Garden designer Tish Treherne had designed other people’s gardens for many years through her business, Bliss Garden Design, before she found the perfect sunny, southwest-facing parcel on the Bainbridge waterline to call her own. With a background in fine arts and a great passion for horticulture, she’s spent the last four years designing and creating this perfect island garden retreat, complete with vibrant four-season color and a sun-soaked patio that makes those rainy Puget Sound winters seem just a little more tolerable.

Portrait Magazine: Tell us a little bit about your home – what’s the site like?

Treherne: It’s a great site – a little under half an acre and right on the water. We were actually planning to move out of the area when this house went on the market. It faces southwest and it’s got this really open, sunny site. I really needed that. We were in the forest before this, and I was struggling in this climate. We lost the sun at 1:30 in the afternoon. Every year it never felt like summer actually happened, or that it was time for fall to arrive. Now we just get baked in the summertime – that courtyard is routinely in the 90s.

This site presented an opportunity to work with pretty much 100% sun, with a few great pockets of shade. We’ve got really rocky, sandy soil, but it’s well amended and drains very, very well.

Portrait Magazine: What kind of impact does all that sun have on the plants you chose?

Treherne: Well, I’m able to push the limits a little bit, and I have irrigation, so that affords me a little more leeway. I’m able to use non-hardy succulents, and I only had to cover them a few times this winter because all that corrugated metal siding is a great heat sink. Blue Gamma Grass ‘Blonde Ambition’ is another one that does well here. It’s a slow-starting grass, but all this heat gives it a boost. In another garden, it might be June before it gets going. Salvia, Philomath, Jerusalem Sage, Libertia, and Euphorbia all do very well here with the longer, hotter season.

Portrait Magazine: What’s it like designing your own garden versus designing a client’s garden?

Treherne: With your own garden, you have the luxury of time. I spent more time observing my garden before I did anything, and I don’t have that luxury at client gardens. When we bought the house in 2012, we weren’t in a big hurry to deal with the outside because we were doing some work inside. I got on top of the weeds, cleaned up the overcrowding, kept what I wanted to keep, and then stepped back. I didn’t really do a design on paper for this garden; it was more a matter of improvising.

The other thing about working in your garden is that you can experiment. I don’t experiment in client’s gardens anymore. There’s a plant palette I like to work with because I trust the plants to perform, even for my clients who aren’t gardeners.

Portrait Magazine: So once you were ready, how did you get started?

Treherne: With this garden, I really tried to understand what the former owners had done, what they were trying to achieve. There has been a house here for a while, and three layers of people (or more) kind of built this garden.

There were some wonderful things here. A really cool Harlequin Glorybower that smells amazing with these great big leaves and blossoms that perfume the entire house in the summer (and feeds the hummingbirds). There was a Crabapple tree in the front yard that I love, and some nice established large shrubs that screen the neighbors.

And I don’t always do that when designing a garden. Often, there’s just not much to work with and you’re starting from scratch. But here, I was willing to be patient and watch, and to salvage what worked well and take away what wasn’t working.

Also, I created a nursery bed – I almost always create nursery beds. It’s a place to put things I think we can reuse, or I’m not sure about. There were so many plants it was like a game of Tetris – I didn’t want to throw plants out if I could move them around to be healthy and beautiful.

Portrait Magazine: What colors and textures did you gravitate towards?

Treherne: The previous homeowner had chosen a tangerine/peach/orange base, with plants like Firefly Heather, Libertia, and this Willow hedge that’s just shocking orange sticks coming out of the ground in winter. I love all the colors, but you can go overboard with bright colors and tons of foliage combinations. It looks really cool in close-up shots, but in a larger garden, you don’t get that sense of harmony and balance. My natural inclination is to calm things down visually. I want gardens to be calm and restful, with clean lines. The colors, I think, follow that. They tend not to drive my decision process.

Portrait Magazine: Tell us a little bit about building a garden that relates to a landscape like Bainbridge Island.

Treherne: If you just plop a garden down without considering the surrounding landscape, it doesn’t work. If you’re in an urban environment you have more leeway. All that concrete and other buildings are like a stage, and you can stage your garden to make it whatever you want it to be. But if you have a forest around you, or you’re on the water, the garden needs to have a sense of place. For example, if I’m dealing with a larger property with surrounding natural places, plants near the house tend to be more ornamental. As you get farther away from the house, the plantings become more natural, more native or native friends that work with the native landscape, and lower maintenance.

Portrait Magazine: How do you go about selecting plants for a site?

Treherne: Site conditions are so important. Almost any garden can look good for a year, maybe, but if you ignore the site conditions, your plants won’t thrive. You can have the most pedestrian plants in the world, and if they’re healthy, they’re beautiful, and if they’re not, no matter how exotic the plants, they won’t look beautiful. You have to honor the site conditions.

Portrait Magazine: Do you have any favorite plants you find yourself turning to again and again?

Treherne: Oh yes. I love Japanese Forest Grass, I think it’s somewhere in every single garden I’ve ever done. If you have shaded conditions and decent moisture, that plant is awesome. I use a lot of Black Mondo Grass, Sword Fern, Japanese Castle Fern, Hellebore. In the sun, it depends. Lavender, if the conditions are right, which they’re often not. Succulents are great for annuals. They’re so trendy, I’m sure their day in the sun will be over soon, but they make great annual arrangements.

Portrait Magazine: Why is the Northwest so great for gardening?

Treherne: We’ve got a really forgiving climate, so we can grow a broad range of plants. And it’s a true year-round gardening season. Even if it’s not always fun to get out into the garden in January, you could if you wanted to. It’s a forgiving environment for getting things to grow, and people get excited when they’re successful. In climatic terms, it’s not that dissimilar to England, and gardening there is a way of life. In Los Angeles, for example, people take care of other people’s gardens. Here, it’s much more of a pastime, something people really love.