When gardeners gather for a 'study weekend' each June, it's like a great big family reunion. These are my people, my tribe of plant nerds. We listen to lectures with slide shows, visit gardens and nurseries, shop for plants and books, and talk, talk, talk.
We stay up late, then wake up early and start all over again. We reconnect with old friends, meet new friends, learn about plants and design and go home with a full brain and lots of plants.
In the Northwest, the annual study weekend rotates between Eugene, Portland, Vancouver, B.C., Victoria, and Seattle. This year, more than 450 gardeners traveled to Seattle from all parts of Washington, British Columbia, Idaho, California, Oregon, and even from Pennsylvania, Georgia and Michigan.
It was overcast and rainy much of the weekend, almost unbearable after so many previous weeks of rain. Plenty of us were cranky, traipsing through gardens with umbrellas. Adrian Bloom, our keynote speaker from England, with the droll humor Brits are famous for, rubbed it in.
'We don't have very bright winters,' he said. 'You don't have very bright summers either.' A groan welled up from the audience.
But rain made it easy to stay indoors for the lectures. Bloom showed images of his superb garden, Foggy Bottom. For winter cheer he planted a mass of 'Midwinter Fire' red twig dogwood, accompanied by a ribbon of golden 'Ogon' sweet flag (Acorus). He also combined the red dogwood with white snowdrops and black mondo grass. Using just a few kinds of plants in long stretches made the design powerful.
An image of 'Matrona' sedums, backed up by 'North Wind' switch grasses, sent me straight to Swanson's Nursery where I bought this columnar, blue-green ornamental grass to go with 'Matrona' sedums already growing in my garden.
Bloom shared a concept new to me: planting a river of one low-growing perennial, with long-lasting interest, between two taller streams. For example, a river of 'Red Baron' blood grass flowed between taller ornamental grasses and evergreen conifers. A riveting summer vignette combined 'Rozanne' geranium, blooming blue-violet, between bright yellow 'Loraine Sunshine' sunflowers (Heliopsis) and red crocosmia.
In his latest book, 'Bloom's Best Perennials and Grasses,' he hones down the immense number of perennial choices to 12 dependables. If you're just starting out, it's helpful to have this foundation. But if you're as plant driven as I am, don't worry, the top 12 occupy only one of the six chapters in this book - with plenty more to tempt you.
A few of the gardens
Visiting more than a dozen gardens (more than two dozen were open!) and two nurseries in the course of three days made my head spin. The diversity was wonderful; each garden was interesting in its own unique way.
Terrie Shattuck's charming city garden had a front yard filled with perennials, ornamental grasses, and no lawn at all. But the best surprise was way in the back, where a special enclosure with a small, custom-built cottage housed a tortoise bought 14 years ago in a pet store.
'It was only this big,' Terrie said, making a small circle with her thumbs and index fingers. Now the tortoise is immense.
Everyone took turns gazing at the fascinating creature. Mister T lumbered out of his house to greet us, hurling himself forward on leathery feet along a straw path, then slowly turned back, retreating to the privacy of his shelter. Once inside, he turned around and repeated the journey, greeting new arrivals myriad times.
Stacie Crook's west-facing hillside garden was a showcase for building beds on a steep, sunny slope. After removing all the lawn, she chose drought-tolerant shrubs, perennials and grasses, combining them brilliantly. Foliage colors - golden, burgundy, variegated, silver and green - and contrasting textures keep her garden interesting year round. This festive front garden was dazzling.
As I moved toward the back yard, I took great pleasure in a long stretch of pink Cistus skanbergii flowering along the side garden and a beautiful gate. My favorite place was the back patio, with a collection of containers, each one filled with a tapestry of perfectly combined plants. The restraint of just a few plants in each pot, in a quieter palette, was refreshing, especially after the flamboyant front garden.
Visiting gardens helps us appreciate the many variations on a theme, the infinite inventions gardeners come up with. Honoring their originality, we learn to recognize what fits for us, and return home inspired to refine our own living collages.
• Portland Dahlia Society members present a Mini Dahlia Show, 7:30 p.m., July 13, Rose City Park United Methodist Church, 5830 N.E. Alameda, Portland. Free admission. For more information, call 503-246-8632.