Garden hunter Riz Reyes a featured speaker at Gig Harbor Garden Tour

Local horticulturist Rizaniño ‘Riz’ Reyes is always on the lookout for the collectible plant

craig.sailor@thenewstribune.comJune 26, 2013 

You won’t find petunias or impatiens in the garden of Riz Reyes. Instead, strange but alluring plants rise in the Shoreline garden of the horticulturist and garden designer.

Reyes, 31, is at the vanguard of a new generation of horticulturists who aren’t willing to accept the old standards. They are constantly on the search for the new, the rare and the unexpected.

And Reyes, who is an in-demand speaker on the garden show and club circuit, stands out among his peers for at least one other reason: He is isn’t a middle-age white woman.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Along with TV personality Ciscoe Morris and Tacoma garden designer Sue Goetz, Reyes is one of three speakers at this weekend’s Gig Harbor Garden Tour. The annual event offers a chance to visit seven private gardens in the Gig Harbor area. Proceeds support child and adult literacy programs.

Reyes was raised on a mango plantation in the Philippines before immigrating to the United States with his family in 1989. He holds a bachelor’s degree in environmental horticulture from the University of Washington.

While he was in college, he started a small specialty nursery at his Shoreline home. Now, Reyes propagates and grows plants, designs gardens, and maintains the gardens that he has installed for clients. He also writes for several horticultural publications.

“I’m a one-man show,” Reyes said while seated in his garden near a plant with nearly all-white leaves.

Reyes’ display garden took the top prize at Seattle’s Northwest Flower & Garden Show in February. It was his first time as a competitor in the prestigious show.

Entrants had to base their gardens on movies. Reyes used “Jurassic Park,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “King Kong” as inspiration for his jungle-evoking creation.

Reyes’s slide show and talk on Saturday, “Collectors’ Plants for the Novice Gardener,” will highlight what he calls, “cool, unusual, not often found plants that a beginner or even an experienced gardener can have success with.”

“It’s a talk that can really broaden one’s plant palette regardless of what level gardener you are,” he said. “I try to cover everything in terms of trees, shrubs, perennials, bulbs, ground covers, and give examples of common varieties but also variations.”

Reyes isn’t a horticultural snob. He’s just drawn to the unusual.

“It’s about embracing diversity. It’s encouraging gardeners to be adventurous in their plant selections. It’s very easy to say, ‘I just want color,’” Reyes said.

But his plants are so much more than pretty flowers. Take the plant with the mostly white leaves. It’s horseradish, that spicy condiment that goes so well with prime rib. Most gardeners aren’t growing horseradish to begin with. But even the standard green-leafed variety doesn’t satisfy Reyes. His has leaves that look as if someone dumped paint on them.

In his talk, Reyes shares not only examples like that one, but also the plant’s growth habits and requirements.

“Another title for this talk is ‘Variations on a Theme,’” Reyes said. “It’s a common plant and you know it, but there’s something different about it that makes it unique and unusual and collectible.”

In another talk he gives, “Travels of a Young Gardener,” Reyes tells of his trips to places near and far, and the encounters he has with both plants and people.

His most far-flung adventure was a plant collecting expedition to China with famed Kingston-based plant collector Daniel Hinkley. There, Reyes collected the seeds of a Viburnum henryi. One of the shrubs that sprouted from those seeds now lives in his garden.

As a garden creator, Reyes admits he works in a saturated industry. “A lot of my friends and colleagues and even mentors are also my competitors.”

Reyes said he listens to his clients and caters to their needs, but most of them come to him because they want their gardens to be show-stoppers.

“We can put on a show and make their garden unique and not like their neighbors,” Reyes said.

Reyes likes to takes risks in challenging situations. “If they have a really hot, south facing wall and they say nothing grows because it just bakes ... immediately plant names start going through my head. I’m not just going to throw in lavender, sage and rosemary and call it good.”

He also aims to educate, whether it’s at a garden show or with a client. “I want to inform and teach. I want them to understand why I’m selecting a particular plant, or why I’m pruning at a particular time of year.”

Lately, Reyes has begun to revisit what first propelled him into the horticulture world: cut flowers. As a boy in the Philippines, “I was fascinated at how women would react when they got a flower,” he said.

Later, Reyes befriended the florist at a local Safeway. “I would ask her what the different flowers were and watch her make arrangements.”

He considered a career in floral arranging, but the politics and business practices of the industry turned him off. Instead, he chose horticulture.

When Reyes is working on arrangements for a wedding or some other event, he approaches it in the same way as he does gardening. Plant combinations are based on color, shape and texture.

“It’s the same principles when you are designing and selecting plants for your garden but you are just doing it in a handheld bouquet.”

What’s more, the plants are usually from Reyes’ garden. “I can identify each and every plant in that bouquet and tell you how to grow it.”

Reyes says the horticultural world still has plenty of surprises left. Plant breeders constantly bring out new varieties and there are many more discoveries to be made in the wild.

“It’s phenomenal and it won’t ever stop,” he said. “That’s the coolest thing about plant collecting and gardening in general.”

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541

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