Seattle Garden by Artist Curtis Steiner Combines Passion for Nature with the Curiosity of a Polymath

CURTIS STEINER IS an artist and curator of immersive experiences, whether the space is inside the jewelry box of his former retail store in Ballard, or a well-traveled botanist’s fantasy of a cocktail bar. who is deep divethe bar tucked under The Spheres in downtown Seattle.

Steiner’s personal garden, an intimate green space covered in botanical novelties and exquisite details, is no exception. Located west of Green Lake, the landscape is nestled under the huge canopy of an ancient cherry tree. “Really, I bought the tree; the house came with it,” he jokes.

While most of us would shy away from gardening in such harsh conditions, Steiner is no stranger to “impossible sites.” This is how he describes an ancient garden he once tended on a steep slope shaded by bigleaf maples. The resulting shade garden was a tribute to green with very few flowers. “It was a bit unusual, but I decided I just wanted green flowers,” Steiner says.

Steiner came to gardening and garden design while living in Vancouver, BC when he met a garden architect with a beautiful rooftop garden. As his circle of gardening friends grew, so did his fascination with gardening. “I’m a bit insatiable,” he told me. “A garden is never finished, I am always challenged. I like this.”

With a passion for nature and a polymath curiosity, Steiner orchestrates seasonal moments in his garden with a keen eye – like cutting the old shoots of ostrich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) to better appreciate the effect of the deployment of the fronds producing “fountains [of foliage] worthy of Versailles,” he observes. Elsewhere, dark purple leaves and violet (Viola labradorica) flowers complement the bright chartreuse foliage of emerging hostas. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a real garden with the same pests and pitfalls we all face. Steiner laments that he never planted the “weed” violet, then points out how a humble snail’s shell echoes the unfurling fern’s Fibonacci spiral.

For a mostly leafy landscape, the garden has generous bloom times. The tender petals of the ancient cherry tree cover the landscape in early spring. Later in May, white lilacs take center stage with showy blooms. Steiner has sculpted what could easily be a confused mass of suckers and shoots into a memorable garden feature, their undulating trunks emerging from a mossy green carpet.

Container plantings offer a practical strategy for dealing with root competition from established trees. Rather than combining plants, Steiner prefers to stick with just one type of plant in each pot, arranging them in groups that he can move around as he likes to create garden moments. With rusted chains and other selected artifacts, containers accessorize the subtle space, their vitreous glazes reflecting light in the shady garden. And if you squint, artfully tended bonsai plantings arranged around the garden lend a secondary forest understory to the dappled shade of the canopy.

Seasonal gestures and fleeting moments can be found in any garden; we just have to look for them. Artists like Steiner open our eyes.

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