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Nancy Davidson Short's garden by the Sunset
Nancy Davidson Short’s house sits midway on the Hunts Point peninsula, at the end of a winding gravel drive hidden from the main road by a lush wood.
Short, 101, purchased the lot in 1938, when it was little more than a summer cottage only accessible from Seattle by boat. During the course of more than seven decades, the retired magazine editor made the house a permanent home, building the cottage into a two-story domicile in which, today, she lives in an apartment below her children.
Occupying the pinnacle of a hill that rolls down to the shore of Lake Washington, the property is 60 feet wide and stretches, Short estimates, 600 feet from the road to the water. Every inch of open land has been gardened, transforming the space into a contained floral oasis, bursting with color.
The beautiful yard is a product of the lifelong obsession Short inherited from her grandmother, who was “a gardening whiz,” she said.
“I discovered (my interest) probably in the 1930s, after I had married,” Short said. “I love plants and I love foliage, particularly. I love native plants. We have, in this area, a bouquet of native plants. They’re not always easy to grow and some of them don’t like water.”
The garden is also, in part, a monument to Short’s career at Sunset Magazine and the connections she made there. Its design was aided by local horticulturist Jim Fox and nursery operator and four-time gardening author George Schenk, both contacts from Short’s time at the west coast lifestyles magazine.
Beginning her journalism career as an informally trained freelancer in the 1940s, she became the Northwest Editor of Sunset for 20 years beginning in 1955, then Building Editor out of the Menlo Park, Calif. office for another 10 years.
Writing as Nancy Davidson, her name and her association with Sunset gave her uncanny access into private homes. She recalled one instance in which she attempted a story about patio gardening — a topic Sunset didn’t cover at the time and eventually didn’t make it into the magazine. But she traveled to Portland, Ore., found a condominium with a nice garden, knocked on the door unannounced and, after a short introduction, was whisked inside for a long and friendly conversation about the owner’s deckside flora. That was the level of attention and trust Sunset had among west coasters.
“It was written on the premise that western life is different from life elsewhere in America,” she said. “I think maybe it’s the spaciousness that makes it different. I really do think each state has a personality … People who come out west are risk takers. They’re taking a risk coming out here.”
Of her native plants, Short is particularly fond of trilliums and, like any good Pacific Northwesterner, maintains a batch of rhododendrons. The rhodies at the south end of her yard are hybrid clones that have thrived for three decades — young for the possible life span of the plant, but the species’ survival requires careful protection against mildew.
She has her prize non-natives as well. A South American Gunnera next to the waterfront has grown to leviathan proportions. Shade-grown hostas have flourished 20 feet outside Short’s doorway, to the point that she’s considering giving them as gifts to any and all visitors.
Short said, a little humbly, she considers the garden a little overgrown and rough around the edges, compared to how she maintained it in years past. She can’t put fingers to dirt like she used to, and brings in helpers three times a week.
Still, a group of friends of the Bellevue Philharmonic Orchestra believed the home to be more than impressive enough for its Symphony of the Gardens fundraiser, several years ago. With the group’s revival as the Lake Washington Symphony Orchestra, Short’s home will again be open to ticket holders for the tour of the Eastside’s best gardens.
“I’m interested in music, I’m interested in art and culture, and I think it’s high time Bellevue had a symphony orchestra,” she said.