Pacific Northwest BY VALERIE EASTON / Seattle, Washington, Zone 8
The Show Goes On
THERE IS NOTHING like the fantasy of full-blown, flowery gardens in the middle of winter to reassure us that the earth is again spinning toward springtime. What else but a flower show offers daffodils blooming beneath spires of June-flowering delphiniums or the luxury of inhaling lily perfume five months early? In February, northwest gardeners can look forward to the pleasure and the challenge of navigating a flower show that will grow by 50 percent as it expands into the renovated Washington State Convention and Trade Center in Seattle.
Beyond the sheer extravaganza of such shows, there is a rich harvest of ideas to be reaped from the details, quiet corners, and trims and edgings of the show gardens. Designers, after all, face the same constraints as we do at home: limited space and budget, and an even greater time crunch. All the challenges of garden making are telescoped into the five-day lifespan of these 600- to 900- square-foot gardens. If you can keep your eyes from glazing over, it’s possible to pick out innovative and artistic solutions to common garden challenges such as access and proportion.
Pathways and pavers direct both passage through space and our visual experience of the garden. Materials for pathways set the mood, and in recent shows have run the gamut from boardwalks to random running bonds of golden granite pavers. Some designers don’t shy away from mixing materials, effectively using shifts in color or texture to help define spaces. In a recent show garden, crushed gravel was used on pathways and as the bed of a patio, where it was topped with tiny blue-lavender pea gravel and framed with stacked street cobbles.
Vertical elements lend a sense of scale and proportion that makes us feel comfortable in a garden. Height can become art, as when a flagpole is topped by a weather vane collage, or when an iron arbor is laced with mesh and planted with moss and sedum—a surefire way to lead the eye upward.
Subtle and effective division of space is key in small garden design, as in the eight-foot-high frosted glass panels, see-through rusty gates, or an allee created by pots of tall, skinny Ilex crenata ‘Sky Sentry’, all ideas gleaned from last year’s show.
It is the details, the intricacy, the personality of past show gardens that have seeped into my own thoughts and garden. And if you look closely, there are also new and unusual plants waiting to be discovered. My favorite find from a few years back was Edgeworthia papyrifera, a tangle of bare branches with tubular little white and yellow flowers in the Heronswood Nursery display garden. As I was cruising the marketplace at the show, a vendor was selling sad-looking sticks of the same plant, and I now have one growing happily in my back garden.
To do in the garden
A mild spell in January often offers the first chance to get outdoors to work in the garden after the especially rainy months of November and December. Take advantage of any dry weather this month to tidy spent perennials and rake up fallen leaves.
Bring in branches of winter-blooming trees and shrubs for forcing. Flowering quince, forsythia, winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum), and flowering plums or cherries are all candidates for coaxing into early indoor bloom.
Refrain from severe pruning or pollarding, despite the burst of sunny weather we often enjoy in mid-February. Such warm spells are usually followed by freezes that will set back any pruned plants.
Washington’s birthday is the traditional time to plant sweet peas. If the soil isn’t too soggy, you can go ahead and sow them directly in the garden late in the month.
Buttercup winter hazel Corylopsis pauciflora
This is a welcome sight in late winter when its spreading branches are thickly coated in drips of pale yellow flowers. The new leaves follow in shades of bronze opening to green, with yellow autumn color. This deciduous shrub grows slowly to five feet and takes well to pruning. Its graceful branches and delicate flowers are ideal in flower arrangments. Hardy in USDA Zones 6-9.