BY VALERIE EASTON / Seattle, Washington, USDA Zone 8
There can be no more worthwhile investment this spring than Flora: A Gardener’s Encyclopedia (Timber Press, 2003), written by a team of experts and edited by Portland, Oregon nurseryman Sean Hogan, with information on more than 20,000 plants from around the world and 10,000 color photographs. It is such a luxury to have a book that includes the newest cultivars! Along with being up to date, Flora’s strength is its truly international perspective, with many exciting plants hardy to the Northwest that don’t appear in other references. My only complaint about Flora is that the two-volume set, totaling 1,584 pages, is too big to tote around to nurseries.
Gardening in Place
It is widely believed (and not just by those of us who live here) that the Northwest is one of the finest places to make a garden in all the world. I perhaps lack perspective on this, never having lived or gardened anywhere else. Our benign climate encourages us to try to grow just about everything, so why not create Moroccan courtyards, Balinese retreats, and Zen sanctuaries? But only by understanding and accepting the realities of weather, soil, and topography do we garden in context. As writer and philosopher Allen Lacy wrote, “Garden where you live, just garden where you live.” We’d better know our microclimates before we mess around with them.
So, let’s consider the hard truth, which is colder than we’d prefer: the Seattle area comes in number 2 on the American Horticultural Society heat zone map, right after Alaska, registering only one to seven days each year over 86°F. This means you’d best site the tomatoes on the south side of the house, and the outdoor dining room on the west side, plus add a heat lamp or two. The most lived-in gardens are planned for fall rather than spring, for while our drippy, chilly springs keep bulbs blooming for months, we’re drawn outside by our long, warm autumns.
It is dark here in the wintertime, for we garden at 47° north latitude—the same as Fargo, North Dakota, and Newfoundland—but because our climate is moderated by the Pacific Ocean and mountain ranges, the minimum temperature rarely goes below 20° F. Far more plants get smothered in soggy soil than freeze to death. The elusive quest for drainage perfect enough for lilies and ceanothus remains more of a challenge than finding a microclimate sufficiently warm to ripen figs or overwinter abutilon. In neighborhoods defined by steep hills and proximity to fresh and salt water, microclimates conducive to sheltering tender plants abound, and hot hillsides sport silver-leaved Mediterranean plants and California natives. But we can’t get away from the fact that this is a rainy climate, except for a droughty period in summer, and when it does start raining, hillsides sometimes slip-slide away, for 75% of our annual moisture falls in the five sodden months from October through March.
When the clouds clear, our skies take on a washy quality of light beloved by artists and gardeners, for its luminosity softens and blends hot colors, makes green pop, and blue shine. What is nature, really, but the meeting of land and sky, the big blue and green? And it is with these colors that we excel with our evergreen backdrop and wide-open skies.
Northwest gardens are eclectic and personal, lapping at the water’s edge, crowning hilltops, carved out of the forest. We’re fortunate in more than our topography, for our gardens are born as much from the human environment as from the natural one. If our climate encourages us to garden, so do the great number of passionate people involved in our ever-expanding gardening community. It is the many fine organizations, exceptional nurseries, and knowledgeable and encouraging individuals that keep gardeners flourishing as surely as the plants out here in our corner of the country. H
55th Annual FlorAbundance Spring Plant Sale, April 24–25
At the time of year when plant lust bums brightest, the Washington Park Arboretum entices gardeners with a chance to buy directly from dozens of the finest local growers and specialty nurseries, while supporting the arboretum and its new master plan. The sale has become a Northwest tradition, relied on by gardeners in search of unusual annuals, species and hybrid rhododendrons, organic vegetable starts, vines, and an exceptional selection of perennials and ornamental grasses. For more information and a list of vendors, call 206-325-4510 or visit www.arboretumfoundation.org.