Maryellen Swanson, The Potted Garden

Maryellen Swanson of The Potted Garden“Give me dirt and a pot and I just know what to do.”  We met at the Blue Star Cafe and Pub for a coffee and snack, and to look at the planters and pots she has done for the popular local restaurant.  It has long been once of my favorite places to meet friends for breakfast or lunch, and I was happy to see what she’d done with a dry stream bed effect with a flowing pebble stream and bright purples and pinks in the planters.  Then we went around the corner to Bizarro Italian Cafe where she has just finished a potted garden installation in their front area as well.  Bizarro has a collection of old bicycles stacked and hung strategically in the restaurant, and she had used one outside with the basket filled with moss and plants.  I loved the riot of color and bloom and the sense of living energy the gardens imparted to the street and storefronts.  I got before and after shots of Bizarro.  It being one of my all time favorite Seattle restaurants due to the quirky character and decor and delicious menu (reservations strongly advised at busy times), I thought it was looking extremely charming and lively outside with the new treatments.  A outside Bizarro Italian CafeWallingford business for the last couple of years, The Potted Garden has created blooms and beauty where before were some neglected and bedraggled plants struggling to grow.  On the website header we read, The Potted Garden is about making the world a more beautiful place—one container, one porch, one yard, one storefront at a time. And doing this in a way that is affordable, sustainable, and enduring.  When I asked Maryellen how she got her first clients, she explained “I’d be walking around Wallingford and I’d see places with distressed pots outside and I’d introduce myself and ask if they’d be interested in a proposal.”  It’s amazing how much has happened in such a short time.  “All of the people who are my clients have become personal to me, we’re friends, I care about them.  I did a couple of coffee shops, then was approached by a young Bizarro Italian Cafecouple who have a new coffee shop here.  They couldn’t really afford the service but I just did a couple of pots for them, it make a huge difference.  One of my first clients was the consignment and decor shop Gracious House to Home, a vintage shop just behind U Village.  They had just started their business and were on a budget but when we spoke they just decided to do it anyway, and were so delighted with what they got.  They are going to have a garden show at the end of March, want me to do pots.  I’m going to have a potting bench and be working right there where people can watch, I’ll be putting spring plants in groupings in pots and they will be for sale.”

Maryellen Swanson of The Potted Garden has been a potting diva informally for the last 20 years.  Her first “real” job was a Bar Mitzvah back in Tennessee, where she lived before relocating here to be near her daughter and her family.  “I’d just come back from a trip to Seattle and my mind was filled with the images I’d just brought back from here, of pots filled chuck full of a profusion of color Early Spring Blooms by The Potted Gardenand greenery, and that’s what I created there.  Everyone loved them.  When I came back to Seattle I thought everyone here would be doing it and there would be no need for me, but to my surprise they weren’t doing it so much, and the need for my services was evident.  I would walk along the street in Wallingford outside of some of those great interesting businesses and restaurants, and the plants and landscaping would be dying.”

Maryann Video Explains Design Process

Maryellen provides year round services for her clients, both local businesses and homeowners that want a special treatment of their front yard or porch (or back patio for that matter).  She will initially design and plan the environment and the pots with her client, discussing it in terms of their vision needs and budget, and talk about how to fit these needs into a fully realized designed plant environment which functions both as a potted garden and, in my opinion, installed art.  Then she continues to oversee the health and well being of the potted garden, watering, weeding, and replacing plants as needed to continue the design as the seasons change. “So far unanimously everybody has loved what I’ve done.”

She always puts in perennials which will live ongoingly over the years, and then seasonal accents which change.  “For instance, out here at Blue Star Cafe most of the plantings will stay till June, then for summer I’ll take out the pansies and put in bright, vibrant drought Potted and Bloomingresistant seasonals – like zinnias and daisies, and bacopa, which is a drapy-down plant, and lobelia which is a vibrant blue-violet.  My favorite colors to use are white and yellow, because they act as light bulbs in an area, make it pop!  But not if the client doesn’t like those colors.

“I love the work, even though I’m out in all weathers and get wet and muddy.  When I was working on the porch last week for my housebound client, all the rain had dripped off my rain jacket onto my pants.  There was dirt all over me, my hands were freezing.  If you want to do this, you’ve gotta get used to working in the rain…I’ve thought about letting somebody else do the digging but I absolutely love the physical labor, as much as the before and after.  When I start on an area it’s neglected, abandoned, forgotten, desolate.  Then I get in there and I work.  It’s a living kind of thing, and I transform it!  When I was working on the planter boxes at Blue Star so many people from the neighborhood came by and said, “Oh, thank you!  We love that!”.  If there are some good plants already there, I save the plants dry stream bed with pebblesand I use them.  It isn’t just planting, it’s a composition.  Last week I kept moving the plants around in relation to each other, I moved it five times to get the composition right.  I put it in and took it out, can’t tell you why, but suddenly it just looks right.  It all fits together, composition, texture, color.

