Friday, May 27, 2011

Belltown P-Patch garden - a haven for urban farmers

Belltown P-Patch garden is a haven even for some smaller inhabitants; this little bird was busy feeding her noisy chicks inside the house... (perching on the flower stake with a duck).

Make no mistake: Seattleites are one eco-friendly bunch of people. They bike (or at least drive a hybrid), and with their fleeces and sensible shoes, they generally look like they would just be heading off for a tough hike somewhere off the beaten tracks. They recycle religiously, use their own latte mugs instead of disposable ones, and eat organic food, preferably bought at the local farmers markets. So it is no surprise that growing one's own food is hugely popular here, and living in the middle of the city can do nothing to curb that passion.

Entrance to the garden, with a solar-powered fountain and mosaics by local artists.

For the moment, the city of Seattle has totally 73 community gardens where urban gardeners can get their nails dirty. Since the early 1990s, the number of gardens have more than doubled, but this hasn't been enough to satisfy the eager growers; at the same time, the queue for allotments has more than doubled, too; in the most popular gardens you now need to wait over three years for a lot. In Seattle, community gardens are called P-Patch gardens after the first of them, Picardo Farm, which was bought by the city in 1973 and rented as allotments for the citizens. Belltown P-Patch is from the mid-90s. It is the most urban of the P-Patch gardens, situated just a stone's throw from the business district of Seattle city centre.

A salmon-colored aquilegia in full bloom.

Only three of the original cottages are left, showing the scale of the city for a century ago. Two of these now are appointed for writers-in-residence from the Hugo House Writers Centre, the third is for community gatherings.

Belltown P-Patch has a decidedly arty air, with works by many local artists enhancing the garden. Many of the works are both beautiful and practical, like the great welded entry gate and the elaborate railings around the garden. Colorful mosaics fill the heavy retaining walls that are indispensable for keeping the soil in place. Many of the urban farmers have kept to the same theme, filling their lots with re-purposed objects, all arranged according to their personal tastes.

 Delicately stripy fava beans need more sun and warmth to develop their delicious pods.

Surrounding high-rises; the garden is an oasis for local residents and people working in the city centre alike.

For many Europeans, United States unfortunately stands for all things fast and big - junk food, high energy consumption and water usage just to mention some. But community gardens like Belltown P-Patch are the antithesis of all that, and they show the other side of US that seldom gets into the spotlight abroad. With urban farming gaining momentum and farmers markets popping up everywhere, ecological thinking and great concern for nature and food are growing like a great wave all over the country. Is tremendously exciting to see how committed and engaged people are to making things better. Jamie Oliver got colossal attention when he took his Food Revolution- show to the US last year. But in Seattle, and many other parts of the country, Americans were well on their way towards healthier food and lifestyle long before he crossed the Atlantic.

Open to the public, 2516 Elliott Avenue, Seattle.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Some arty barrels

While photographing an inner-city garden near Seattle waterfront, I came across a couple of cool installations by the intersection of Vine Street and Alaskan Way. Several crumpled, distressed-looking oil barrels were tied together on grey steel pallets. All barrels had the word PURGE neatly punched on, and billowy perennials - lavender, Gaura, Achillea, creeping thyme, daylilies, grasses - sprouted from their tops.

I couldn't find any signs or notes telling who made them and why. The Seattle Art Institute is housed in the buildings behind, so I suspect they could have something to do with them. Driving home, I contemplated the meaning of "purge" here. Could it mean elimination or removal, or getting rid of and cleaning up? As oil is usually stored in this kind of barrels, could the word refer to the power of oil - and to all it symbolizes - in our daily lives? And how we should be ditching it altogether and replacing it with green alternatives?

Whatever their intended meaning, I loved the plantings and the zink-colored barrels with their sculptural, soft buckles. Utilitarian in their origin, they suited well the half-industrial environment of the Seattle waterfront, making an earnest but humorous comment on our modern lifestyle. And if you know who made them, please let me know... I would love to hear more.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Vibes about Viburnums

Doublefile viburnum, Viburnum plicatum var. tomentosum 'Snowflake', a sculptural, layered shrub with creamy-white lacecap flowers.

