Dunn Gardens: a National Treasure
Hidden in a Seattle Neighborhood

by Eric Shalit | May 12th, 2010

Landscape painters treasure great gardens, vistas, and natural settings, as the source material for their art. Landscape designers paint directly on the land and sky with plants and trees to create places where people can dream. A landscape painter may work for days, weeks, or months to see their work of art to completion. A landscape designer must visualize what their work will become over decades and even several lifetimes. This requires an understanding about how each particular life form will grow and perform over time and what effect its foliage, flowers, or branch structure will create?

Dried Cardiocrinum stalks
Cardiocrinum seed hulls
The "Great Lawn"
Woodland Floor

Landscape designers Glenn Withey & Charles Price have been applying their vision as “curators” at Dunn Gardens since 1997, building on a woodland backbone laid out in 1916 by the world renowned Olmsted Brothers landscape architecture firm. Hidden away in a north Seattle neighborhood, the 7.5 acre former estate is home to the only residential gardens in the state designed by the Olmsted firm that are still open to the public. Dunn Gardens is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Trillium vaseyi
View from Western Woodland walk towards the "Great Lawn"
Lilium martagon peaking out from Hosta 'Halcyon'
Western Woodland Walk

When you look at a landscape painting, the artist invites you to imagine yourself in that landscape. When you are in a designed landscape you are actually standing in the artwork in real time. That’s when the magic begins.

Withey & Price are modern day masters, who are well known in their field and revered by those already in the know. A visit to Dunn Gardens is much more than a visit to a park. It’s an opportunity to step into a 3-dimensional painting, a cross between something made by Mother Nature and something dreamed up by artists known as landscape designers, curators, and plantsmen.

Bench in a sea of Epimedium
Sea of Sedums
Julie Spiedel sculpture
Cyclamen hederifolium 'Pewter Form'

The garden can be easily compared to a painting, but in many ways it is more like a theater. The scenes are constantly changing, and while Mother Nature plays a part in those changes, it is the directorial hands of the curators that make sure the show is entertaining. In one instance, I walked along a path lined with small-leaved plants and entered a garden “room” furnished with gigantic-leaved plants, leaving me with the feeling that I was shrinking. I’m unsure if the designers would admit to playing games with the visitors, but I think that’s part of their pleasure.

As anyone who’s ever wielded a spade and secaturs knows, gardens don’t just appear out of one’s imagination, but require serious labor. If not for constant cutting back, pruning, weeding, and digging-out by professional groundskeepers Roger Lackman and Zsolt Lehoczky, plants would overtake every path and climb over each other in a battle for territorial dominance.

Additionally, the E.B. Dunn Historic Garden Trust is managed by a small staff. Volunteer docents lead tours and assist at special events. Sue Nevler, Executive Director said, “Our biggest challenge is funding to support and show the unique qualities of the garden: the Olmsted design, the Dunn history, the terrific plant collection and Glenn and Charles’ artistry. I worry that we look so good that people assume we don’t need help. We do!”

The Gardens change with the seasons. I visited mid-May, when epimediums, trilliums, podophyllums, and ferns ruled the ground with their textures and subtle colors. Rhododendrons owned the high ground with their bold flowers and leaves. I was told the moss garden is spectacular in February.

The gardens are full of botanical events that we humans would ordinarily overlook. If a colony of tiny plants appear as if they are marching across a field of moss, perhaps it’s because they really are — in a time lapse that covers 3 feet in 3 years. Other plants like the majestic Cardiocrinum giganteum, the giant Himalayan lily, can take up to seven years to produce its huge, trumpet-shaped flowers on stems that can grow to 15 feet tall. In April they will still be hiding invisibly underground and will grow to maturity over the course of a few months, their entire lifespan occurring at a much faster pace than ours. Seeing a Cardiocrinum in a backyard garden tells me that the gardener is a connoisseur. These spectacular plants are ubiquitous at Dunn Gardens, but there is nothing at all common about them. Even the dried stalks and seed hulls from last year’s blooms are visually striking, and are showcased like exotic wooden carvings in a giant ceramic urn.

When asked about his long-term vision for the gardens, Glenn Withey replied, “For it to be here, loved by members and the public, and continuing to evolve and adapt to whatever may come our way. Who knows what the world will be like in fifty years.” Withey & Price have had their own landscape design business since 1985. “Many people think that we are paid to be curators here, but our pay is to live here and we work to keep the money coming in.”

To contact them about a project:

Tours of the Gardens
The gardens are open to the public on guided tours on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays from April through July and September through October (closed in August). Admission is $10 for adults, $7 for senior citizens and students. Since private residences are still located on the grounds, admittance is by reservation only, and directions to the site are mailed only after reservations have been made. Children under 12 and pets are not permitted in the gardens.

Dunn Gardens Tour Info

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