A sculptor's garden in Seattle

Photos by David McDonald
ARTISTIC ENDEAVOR: Louise Durocher (below) and her husband, Michael Nelson, built a garden on a hillside in their backyard.
David McDonald
Artist and landscape architect Louise Durocher built a garden from a collapsing hill. .PHOTO: David McDonald

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.

“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.”

The plantings were installed with the collaboration of the famed design team of Glenn Withey and Charles Price.

“I was working on Victorian architecture at a house, and when I ... saw them literally cutting that yard with scissors, I have to tell you I was stunned,” Durocher says. “So I had to talk to them and liked them and got very interested in what they were doing.”

She brought them over to her own house – a 1902 Dutch Colonial – and they dug in.

“It turned out we were very complementary in our palettes,” Durocher says. “I especially love the tulips. I have thousands of parrot tulips and French tulips. Tulips truly are animated – moving all the time, very sculptural.”

Throughout the garden, she has placed much of her sculpture – all steel pieces: rebar, metal mesh, and sheet metal. “There are two groups,” she says, “the powder-coated pieces, which are all fire-engine red. The others my husband calls ‘the rusters.’ You have some people who like the nice finish and some people who like the emotion.”

While the sculpture changes as Durocher’s artwork gets snapped up by collectors, two pieces will always stay – at Mr. Nelson’s insistence.
They were an engagement gift from Durocher and are titled “Romeo and Juliet.”

An artist talks about placing pots

Louise Durocher integrates not just artwork, but large containers into her landscape. Some pots contain plants; others are just architecture.

“When we went shopping for pots for the garden, my husband was like a child in a candy store – ‘I’ll take two of this, one of that,’ ” she says. “So I had to arrange them.

“I look at landscaping as like painting. You have a foreground, middle ground, and background. And each part of the garden has to talk to one another. If one of the pots takes too much attention – if it separates areas or stops the eye – we use a different pot.

“I don’t like to use the same kind of pots in groupings,” she continues. “When you buy them, they often come in groups of three, but I like to separate them.

“Pots are something to be played with. A pot is just one piece in the puzzle.”

In the dark about shade?
Much of Durocher’s garden is in the shade, but that doesn’t stop her or her garden.

“Shade gardening is very misunderstood,” she says. “We have many visitors to our garden, and they always are surprised about how much you can grow in the shade.

“There is a variety of plants you can use in the shade. It can be very lush. You can get blues in the shade. Everyone likes blue. We have (foliage) plants that are burgundy, plants that are chartreuse, plants that are yellow-green. And we have lots of variegated plants. I have some very primitive, huge plants there right now. There’s tons to be done in the shade.”

Coral bells, hostas, and creeping Jenny add little beacons of light throughout the back yard.

“We have yellow, chartreusey grasses around ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ surrounded by boxwood, and they never see the sun.”

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