Written By: Wendy Tweten
As a child, Cameron Bahnson rubbed shoulders with European royalty and heads of state. As a young woman, she traveled to the Far East to study transcendental meditation. In a little more than two decades, Bahnson – the daughter of a U.S. admiral stationed in Italy – made the acquaintance of Princess Grace of Monaco and became a protegee of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the one-time spiritual guide of the Beatles. Then, after traveling the globe, Bahnson came to Bainbridge Island in the Puget Sound of Washington and made a garden.
With such a broad life experience, it comes as no surprise that Bahnson brought the world to her backyard. Throughout the formal parterre garden that she developed, there runs a European etiquette with borders as straight as a duchess’s spine and lines that undulate like waves on a warm sea. Leaves shimmer in Mediterranean green and silver. All is contained within a Vastu fence, an outdoor extension of the 4,000-year-old Eastern Indian architectural philosophy of Sthapatya Veda used by Bahnson in the design of her house. The fence serves as a buffer, both literally and symbolically, between the outside world and the harmony of the home. When viewed from an upper-floor balcony, the front garden unfolds like an open book.
A photographer and graphic designer, Bahnson single-handedly designed every aspect of her garden as well as selected and planted every plant. Surprisingly, this expertly designed synthesis of Hindu harmony and Gallic order was Bahnson’s first venture into landscape design. She also devised certain garden features, including European-style fountain block and mortar with a lion-head spout, mounted on a trough she rescued from a nursery back lot.
Bahnson was meticulous in ever detail, down to the ratio of tangerine marble chips to buckskin quartz in the gravel paths. She also experimented to find the best plants for a Mediterranean look with Pacific Northwest hardiness. Carefully edited, the beds retain only those plants most agreeable to organic cultivation and regular shearing: For instance, Bahnson removed the lanky Santolina incana, replacing it with better behaved Senecio greyi. Some of Bahnson’s overall favorites include Ramapo rhododendrons (“a mass purple in spring”), Hebe pinguifolia ‘Sutherlandii’, Italian cypress (Cupressus sempervirens), and the sweet-scented, apricot-orange Westerland climbing rose, that blooms all summer in the sunny back terrace. The Lady Banks’ rose reminds Bahnson of France, where its profuce, buttery blossoms are a familiar sight. Occasionally a plant exceeds expectations, such as the ornamental weeping pear (Pyrus salicifolia ‘Pendula’), whose silvery leaves and small brown fruit mimic that of olive trees.
An allee of eight Enterprise apple trees march in regular rhythm up either side of a large fountain jardiniere to form the axis of parterre. Despite hard annual pruning, the trees are loaded with blossoms each spring and apples each fall. Bahnson sees the fuit as a mixed blessing.
Within the tightly clipped boxwood borders are plantings of Hebe, lavender, arctic blue willow (Salix purpurea), and dwarf rhododendron. Popcorn rose standards rise triumphant from box-edged ellipses. On the paths, strategically placed pots hold brioche-shaped buns of English boxwood and spikes of Yucca re-curvifolia ‘Margaritaville’. Beyond the Vastu fence, the road is screened by a variety of taller, shrubbier plants that include the green and gray silverberry (Elaeagnus commutata).
Warm, bright light is an important component of these gardens. To keep the sunshine coming, Bahnson chose trees that will stay under 20 feet; most are narrow, columnar selections such as skyrocket juniper, Italian cypress ‘Swane’s Golden’ and ‘Tiny Tower’, oriental arborvitae (Platycladus orientalis ‘Blue Cone’), and Japanese holly (Ilex crenata ‘Sky Sentry’).
In the terraced back garden, a steep slope was tamed by rock walls that are in turn softened by boxwood hedging. Bahnson originally intended the 12 slabs of Chinese granite to ascend the hill in one long stairway, but she changed the design to four broad steps, forming a stage for the lion-head fountain. This intimate backyard oasis is filled with handsome species of ceanothus, golden box honeysuckle (Lonicera nitida ‘Baggesen’s Gold’), and golden curly willow (Salix ‘Golden Curls’). Playful boxwood balls appear to have rolled into paths and gardens. In the summer, pots of deep blue agapanthus and salmon-blooming geraniums bring castanets of color to this classical composition.
While flowers add a seasonal old-world punctilio, the soul of this garden is found in foliage and form. Bahnson appreciates how the predominance of reflective green and silver causes her garden to glow, even in winter.