Now that I've calmed down after the August tour of Seattle gardens that were so perfect I wanted to blow up my own garden, I'm reflecting on the visit with some perspective, and thinking about what made each garden unique. Behind my envy there's equal admiration, and maybe even a smidgen of desire to borrow some of what I saw.
Wisdom from Windcliff
Dan Hinkley and Robert Jones created the renowned Heronswood, noted for its heavenly woodland, then moved on to design Windcliff. Sited on a sunny slope overlooking the Puget Sound, this garden capitalizes on light and warmth to showcase unusual sun-loving plants. When I visited, masses of cobalt-blue Agapanthus, Cortaderias topped with cream-colored plumes and Lobelia tupa with brilliant red flower spikes blazed on the hillside leading down to the water.
Drifts of the same plant gave impact, while repeating these big splashes of color at intervals added rhythm. Leaves were as important as flowers - the blue-green foliage of Agave, Acacia, Eucalyptus and Melianthus contrasted with dark burgundy barberries, purple smoke tree and New Zealand flax.
In a flatter space, herculean concrete-block raised beds, filled with aged horse manure and loamy soil, overflowed with myriad squashes, beets, and kale, while a huge state-of-the-art greenhouse was packed with tomato plants. When triple-digit days cooked the tomatoes right on their vines, Hinkley made sauce. Unusual veggies were part of the fun - he pointed out a long, slender, flavorful zucchini climbing a teepee, grown from seed ordered from www.GrowItalian.com.
Most poignant were the tall flagged poles waving in the wind to commemorate loved ones who had passed on. They included three close family members, and inspiring plantsmen Christopher Lloyd, Parker Sanderson and J.C. Raulston. What better place to keep memories alive than in the garden where we spend so much time.
Bloedel Reserve nourishes the soul
Strolling through these acres of naturalistic gardens (www.bloedelreserve.org) was like immersing myself in complete tranquility. Swans floating on still water, a chartreuse moss garden, and a serene Japanese-style garden calmed me down. Paths meandering through a quiet woodland let me feel life's spaciousness and took the hurry out of the day.
The Garden as a stage
In contrast, several of the gardens we visited reminded me of stage sets. Instead of resembling meadows or woodlands, these gardens were all about drama. Sensational and flamboyant, they pointed more to the designer's talent than to the transcendent power of nature. Some of the contributing elements were hot, saturated colors, quirky sculpture and elegant pots.
The ultimate theatrical garden belonged to architect and sculptor Louise Durocher, who created a striking home and garden on a dauntingly steep site. She and her husband Michael Nelson bought the house for the view of water and mountains. Since they love to entertain, they opened the living room onto a patio designed to live in. Plenty of seating, a waterfall, koi pond, and dozens of handsome containers overflowing with tropical colors created an exuberant atmosphere.
Glenn Withey and Charles Price designed the containers, using dazzling colors reminiscent of Chihuley's glass art.
'I call them magicians,' Louise said. Their signature combinations of foliage and flowers abounded - bold leaves of coleus tinted chartreuse, magneta and burgundy backed sparkling petunias, fuchsias and geraniums in shades of red, pink and orange.
The Dunn Garden
Withey and Price are also curators at the Dunn Garden, where their special touches enliven a traditional estate garden. Ancient firs, oaks, and maples towered over an understory of rhododendrons, ferns, hellebores and saxifrages in the woodland. And then, in a clearing with dappled light, stood one stately container. Nature was interrupted briefly by art. Elevated on stacked stones, the pot showcased pastel flowers perfect for shade - peach angel's trumpet, white impatiens and blush pink fuchsias.
The immense trunks of fir trees supported climbing hydrangeas. Established in the 1960s, the vines covered the trunks with greenery, and lacecap flowers in spring. Also riveting was Rhododendron campanulatum var. aeruginosum. Blue-green leaves with tan undersides, like suede, made it the perfect focal point in a tapestry of green ferns.
The tour made me ask myself, what do I want my garden to become - a dramatic showplace with vivid colors, a green space for peaceful contemplation, a home for unusual plants. … On a balmy September afternoon, I stopped pruning and sat down, looking up at puffy white clouds and listening to the hummingbirds sing 'dzit, dzit, dzit.' What do I really want, I asked myself, and listened for the answer.
• Villa Garden Club Fall Plant Sale, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Oct. 17, Tabor Heights Methodist Church, 6161 S.E. Stark St., unusual perennials, ample parking, free admission. For more information call Velda Altig, 503-252-7423.
• Wintering Over: Prepare Your Yard for Winter, 10 a.m., Oct. 17, Al's Garden Center, 16920 S.W. Roy Rogers Road, Sherwood. Free admission. For more information, call Patty Howe, 503-726-1162.