowly which was planted to hide a sculpture from view when walking up the path so that as you come into the courtyard, it would suddenly leap into view. Structures can be used to define entrances and while gates and fences first jump to mind, simply adding an arbor or even large containers, some of which he fills with water for wildlife, can also mark entrances.
Geller is also a master of layering plants. The entire yard is layered starting with the tallest, towering river birch trees down to the creeping wood sorrel groundcovers. The mix of native plants and ornamental plants are carefully chosen and create a bird haven. Many of the native plants provide food for wildlife as well as shelter. There are many evergreen plants on each layer throughout the garden and trees are planted in masses. This mix of layers and evergreen and deciduous keep the garden looking full even in the winter months and provide habitat to birds all year round as well. As he stated in the Seattle Times article Your city garden can go completely wild, “”You need the bones of the evergreens, and then the deciduous plants, with their fall color, berries and flowers, are a bonus.”
In the sunniest area is a perennial garden planted for butterflies and other pollinators. There are many natives including Fringecup, Vine Maple, Camas, Red-flowering Currant, Evergreen Huckleberry and many ferns. Geller likes the Vine Maple ” for its small scale, fall color and spreading, open growth pattern. He plants multi-trunked vine maples close to his house to provide scale and a scrim for viewing the garden from indoors.” Geller selected several plants as ‘Indispensables’ for the PlantLife column on Seattle Times in More Indispensables.
When yards are described as an oasis, it usually refers to it being a nice retreat. However, in Geller’s yard, the meaning of oasis is more appropriate here as it feels like it could be surrounded by anything, or nothing. For the most part, no neighboring houses are visible, the street or alley are forgotten behind plants and fences and even the noise of the city is drowned out. The birds call and sing and the wind rattles the leaves.
Geller uses no pesticides and instead experiments with various methods of pest removal relying on the wildlife he attracts with the landscape to take care of much of the problem. Audubon at Home has a nice feature on gardening without pesticides which features Geller and his garden.