Northwest Flower & Garden Show: 1,200 square feet of spring

Annual Seattle show: These gardens might look casual and carefree - they are anything but

February 23, 2011 


    When: 9 a.m.-8 p.m. today-Saturday, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday.

    Where: Washington State Convention Center, Seattle.

    Tickets: Children younger than 12, free; youth (12-17 years), $5; half-day (after 3 p.m., or Sunday after 2 p.m.), $10; adult, $20; 2-day pass, $29; 5-day all show pass, $65.

    Information: 800-343-6973,

Every February, something miraculous happens in the Washington State Convention Center. Spring arrives a full month early in the guise of the Northwest Flower & Garden Show.

The annual event, now in its 23rd year, is a mecca for the dirt-stained hordes itching to claim the newest plant introductions, hear lectures by garden experts and buy the latest labor-saving implement. But mostly they come for the gardens.

The display gardens are fantastical Edens that highlight both the creativity of garden designers and the skills it takes to bring those ideas to fruition in just a matter of days.

By design, there is an air of casual ease and maturity that surrounds these gardens. But the journey there includes months of planning, sweat and more than a few crossed fingers.

Olympia garden designer Suzy Dingle and landscaper Victor Higgins know that road well. Since last summer, they’ve been working on the pieces that will come together when the show opens today at 9 a.m.

Garden designers have an arsenal at hand to create their vision: plants, hard surfaces, water, structures, scents, color and the theatrical lighting of the convention center. It’s all carefully choreographed to evoke a mood, a memory, a sense of place.

Dingle has not designed a flashy garden, she says, but one she hopes will cause a visceral reaction. “The garden should feel familiar, as if a dear, old friend has welcomed you back home.”

Dingle, who designs garden sanctuaries for a living, chose a theme based on a book she recently completed. It’s a children’s fantasy tale about a girl who is a “walker-between-the-worlds.” The garden will mirror elements of the story that include a hot spring, a performance stage, a meadow and a medicine wheel among other elements.

Fairy tales are pervasive at this year’s show. Themes of the other 20 gardens include “Alice in Wonderland,” “Rapunzel,” “The Three Little Pigs” and “The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe.” But there are plenty of adult subjects as well, including one garden based on the botanical discoveries brought back by the HMS Endeavour, and a sci-fi themed garden.

For Higgins, who also designs gardens and is a landscape management instructor at Clover Park Technical College in Lakewood, the challenge is translating Dingle’s vision into reality. Higgins readily admits that he has much more leeway in creating a display garden compared to a real-world version.

“I can push the practicality aspects in the display garden. We don’t have to worry about erosion or any of that stuff. You can’t go full out like Disneyland, but I’m trying.”

Sometimes the gardens are more fiction than fact, blurring both seasons and habitats in a way that would never occur in the real world. But every designer at the show, save for the occasional evergreen- or winter-themed garden, has to fool Mother Nature in some way. And that’s achieved the same way one forces a hyacinth or daffodil to bloom on a kitchen table. Except on a much larger scale.

Shortly after New Year’s, Dingle’s Olympia kitchen was taken over by pots of miner’s lettuce and other plants covering the washer, dryer and kitchen table. Plants were growing under lights in the garage and a light-filled outbuilding was crammed to the rafters.

At a borrowed greenhouse in Olympia, Dingle and Higgins were forcing Darmera peltata (Indian rhubarb) in a pool of warm water using aquarium heaters. The edible Northwest native grows along stream banks but wouldn’t normally sprout until April.

All told, they are forcing three fourths of the 1,500 plants they are using in the 1,200-square-foot garden.

The 65 different kinds of plants that Higgins and Dingle have selected are heavy on Northwest natives, a major theme of the garden. “I want people to understand that native plants are beautiful,” she said.

In mid-January, Dingle and Higgins visited Marenakos Rock Center in Issaquah to hand select rocks for their garden. They determined on the spot where the rocks would go, what direction they would face and how deep their bases would be buried. That might seem like nit picking until you consider one of the stones weighed in at three and a half tons. After measurements were taken, Higgins entered the data in a design program on his computer to refine the design.

Every plant and every square foot is accounted for. Still, the garden creators have to be flexible until the last minute. In late January, Dingle and Higgins were notified that a garden in their group had pulled out of the show. Since several gardens occupy an island of the convention center’s floor, the space had to be redesigned. Within 24 hours, Higgins and Dingle had a new plan.

Early this month, Dingle and her friend Lynn Villella visited Windmill Gardens in Sumner, which provided greenhouse space for show gardeners. Several of the business’s greenhouses were filled with blooming plants, tropical banana trees and huge ferns. The pair checked progress on orange leafed heucherella, native dwarf dogwood (Cornus canadensis) and pots of grassy Carex.

The atmosphere in the greenhouses is one-size-fits-all and some of the plants were not doing well in the high humidity. Villella and Dingle loaded up their cars with mildewing plants for some rehab in Olympia. By the time the garden is finished, Dingle and Higgins will have spent about $15,000 on their garden.

In addition to the plants, there are several art features, including three dragonflies inset into the stage. They were created by Matt Guerin out of discarded granite.

Dingle, a former People’s Choice award winner at the show, says she’s not designing her garden to win – though it would be nice. “If I focus on that, I’m going to lose the authenticity of this garden,” she said.

Last week, before the show opened, Dingle and Higgins were taking care of last-minute items such as creating plant labels on pieces of cork so visitors will know what plants they are looking at.

“I truly underestimated the amount of hours needed to do so many parts of this,” Dingle said. Higgins was busy working on a lighting system and Dingle made a last-minute purchase of antique milling stones from Asia.

There were some big details to take care of as well. The pair were shipping in a truckload of plants from California to replace those that expired or didn’t make the cut. They also had to work out delivery schedules.

And still the doors to the convention center remained closed. They opened last Saturday morning, giving the designers just four days to create spring inside a little patch of Seattle.

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541

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