A True Cottage Garden ‘Hidden in Plain Sight’

Cottage GardenHigh school sweethearts Marion and Steve Ekberg were born and raised in the Tacoma area, spending childhoods in the woods of Minter Creek and Fox Island. In 1972, they were house hunting, looking for a place to call home and raise a family, when they discovered an old house on about 2 acres on a busy street in Gig Harbor.

The original owner of the house was thought to be a woman who established the first garden club in Gig Harbor and also collector of specimen trees. Many of those trees survive today, planted over the entire area of the grounds, although a few have died or have needed to be removed for one reason or another.

Cottage GardenWhen the Ekbergs purchased the property, it also had an unfinished barn and a garage adjacent to the house. Most of the acreage was grassy horse pasture.

Cottage GardenIn an effort to shield the home from the noise and traffic of the street, Steve Ekberg began looking for trees to plant in a 50-foot screening border. Most of the trees he planted in this border were native cedars, pines and firs dug from wherever he could find them. He also bought a small number of redwood seedlings to add to the mix.

During the years the Ekbergs were raising their family, the grassy areas were maintained as football and soccer fields. Over time, remodels and additions transformed the home. The horse barn was finished to house a preschool that Marion Ekberg ran. In1996, when the eldest son went to college, the conversion began of the sports fields into the charming cottage garden areas that exist today.

Cottage GardenRetirement afforded the Ekbergs time to pursue their interests and develop some new hobbies. Steve, of Swedish decent, enjoys woodworking and has built many of the structures within the garden.

“I found a picture of a gate I loved, showed it to Steve, and he just built it,” his wife says.

Marion, a retired kindergarten teacher, loves the whimsical aspect of life. Her colorful, youthful touches are found throughout the property.

“Marion just knows what will work best in any given spot,” Steve Ekberg says.

Cottage GardenEventually, the garage was removed and in its place now sits a lovely entrance garden. A bench was placed under a very large Japanese maple.

“It is my favorite space to sit and listen to the birds,” Marion Ekberg says.

A family of concrete ducks waddle along in front of a border of ball-pruned boxwood that guards a triangle-shaped bed containing a dwarf flowering apple tree, a teepee-trellised clematis and a few peony plants. The gurgle of a small terra cotta wall fountain adds to the tranquility of this restful spot.

The bricked courtyard surface gives way to a stone pathway that steps through a vintage wire gate at which an ornamental bunny stands guard. The pathway turns and ascends up a few steps to a terraced area where planting beds are separated by gravel pathways. At the top is a neatly kept vegetable garden with a high fence to keep out the deer.

Cottage GardenStone finials, birdbaths, urns and other architectural details are tastefully placed throughout the garden, giving a sense of permanence and connectivity to the many cultivated areas around the home.

Continuing past the vegetable garden, the path leads to a potting shed, its charming design serving as a focal point, as it is visible from the house and most of the garden. Picture-perfect, it is an “every gardener’s dream” potting shed. The Ekbergs found the plans as illustrations on the inside covers of “Stylish Sheds and Elegant Hideaways” by Debra Prinzing. Contacting the architect, the Ekbergs asked to buy a set of plans. The architect said that the plans were complete in the drawings in the book and that a contractor could work from them, and gave the couple his blessing.

Cottage GardenThe shed is furnished with vintage tables and upcycled belongings. An old copper boiler serves as a holder for potting soil, while tools are neatly displayed and ready for use. The vintage door came from Ballard and sports a wreath made of colorful, old garden tools.

“We think things should be recycled and upcycled whenever possible,” Marion Ekberg says.

The pair learned as they planned, dug and planted. Friends who were avid gardeners served as mentors to coach and encourage the couple, sharing plants and ideas.

The cottage garden style always appealed to Marion Ekberg, as it allows her creativity to flow in a very natural and organic way. The gardens that surround the house are visible from every room and each of the four outside entrances into the home is dressed in a welcoming fashion.

Cottage GardenCottage gardens sport an abundance of plants, often repeated in various combinations from one bed to another.

“We look at a space and discuss what would go best there, and tweak it until it feels right,” she says.

Steve Ekberg has a special love of rhododendrons and has amassed a collection of more than a hundred. He is attracted to the various sizes and colors of leaves and blooms, along with their bloom range of six months or so. Beginning in December, ‘Christmas Cheer’ will offer lush, pink flowers in the dead of winter. Some varieties will bloom into late spring or early summer.

Cottage GardenThe rhodies are strategically placed throughout the garden areas. Some serve as corners, others as focal points in the center of a bed, some as understory to a maple or to enhance the architecture of a fence line or gate. Although the planting style is mostly full and blousy, each plant is given its own space and is noticeable for its own specific qualities.

The potting shed is slightly elevated from the house, and facing into the front lawn is a bubbling water feature that seems to flow downhill from under the little building. Closely planted with small maples, shrubs, ferns and perennial flowers, the water feature area is protected by a tightly planted, low boxwood hedge.

Cottage GardenNot far off, in the middle of the large grassy area, is a traditional knot garden, surrounded and intersected by a closely clipped boxwood hedge. Flanked on each corner by a boxwood topiary, it has another stone animal on a pedestal overseeing the knot garden with a look of approval.

Benches are carefully placed in destination spots throughout the garden, designed for resting or just viewing it from different perspectives. Some of the benches are tucked away and discovered unexpectedly. Others are visible at the end of a path and invite the passerby to stop for a period of contemplation.

Cottage GardenJust as a network of pathways connect most of the garden beds around the house, there is an outer network of shredded bark trails around the outer perimeter and through the wooded area of the property. The pathways, which the grandchildren refer to as “papa’s trails,” are designed to allow visitors the feeling of seclusion away from the house but also connect across the rear south sector of the property with neighbors a short distance away. One of the trails opens to a wide spot that exposes the massive, 6-foot trunk of a giant redwood tree that Steve Ekberg planted as a seedling 35 years ago.

Cottage GardenA play space, complete with playhouse and elaborate play structure with swings, is dedicated to the couple’s grandchildren. The families live close enough that frequent visits are possible, and the Ekbergs cherish every moment spent with them.

The two-story former horse barn and preschool now serves as “his” woodworking shop below and “hers” art studio above. A budding water colorist, Marion Ekberg applies her strong sense of observation of nature and the people she loves to her skill of putting paint to paper.

Cottage GardenThe lovely space in which the Ekbergs dwell is a testament to lives well lived. Their home and garden hide in plain sight on a busy street, and when coming into the drive, one has the sense of leaving the cares and woes of a busy world far behind, entering a sanctuary of quiet beauty and birdsong.

“I think my favorite spot on the whole acreage is the vista from the driveway,” Steve Ekberg says. “Maybe it is because when I come past the trees, look across the lawn and gardens and see the house, I know I am home.”