APLDWA Featured Designer:
Kelly Carter Mortimer

Designer and owner of Big Picture Landscapes
Member since 2013

This quarter, Kelly Carter Mortimer is telling us her story—transitioning from a first career in social services to literally dreaming up the name of her successful business.

When did you start designing gardens? Tell us your path from then to now.

Kelly Carter Mortimer, owner and designer at Big Picture
    Landscape, sits in her home surrounded by houseplants.
Kelly Carter Mortimer, designer and owner of Big Picture Landscapes.
All Photos: Kelly Carter Mortimer
I know it sounds corny, but the name of my business, Big Picture Landscapes, came to me in a dream. I had just left a career of over 20 years in social services. I was burned out by bureaucracy and the unrelenting feeling that there is never enough (time, money, resources, progress—you get the idea). So I followed my heart, and my mom’s example, to horticulture. I found myself in school again at Edmonds Community College in the Horticulture program learning about sustainability, Latin(!) and how to tell the difference between a dozen varieties of quercus.

As my almost 50-year-old brain was trying to sort out all the new things in my life, I had a dream in which I was in a bright studio surrounded by a group of people excitedly discussing a garden design. On the wall behind us were the words Big Picture Landscapes. Well, that studio became my dining room, where I stand in front of a picture window, designing with a dog at my feet instead of surrounded by colleagues. But, I take the name of my company seriously, and try to bring it to life in every aspect of my work.

A combination of plants with brightly colored foliage  planted on a parking strip
Vibrant plant combination for parking strip.

How would you describe your design style?

A Big Picture landscape encompasses the architecture of the home and the community in which it resides, the family’s needs and vision and the health and welfare of the environment and our impact on it. I love Doug Tallamy’s idea of all of us creating little national parks in our landscapes—where nature has a refuge and a haven. Ironically, our industry has a pretty high carbon footprint due to the production and transport of plants and hardscape materials and the installation waste and fuel consumption. So when I design, I always look for even small ways to lessen our negative impact. My proudest moments are when a client not only falls in love with their garden, but also realizes the value of working in partnership with nature. Of course, sometimes nature has plans that make the partnership a challenge (rabbits—I’m looking at you!). But magic happens when a client sees the value in keeping the imperfectly positioned mature tree, trading the lawn for a wooded path or a secret garden, and maybe even believing that leaf litter can be beautiful.

 An image of mossy boulders, old trees and beautiful leaf litter.
A fairyland of mossy boulders, old trees and ‘beautiful’ leaf litter.

A garden I call ‘Fairy Land’ already had several mature Japanese maples, rhododendrons, and dozens of moss-covered boulders. The client visibly relaxed when I told her we could use the autumn leaves as mulch, and keep the moss on all the rocks. She had been told by another designer that they both had to go. One thing we did get rid of was the scraggly lawn. It was traded for a winding path that travels through a wildflower and blueberry patch, a witch hazel grove, and loads of plants that nurture and protect the birds that call those maples home.

 An image of a garden featuring a mix of conifers, rhododendrons, maples, ferns, grasses and perennials.
A mix of conifers, rhododendrons, maples, ferns, grasses and perennials provide year-round interest for people and birds.

Tell us about one of your favorite or most memorable projects.

One of my favorite jobs as a designer is looking beyond what is there to see the possibilities of a transformed place. Of course, we all have to consider the environmental impact and budgetary limits when designing a space. But, sometimes just asking ‘what if?’ instead of ‘how much?’ leads to a really innovative, or exciting solution, that is worth an investment.

One big transformation was one in which the client wanted the Bellevue Botanical Garden in her backyard. Along with room for dining, a fire pit, veggies, lounging, and a giant Buddha head—all within an urban garden already one-third occupied by a poorly installed rain garden.

A densely planted botanical-style garden featuring a dining area, fire pit, space for lounging, and a giant Buddha head.
The finished backyard ‘botanical garden’ with all the client’s requirements.

I’m proud to say we checked all the boxes, including a water feature with a long channel separating adjoining concrete patios, and of course, the giant Buddha head. The garden is not only packed with features but it is alive with birds and pollinators due to the abundant biodiversity and native plants.

A water feature set into a paving stone patio includes a long channel.
Water feature with long channel creates separation between lounging and dining patios.

Another particularly fun project was a front yard rain garden. The clients also wanted a place to visit with neighbors and be surrounded by vibrant colors. It is still one of my favorite gardens to visit regardless of the season, which is something that can’t often be said about rain gardens.

A front-yard raingarden surrounded by plants with vibrant colors and various textures.
A raingarden surrounded by vibrant colors and textures.

What experiences have you found to be most rewarding? Describe a typical design project and your process.

I love improving the flow of a space by making an entrance more gracious or a pathway more accessible. In one garden with a tall homeowner, I walked around the pathways with my pruners on the top of my head to catch and remove any low branches that would bonk him on the head. A small thing, but he said it was the first time he had stood up straight in the garden since they planted the trees! Sometimes I intentionally place an obstacle in a pathway to slow visitors down, so they notice their surroundings.

A container intentionally placed in the middle of a pathway that flows through a colorful planting of perennials.
Placing an ‘obstacle’ in a pathway such as a decorative pot, screen, or water feature invites visitors to slow down and enjoy the journey.

The hardscape of a garden helps to define its character. And, one of my favorite uses for it is creating spaces to just be in the garden. Inspired by Jens Jensen, I am always looking for a place for a council ring, or at least a seating wall, where someone can perch to enjoy an intimate conversation or ponder the grace of an old tree.

A shallow set of 2-level curved stairs also serves as a council ring.
A gracious staircase doing double duty as a council ring.

I enjoy weaving in a bit of unexpected whimsy—a ‘welcome mat’ at the base of a staircase made of pavers in a different pattern or material; a paisley shaped patio made of salvaged bricks; even a ‘galaxy’ made of old garden tools mounted on the side of a garage.

Repurposed rusted saw blades and garden tools form a ‘galaxy’ above a bright green door on a yellow garage wall.
Old saw blades and garden tools repurposed into whimsical garden art.

And, sometimes inspiration comes from unexpected places, such as a beautiful rug in the clients’ living room, a tide pool, an old stump, or an art piece—Mondrian and Picasso both inspired gardens.

A parking strip planting, featuring drought tolerant perennials and shrubs, was inspired by the colors and textures found in a tide pool.
A tide pool-inspired planting in the parking strip.

I must admit that my heart belongs to the plant kingdom (don’t let my dog hear me say that). I LOVE coming up with plant combinations that highlight individual plant textures and unique attributes. I want something beautiful to be happening in the garden every season because I want it to draw people out to experience it and care for it.

A collage of photos featuring plant combinations of varying fall colors and textures.
A few plant combinations featuring favorite plants to highlight textures and seasonal changes.

I won’t apologize for using some of my favorite plants in numerous gardens. But I always try to keep the combinations fresh, and use at least one new plant in each garden. I love every plant in the witch hazel family, and can almost always find a place for an oakleaf hydrangea and some blueberries or huckleberries. I can’t fully retire until I meet the client who asks me for a garden built around dwarf conifers, grasses and ferns!

Now with retirement on the not too distant horizon, I am looking forward to springs and autumns that feel a little less hectic. Meanwhile, I am amazed at how there is always something new to learn in this profession, and how many new plant combinations I have left to try. So, as long as I can still remember my Latin, and find clients willing to trust me and the process, I think I’ll keep building the Big Picture one garden at a time. Maybe just a few less at a time.

Kelly Carter Mortimer, designer and owner
Big Picture Landscapes
Big Picture Landscapes is featured on houzz.