Have you ever heard anybody to say that they just love Viburnums? Not often, I assume, even if they are such deserving plants. And maybe that's just the problem; they are far too accommodating to really be the stars of a garden. Still, there are such a variety of great species and cultivars to be grown; some of them evergreen, some highly fragrant, some with beautiful form and/or flowers,some with great fruit and some with vibrant autumn color. No single Viburnum really combines all of these features, but then, that kind of a sensory overload might be hard to handle...

Viburnum opulus 'Roseum' and the wild species, V. opulus; both are great, large shrubs for the wilder parts of the garden.

With its mild climate, the Pacific Northwest is a heaven for growing almost any of the around 180 species of Viburnums. One of the oldest garden varieties is the snowball tree, or V. opulus 'Roseum'; it has been deservedly popular in European gardens since the 17th century. I've always loved the creamy lime-color of the unfurling globes of flowers. This and the wild species called European cranberry bush, V. opulus, are both great transition plants between the more formal and informal parts of the garden, or as in my garden in Sweden, where the forest takes over. The birds love the opulus-berries which is a bonus.    

The highly fragrant flowers of Viburnum x Burkwoodii. It is semi-evergreen in cold climates.

Of the sweetly fragrant ones, V. x bodnantense 'Dawn" is one of the earliest to flower, starting in November or December and continuing until late February in these mild climates. Later in March or April, V. x Burkwoodii has a similar scent, reminding of both lilacs and lily-of-the-valleys at the same time. I had a large, old specimen in my garden in Melbourne and I loved coming home through the garden gate as my Burkwoodii gave me a scented welcome in early spring.

V. rhytidophyllum, an evergreen viburnum for milder climates. A bit coarse-looking, but a great background for other plants.

Most of the evergreen ones are too fragile for Scandinavia, where only the toughest like V. 'Eskimo' are semi-evergreen at their best, just like the scented V. x Burkwoodii above. In my present garden, I grow several other tough viburnum species, like the leatherleaf viburnums V. davidii and V. rhytidophyllum. None of them are really exciting, but they offer a great year around structure and background in the garden.

Viburnum plicatum tomentosum 'Mariesii', here in my neighbor's garden in Seattle.

If I should name my favorite Viburnum (besides the old-fashioned snowball tree that I have loved since I was tiny), it probably would be the doublefile viburnum, V. plicatum tomentosum. It has a great sculptural, layered form and clean, white flowers that hover elegantly above the sligthly veined leaves. 'Mariesii' is one of the best cultivars, with slender, arching stems; it needs space around it and preferably a darker green background to be appreciated properly. But I'd rather not to be restricted to only one cultivar, as there are such a variety of great plants to choose from.

A Chinese evergreen viburnum that I don't know the exact name for - a new find that I'm fond of, I like its slender, evergreen leaves and fragrant, delicate flowers. A must have, here we go again...  

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Making a prairie, today

To make a prairie it takes one clover and one bee,
One clover and a bee, and revery.
The revery alone will do, if bees are few.

- Emily Dickinson -

Today, bees are few, but luckily, there's enough clover to make a whole prairie. I just love Emily's writing.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Pleated, edged

Lately, I've been drawn to plants with less than obvious charms. Certainly, I do enjoy a gorgeous flower, but subtle nuances rather than explicitness increasingly catch my attention.

I guess the buttercup winterhazel, Corylopsis pauciflora, is an excellent example of a plant that I'd probably had walked past for ten years ago, not really noticing its many merits... Its buttery, delicately scented flowers appear in mid-winter like tiny lanterns hanging from its bare branches. After they fade in late March or April, its bright green, pleated leaves unfurl and reveal their elegant, burgundy edges; I think they are even more striking that its flowers. Slowly, its slender branches grow into a sculptural vase-formed shrub that seldom exceeds breast height. This winterhazel  looks striking with early spring ephemerals, like cyclamen, Helleborus, snowdrops and crocuses.

Maybe it's my age (somewhere in the middle of life, with a bit of luck...), but there's something soothing to realize that it is not only about the grandifloras, but that the paucifloras can have just as much to give.

Photographed at the Elisabeth C. Miller Botanical Garden, May 5th 2011.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Pssst, honey...

 I've been doing so little in my garden that I shouldn't even call myself a gardener anymore... Maybe it's the chilly weather, or maybe something else that I don't really want to define for the moment.
Anyway, I decided to make amends, weeding myself through the worst parts of the borders. I found dozens of alert little baby Irises that had self-seeded into all the wrong places but were too cute to be tugged out; and then, these two love birds, cooing soft little nothings to each other...  Spring is definately in the air, not even the freezing cold can hold it back now.

