Artist Curtis Steiner’s Seattle garden blends passion for nature with a polymath’s curiosity

CURTIS STEINER IS an artist and a curator of immersive experiences, whether the space is the jewel-box interior of his former retail store in Ballard, or a well-traveled botanist’s fantasy of a cocktail lounge that is Deep Dive, the bar tucked beneath The Spheres in downtown Seattle.

Steiner’s personal garden, an intimate green space layered with botanical novelties and exquisite details, is no exception. Located west of Green Lake, the landscape is tucked beneath the enormous canopy of an ancient cherry tree. “Really, I purchased the tree; the house came with it,” he quips.

While most of us would shy from garden-making under such challenging conditions, Steiner is no stranger to “impossible sites.” That’s how he describes an earlier garden he once tended on a steep slope shaded by bigleaf maples. The resulting shade garden was an homage to green with very few flowers. “It was kind of unusual, but I decided I wanted just green flowers,” Steiner says.

Steiner came to gardening and designing gardens while living in Vancouver, B.C., 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 kind of insatiable,” he tells me. “A garden is never finished — I’m always being challenged. I like that.”

With a passion for nature and a polymath’s curiosity, Steiner orchestrates seasonal moments in his garden with a keen eye — like cutting back old growth on ostrich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) to better appreciate the effect of the unfurling fronds producing “fountains [of foliage] worthy of Versailles,” he observes. Elsewhere, dark purple leaves and blooms of a violet (Viola labradorica) complement the brilliant chartreuse foliage of emerging hostas. Make no mistake: This is a real garden with the same pests and pitfalls that we all face. Steiner laments ever planting the “weedy” violet, then points out how a humble snail shell echoes the Fibonacci spiral of the unspooling fern.

For a mostly foliage-forward landscape, the garden does have moments of generous bloom. Tender petals from the ancient cherry tree blanket the landscape in early spring. Later in May, white lilacs take the stage with showy bloom. Steiner 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 the established trees. Rather than combining plants, Steiner prefers sticking to a single type of plant in each pot, arranging them in groups that he can shift about as he likes to create garden moments. Along with rusty chains and other select artifacts, containers accessorize the subtle space, their glassy glazes reflecting light in the shady garden. And if you squint, artfully tended bonsai plantings staged around the garden lend a secondary forestlike 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.