A sculptor's garden in Seattle
Talk about an uphill battle. When sculptor, landscape architect, and Renaissance woman Louise Durocher and her husband, Michael Nelson, reluctantly acquired a yard with their first house, the steeply rising land was shrouded with thorny blackberry vines, towering laurel bushes, and invasive plants everywhere.Skip to next paragraph
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“We couldn’t see the hill at first,” says Ms. Durocher. “After we took out all the bad stuff [enough to fill two dumpsters], we realized we had a crumbling hillside. And there was nothing worth saving except three magnolias. We had to do something quickly because the whole thing was sloughing down.”
To shore up her still-vertical backyard, and to gain access, she designed a series of terraces connected by steps and paths.
“I knew I had to create all sorts of different levels,” she says. “We had to rebuild the hill.”
Because Durocher is an architect, she is used to building things, and she began her career as an artist studying environmental sculptures, which involves moving large amounts of earth. (“The land becomes the medium,” she says.)
“We used dry-stack stone so as not to alter the drainage of the land,” she says. “Water will drain through a dry-stack wall naturally.”
This also means she didn’t have to install drainage pipes or French drains (covered ditches filled with gravel). And because she avoided large areas of hard surfaces underfoot, water seeping from the retaining walls is easily absorbed by the land.
Her plan meant hauling 67 tons of stone to the backyard by hand, but none of the walls were built higher than four feet tall.
Although this was done to conform to the permitting process, it also makes for walls that aren’t tall and looming. And with plantings inserted into many of the cracks, greenery also helps reduce the mass.
Michael couldn’t believe that it all came together, that we didn’t have to redo anything,” Durocher says. “But as an artist, my main media is stone. I cut marble. And when you cut a piece off, you can’t glue it back. In landscaping, you are cutting earth.”
“Michael wanted an integrated backyard,” she says. “The inside is connected to the outside, and the outside is connected to the inside. There is openness and movement. It is very people-friendly. We have had 200 people here and no problem.”
This on less than a half-acre.
“People can sit on the steps,” she mentions. “That’s why the koi pond is raised – so people can sit there. Last summer, a friend asked to marry here.”
It’s hard to believe that all this work – and beauty – is the work of two people who five years ago really didn’t want a yard at all.
“We were living in a very small condo before, and we didn’t want any land at all,” she says. “The surprise for us was how rewarding it became. We became very passionate about it. I’m very physically involved with it. Michael likes to water.”
So who does the weeding?
“Actually,” she says, “that’s what I like the most. As a sculptor and architect, most of what I do takes a long time. So I like things that I can go at it and look at it, and it’s done. It’s kind of Zenlike.”