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Originally published Friday, February 1, 2013 at 11:00 AM

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Your city garden can go completely wild

Landscape architect and avid birder Keith Geller's garden in the Madison Valley is designed for both people and birds.

Special to The Seattle Times

Local news partner - Plant Talk

Valerie Easton writes in her blog about gardens and the people who make them.


EVERY GARDEN needs a wild corner or two where creatures can forage. What's a garden, after all, if it isn't alive with birdsong and bee buzz?

Wildlife corridors that cross property boundaries have become a reality in England. Whole communities participate in planting ribbons of plants to shelter and sustain animals, insects and birds as they make their way, crawling, creeping, running or flying, through cities and suburbs.

Timothy Coleman of Good Nature Publishing ... are you listening? Wouldn't an aerial view of these lush green causeways, softening the paving and harshness of cities, make an illustrative poster? Perhaps telescoping in here and there to show the ladybugs and bumblebees, foxes and goldfinches, owls and butterflies that feed, nest, raise their young and live alongside us.

It's all these creatures, seen and unseen, that keep our soil, our city and our planet alive and humming.

Have you ever considered turning your entire garden into a wildlife sanctuary? Landscape architect and avid birder Keith Geller has done just that at his home in the Madison Valley. He proves that with good design, the needs of humans and creatures can be accommodated on a city lot, in a garden that looks good year-round.

"I start by identifying spaces for people," says Geller, who describes his style as natural and woodsy, with intimate scale created by a canopy of trees. He leads us through the garden by creating destinations and transitional spaces that narrow, then open up, move between sun and shade, and change levels.

Water is an essential ingredient of wildlife gardening, and Geller suggests going the less expensive, low-maintenance route of using rocks with depressions deep enough to hold water.

Evergreen bones keep the garden looking tidy through the seasons. Geller plants masses of small evergreens for density, favoring natives like mahonia and deer fern. He mixes in ornamentals like daphnes, camellias and azaleas. In a sunny back corner, he grows perennials for butterflies and bees.

Our eyes appreciate the richness of planting in layers, while birds and other creatures love the shelter and food this provides. "I put one plant under the armpit of another, then another and another," says Geller.

The tallest layer might be vine maple planted above a mahonia like 'Charity.' Plantings step down to smaller shrubs like ferns and sarcococca, then to sub-shrubs and ground covers such as Epimedium vancouveria. Strawberry trees (Arbutus unedo) and Korean dogwoods (Cornus kousa) are two of Geller's favorite small-scale trees. "But as the decades go by, they're never as small as one thinks," he cautions.

While evergreens define the layers, Geller mixes in deciduous plants, such as callicarpa with its lavender berries, witch hazels and our native flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum). "You need the bones of the evergreens, and then the deciduous plants, with their fall color, berries and flowers, are a bonus," he says. A bonus not only for the human eye but also for the creatures that bring our gardens alive.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at