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Seattle tour sparks garden envy

Garden Muse • These places were so perfect that my own home garden seemed shabby
by: Barbara Blossom Ashmun, In the Dunn Garden in the Seattle area, an orange begonia combines with hot pink and orange geraniums for a riveting picture.

Visiting gardens sounds like a safe vacation, without the risks of waterskiing or sky diving. But on a recent tour of exquisite Seattle gardens, unexpected emotions assaulted me and held me captive. I didn't break any bones, but envy and longing sneaked up on me.

These places were so perfect that my own home garden seemed shabby by comparison. Several gardens were sited on vast bodies of water - the views alone were breathtaking, and the added splendor of landscapes complementing nature's grandeur was almost too much to take in.

At Windcliff, created by plant explorer Dan Hinkley and architect Robert Jones, artfully designed pools and falls cascaded along a slope, linking the garden with the majestic Puget Sound below. Feeders and flowers attracted birds galore - a redheaded woodpecker drilled into suet while hummingbirds danced between red Lobelia tupa and orange Crocosmia.

Sweeps of cobalt blue agapanthus filled me with joy. But where would I ever find unusual cultivars like 'Quink Drops,' Graskop,' or 'Blue Leap'? Hinkley told us that Marchant's Nursery in England carried them, as well as Dancing Oaks in Monmouth, so they went on my wish list. Days later, we came upon some pots at Swanson's Nursery in Seattle, and a few of our tour group scooped them up.

Several gardens were clearly fed not only with compost, and water, but also with infinite infusions of money. They reminded me of what writer Pamela Harper said years ago, that some gardens are made with love, and some with money, but the best are made with love and money. Most of us plant fanatics don't think twice about splurging on a brilliant dahlia or a fabulous Stewartia, but the majority have to draw the line, budgeting for more costly hardscaping. Viewing gardens where there was no apparent limit was disheartening. My suburban garden would never have cut stone paths or walls.

Not to mention help. Several of the private gardens that glowed with perfection had personal gardeners who labored regularly. I felt another tug of envy watching muscular young men opening new beds with mattocks, wishing I could kidnap them and take them home.

At the Dunn Garden (www.dunngardens.org) a pot of orange begonias, probably 'Bonfire,' looked so much more dazzling than my own plant back home. The container was perched at the top of a wall to allow the fiery flowers to drape gracefully, and just below them sat a lovely water bowl for calming contrast. The display was in a courtyard where orange dahlias, annual geraniums and orange-tinted coleus foliage kept the theme going.

I flashed back on a trip to New Zealand in 1990 when I had a similar attack of envy, which I'd shared with the owner of the garden we were visiting.

'Comparisons are odious,' he remarked. His words gave me pause. They resounded in my mind on this trip, and I began to calm down. Every garden, even mine, has moments of perfection. But was perfection really the reason to garden?

Reflecting on that, I remembered that I garden because digging, raking, pruning and planting bring me close to the Earth and all the green life arising from it. I feel connected to something larger than my small self. Because daydreaming about the next bed and border ignites my imagination and makes me feel alive. Because while gazing into the face of 'Karma Chocolate' dahlia I feel elated. Because while I'm weeding, and I pause to look up, the sight of 'Grace' smoke tree and 'Coral Floral Carpet' roses backlighted by the afternoon sun floods me with joy.

Recently I heard that Vincent Van Gogh, after seeing Japanese woodcuts, decided there was no point in continuing to paint. He felt unable to achieve anything close to their excellence. He asked himself, 'Where is my Japan?' It turned out it was right there where he lived, in his own bedroom, and in the French fields right outside his windows.

The Desiderata tells us 'If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.' I think I'll substitute 'gardens' for 'persons' and try to live up to this wisdom.

It's a few weeks later now, and I'm looking for some new plants I'd admired on the trip, especially pineapple lily (Eucomis), ginger and Acacia. But the envy has lifted. Like Saint-Exupery's Little Prince who loved his rose best of all roses, because he fed and watered her, I love my garden like none other because I've poured my heart into this place.

You can reach Barbara at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


Coming Events

• Mad About Plants, A Plantsman's Garden, a presentation by British plant explorer Roy Lancaster; 1 p.m., Sept. 13, Reed College, Kaul Auditorium, 3203 Southeast Woodstock Boulevard. Tickets $20 Hardy Plant Society of Oregon members, $30 nonmembers. To register visit www.HardyPlantSociety.org.

• Hardy Plant Society of Oregon's Fall Plant Sale and Garden Festival, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., September 19 and 20, Portland Expo Center, 2060 North Marine Drive. Admission free, parking $7, $6 car pools of three or more. For more information contact www.HardyPlantSociety.org.