When I start a new project I get stage fright, I’m worried that I won’t pick the right plants for that unique garden.  Then I tell myself, let it go, trust Mother Nature, and what I choose just works.  There’s a point in the process where I have to let it go and go with the flow.”

Neighborhoods.  I asked Maryellen what neighborhood she feels is most hers, in Seattle.  She has lived in Wallingford, and now in Wedgwood.  She loves both of them.  Her daughter is here with her family, and it makes for a life full of activity and interest.  She chose Seattle even though outside Bizarro italian Cafeher daughter and grand-kids had been here 13 years.  She did not come just to be near them, but realized that she wanted to make the city her home.  She fell in love with Seattle the first time she came to visit.  “I could stand on the corner and just feel the vibrancy, diversity and opportunity.  I love the ‘neighborhood-ness’ of it.  Eash neighborhood is like a small town.  Still, if you’d told me I was going to start my own business here I’d have said, “huh?”  It’s a very individual and self-created work environment here.  My son-in-law works at Amazon.  My daughter and he are starting their own branding company!

What does she love about Seattle?  Amazon is amazing.  It has influenced Seattle profoundly.  It’s still not as huge as Microsoft, still accessible, yet always on the cutting edge–they make the cutting edge!  They have a vision where they want to be involved in all aspects of life.  Another influential place for her is a little coffee shop named Irwin’s Bakery Cafe in a beloved neighborhood, part of Green Lake, which is  just on the east side of the lake.  She goes there almost every day, knows the staff by name, and they know her.  It’s a neighborhood place, people from right around there go in regularly.  They have excellent coffee and a great bakery menu.  So it was really important to her as she started to get to know Seattle.  She’d sit there and take in the “neighborhood” feel, and then she started to move out from that spot.   As she got to know clients, she began to feel very connected.  She did a potted garden for the Blue Star Cafe in Wallingford, and the manager Wendy immediately became someone she knew, says hi when they run into each other.  It feels like a small place and knowing people by name, sight, running into them, makes it accessable, open, easy to get involved.

Another touchstone is the Center for Spiritual Living, a church in Sand Point.  She joined a support group there which focuses on how they can bring the skills and messages to be good people out into the community, how to live better lives, how to bring that to the world.  And “being a grandmother is like being a second mother, with no guilt!”

Maryellen picks some special places in Seattle:

The Grateful Bread Bakery and Cafe in Wedgwood.  She will start to create the potted garden there soon for them, the owner has in mind all natural Northwest plants.  Maryellen was excited by the idea and did some research to find the right plants for the garden.  Everything they do there is natural and organic, including a spot they have for their own organic herb garden.

Sutra Restaurant on 45th in Wallingford.  The chef is a 5 star chef who has been on Top Chef.  It’s a very down home, down to earth restaurant.  Everything is organic and homegrown.  You can sit at the chef’s counter and watch him and his assistant cook prepare the plates.  There is one seating and one menu as he prepares to serve, he does a little intro about the food and gives a little blessing, thanking the people who made this food and brought it to us.

Funny and unusual things that are part of daily life.  Her 9 year old grandson is learning to ride a unicycle in his after school classes.  Where else, she asks me laughing, would you have unicycle classes after school?

Farmer’s Sunday Market in Ballard.  It’s open all year and is one of the best Farmer’s Markets in Seattle.

The 4th of July celebration with fireworks over Lake UnionThey sit on her daughter’s 3rd floor deck from which they have a perfect view of the lake and the fireworks display!

It’s also great to see the Blue Angels at the Seattle Seafair, a month-long celebration in July with numerous local events of everyconceivable sort having anything to do with the sea and boats!

Another specially beloved activity is going to the museums with the kids, both SAM and The Pacific Science Center.

Pike’s Place Market is wonderful.  She just likes to walk around there and enjoy the lively atmosphere of very down-to-earth and fresh local products.  It’s wonderful to be part of it and a place she always brings her visitors to the area.

The Fremont Solstice Parade is another highlight of the year, in the summer.

She loves U Village.  It’s an experience… kind of pricy and upscale, which is fine, but she loves the visual impact.

Fremont is a fantastic place to go shopping, the immediacy and quirkiness of the walk-around neighborhood of Fremont with the statue of Lennon, the rocket ship, the Troll under the Aurora Bridge, and all the great little eateries and boutiques.

The accessibility of the mountains here is wonderful, both winter and summer.  In fact, last year there was a big snow storm and the whole family had taken a trip to Cle Elum, and got snow bound while there.  It was wonderful, they had to stay an extra day and loved every minute of it, “It was like, DARN, it snowed… ” laughing.