Step by Step

The building that houses the Seattle Audubon Society is one of those chunky Roman brick buildings dating from the 1950s, when someone came through Seattle who really knew how to sell Roman brick. There are thousands like it throughout the city, made of the same narrow, beige brick that was so popular for a few years after the war.

When Seattle Audubon recycled this house to make an office in 1995, a landscape committee decided to "hide" the outside with native plants. The same plan would also give those inside some relief from the visual and aural effects of a noisy street.

The result is a lot more than camouflage. It's a fine little demonstration garden where you can learn a lot about using native plants, and what landscape architect Keith Geller calls the "hop, skip and jump" design for attracting birds.

"They need food, shelter and water, but they also need a layered landscape from big trees all the way down to ground cover," says Keith, who headed the volunteer team creating the Seattle Audubon garden. Different birds favor different heights of trees and shrubs, he points out. Some seldom venture lower than the branches of tall trees, others feed on the ground. Still other species move from top to bottom, perching, watching, hopping down to scratch for food in the lowest level.

This layered effect, created to benefit the birds, also happens to present a pleasing and effective screen between street and office.

Keith doesn't hide his satisfaction at the way the garden has thrived.

"When you look at the building from afar, you see not the building itself but the habitat," he points out. "And from inside, you really get the feeling of being inside the habitat."

There was lawn here when they started, but not anymore. It was the first thing to go. Keith's team grubbed it out by hand, piled the sod into gentle, curving mounds, and covered it with soil and wood chips, before they planted anything.

They left in place the top layer of the habitat (composed of a half-dozen large Douglas firs) which preexisted Seattle Audubon by many years. For the next layer down they chose vine maple and serviceberry, both native to the Seattle areas. They added seedlings of Pacific Coast dogwood, a native whose huge white bracts light up the middle canopy in woods all over the green side

of the Pacific Northwest.

All three-vine maple, serviceberry, and dogwood-provide food as well as shelter for the birds. So do the seed heads of the rhododendrons. These had grown from foundation plantings into wall-huggers as high as the roof; they now add to the screening effect mentioned above.

Naturally, the bottom layer of the Seattle Audubon garden is by far the most diverse. At least two dozen species of plants, most of them natives and all of them offering food or shelter for birds, thrive in the partial shade provided by the upper layers. Lower-layer evergreens include blue huckleberry, Oregon grape, and salal. These form a deep thicket along the street and will grow taller and more dense over the years. Between that screen and the building are deciduous shrubs including red-flowering currant, red huckleberry, and mock orange. A final sub-layer includes low-growing herbaceous plants like vancouveria, trillium, sword fern, deer fern, and vanilla leaf. (See page 40 for a complete list of plants in the Seattle Audubon garden.)

On the building's sunny side, next to the parking lot, Seattle Audubon inherited non-native foundation plantings Geller calls "the 1940s" - mostly juniper and tree heathers. His volunteers tore out the junipers. They left the heathers because they are "nice looking."

False lily-of-the-valley grows in a shady corner of the Audubon garden.

The designers consciously built the garden around native plants, but it isn't a strict regime.

"Yeah, it's a native garden," says Keith, "but a large English laurel tree remains. We decided to keep the main part of the garden truly native and consign foreign plants mostly to the parking lot area and the side street."

It's a given that no pesticides will ever taint Seattle Audubon's garden. As more and more native plant gardeners are discovering, the chemicals with which we poisoned our gardens for so many years are useless when we transform the lawn into a garden full of thoughtfully chosen, well-placed native plants.

A young section of Seattle Audubon s garden promises bird habitat and a useful screen against a busy and noisy street.

A young section of Seattle Audubon s garden promises bird habitat and a useful screen against a busy and noisy street.

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