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Thursday, August 1, 2013

Tales from the Homeland: Seattle Gardens

Driving into many French towns and cities you may have noticed a sign right on the outskirts of the city proudly proclaiming this urban area a "ville fleurie" followed by one to four stars.

This is a national competition managed by the Conseil national des villes et villages fleuris, and is meant to promote gardening and green spaces in the many cities, villages and communes in the Hexagon.  The highest rating - four stars - is rarely given by the council of public sector representatives and professionals from the gardening and landscaping industries in France.  (No grade inflation in France - one must work hard to be the best.)  Even Versailles (my city) only has three stars though this year they are working hard to obtain the fourth one and with it the coveted "Fleur d'Or" (Gold Flower) award.

Seattle is also a "ville fleurie" though I know of no national equivalent in the U.S. to this French national concours.  However, what is done in Seattle is very different from a city like Versailles because space is organized differently and there are different limits (social, cultural and legal) to what can be done and what local people in each place would find appropriate.

A few days ago I took a short walk in Phinney Ridge, a neighborhood on a hill above the Ballard District here in Seattle.  I was meeting a friend for tea and on a whim I took my camera along to snap a few pictures of Seattle gardens and gather ideas for my garden at home.  All the pictures that follow were taken within a five block radius of my parent's house.

Public versus Private Spaces

Both my little neighborhood in Versailles (Porchefontaine) and Phinney Ridge have one important thing in common:  they are both what the French call "quartiers pavillionaire" - a residential district of single-family detached houses with gardens in front and in back.

But in Porchefontaine the houses are made of stone (usually pierre meulièreor brick, and in almost all cases a wall of stone or a metal fence encloses the gardens so that cars and pedestrians can only glimpse the interior courtyards and gardens as they pass by.  Gardens, front and back, are private spaces.

Seattle is very different.  The houses are almost exclusively built of wood.  This reflects both the type of local material the area has in abundance (timber) and the origins of the people who first settled here (immigrants from Scandinavia). It is unusual in this city for a front garden or yard to be enclosed in the French manner - the public space of a Seattle house extends from the house proper through the front garden and over the sidewalk onto what is called the "parking strip" - a small bit of earth between the sidewalk and the street.

Here is a classic Seattle wood house built on a small hill with a front garden open for viewing from the street, a retaining wall and the parking strip planted with the same plants that are used in the main garden.  There is no fence and no locked gate - anyone can walk up to the front door and ring the door bell.

If the front garden is public, the back gardens are more private spaces.  This is the garden the Seattle homeowner might fence in or shield in some way from the public. These are the private or secret garden which are not usually visible from the street but are meant to provide exclusive beauty for the owners and the closest neighbors.

The Parking Strip - An Appropriated Space

This is the area between the sidewalk and the street.  In my youth I recall that most were planted with grass which made it easier for people who parked on the street to get out of their cars. They were low maintenance but not no maintenance - it was expected that the homeowners keep the grass and edges neatly trimmed.   Technically this space belongs to the city but over the years homeowners have appropriated the space.  For the most part this is tolerated by the city as long as the gardeners follow a few rules:  no blocking the sidewalk and the city must give authorization for anything large and elaborate like trees.

In some cases where the homeowners have very small plots of land, the planting strip has actually become their main garden upon which they lavish all their love and attention.

Some plant spectacular flowers gardens like this one that are a feast for the eyes:

Here is one with a stunning use of ground cover to create a small multi-coloured bit of heaven:

Others use the space for vegetable beds:

Community Gardens

St. John's United Lutheran church took this idea bit further and created an organic community garden for both the pleasure of parishioners and local residents.  Planted and maintained by local gardeners it provides fresh vegetables and fruit for the church's soup kitchen (a resto du coeur for the homeless).

As you enter the garden there is a sign that says:

Hi neighbors!

We hope you enjoy this community garden.

The food crops are grown for the Soup Kitchen here at St. John's United.

If you like berries or snap peas,
please feel free to take one or two,
but kindly leave most, so we can
provide them to Soup Kitchen clients
who need fresh food.

Garden Fantasy

Finally, many Seattle gardens have a touch of whimsy about them.  This can take the form of original art or small statues or bird baths scattered around the garden to both personalize it and to offer the owner or viewer something that surprises or amuses.

In this front garden which I pass by often the owner was both a gardener and an artist and he decided to give his work a prominent place in front of his house.  I don't know why it works, but it does:

In this front garden is a truly original garden design - a chessboard set right in the middle of the garden:

This lush fern-filled shade garden is filled with stone gnomes and dancing frogs:

This is why we should travel.  To see familiar things (the plants, for example, are pretty much the same in both countries) organized and displayed in different ways.  Gardens are universal;  but how one gardens is particular to a place and is influenced not only by geography and climate but also culture and local laws and mores.

To those who may look at some of my photos and say, "Not in my backyard,"  I would counter, "Absolutely in my backyard" - the goal being to create a harmonious blend of the best of both worlds.

And when I head home in a few weeks I do plan on adapting some of the things I found here in Seattle to the local context.  A little multi-cultural mixup to add a little touch of Seattle to my very own "ville fleurie" in France.

The Flophouse Garden in Versailles, France (needs whimsy)


Blaze said...

I always feel like I am thriving in the garden vicariously through you and your photos.

bubblebustin said...

Vancouverites would benefit from seeing what our neighbours just to the south of us are doing to utilize their boulevards (parking strips). How adventurous! Losing our manicured look is not for lack of trying though, our city council has made it legal to keep chickens and is encouraging folks to grow wheat in their yards (neither of which I've warmed up to personally).

Anonymous said...

Quebec has a similar program
I believe these are pare of an
international municipal beautification movement

Anonymous said...

since you will be visiting Montreal you might want to see

the city has been changing the lighting scheme in the Vieux Port
to highlight architectural heritage.

Marie said...

Such a beautiful piece of writing. I enjoyed reading it so much -you gave me a lot to think about Victoria.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Blaze, Come out to Versailles and we can sit in the garden, drink coffee and wave at my neighbors. :-)

@bubblebustin, I like it too. Those strips were just little bits of earth just waiting to be loved. Why did the city council decide to make chickens legal?

@Anonymous, Thanks for the link. I will check it out. I certainly could get behind such a movement - cities need gardens and green spaces!

@Marie, Thank you!