These excellent, sometimes invasive groundcover violets were sold as Viola labradorica that are native to Labrador, Greenland and Nova Scotia, but they probably are V. riviana, a garden variety from Europe (it is improbable that the arctic variety would thrive at these latitudes...). I love their dark leaves with a purple tinge, and the edible flowers are perfect to decorate chocolate cakes with. Might actually make one for tonight, after all, it is Friday...

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Elisabeth C. Miller Botanical Garden

The beautiful Japanese hybrid Iris x nada. Everywhere in the Elisabeth C. Miller Botanical Garden, large urns are filled with exquisite plants, like this iris.

Since I moved to the Seattle area and started visiting gardens here, I noticed a strange, expressive blick in the eyes of local garden aficionados when "the Miller garden" was mentioned. Sometimes named the jewel of Pacific Northwest gardens, the Elisabeth Carey Miller Botanical Garden is notoriously difficult to get to. Only 500 visitors are admitted there between the months of April and October, and when tour bookings start in early February, they fill up within a couple of hours. There are no chances for peeking in over the fences; its position is such a well-kept secret that even the most hard-core gardeners here don't know its exact address (and even if they would, it wouldn't help, as it is situated in a gated and closely guarded neighborhood, one of the most exclusive in the Seattle area...).

Epimediums are a signature plant of the Elisabeth C. Miller Botanical garden; she loved these shade-tolerant, tough perennials, and over 200 species of them grow in the gardens. Here E. grandiflorum.

The spiderlike flowers of Epimedium ilicifolium.

On the given date, I'd been waiting by the phone all morning to book, and you can understand that my spirits were high when I received my tour confirmation for May 5th. I had learned about the significance of Elisabeth C. Miller (1914-1994) in the botanical and horticultural sphere in this part of the world, continuously bumping into her name in various connections from the Centre of Urban Horticulture, Elisabeth C. Miller botanical library to the Great Plant Picks program and diverse lectures and events arranged by the Northwest Horticultural Society. With unstoppable energy, Elisabeth played an important part in founding and being active within all these organizations and societies, besides building her own, now seminal garden.

 The beautiful, highly textured bark of a Parrotia persica, Persian ironwood tree.

Cloranthus serratus, a pretty woodland groundcover; I think it looks like a hybrid between Rodgersia and Fothergilla...

Immaculate, white Trillium chloropetalum alba, with ferns and Tiarellas around in the woodland garden. 

Originally, the Miller garden was the private home of Elisabeth and Pendleton Miller, who in 1948 bought 5 acres of land in the Highlands area situated on a steep bluff above the deep green waters of the Puget Sound. It was here that the 34 years old Elisabeth started to work with her garden, expanding and developing it as her gardening skills and plant knowledge increased. From the very beginning, she was interested in using native plant material and environmentally friendly gardening methods. Also, she shunned formality in her garden, wanting it to blend with the surrounding nature. Only a small lawn near the house was included, making the Miller garden a huge contrast to the surrounding, large houses with their extensive, short-clipped lawns. Stonework, skillfully used for terraces and paths, was a favorite of hers, and provided structure in the otherwise very informal garden. From quite modest beginnings, Elisabeth's garden grew into a tour de force that contains over 5000 species of choice, often rare plants from over 35 countries around the world.

The stately stone steps to the lower part of the garden, finished after Betty's death. Countless large pots in all imaginable materials fill the terraces and pathways, all filled with rare, exquisite specimens. The egg-shaped stone planter in the first picture was my favorite...

And did the garden meet my highly-set expectations? Yes. In a way, it wasn't and isn't a revolutionary garden. But still, it is the quintessential Pacific Northwest garden with its informal layout, its sensitivity to the landscape, existing nature and vegetation, its botanical and horticultural excellence, and its touch of the Japanese (the first two of which were also characteristic to the Olmsted brothers, who were active in the region in the beginning of the 20th century and whose work Elisabeth knew well). Even today, Elisabeth's passion for plants gives her garden its special appeal and charm. And fortunately, it is now in the hands of some of the most experienced gardeners and plantsmen in the region, who skillfully tend her gardens, making sure that it continues to be an outstanding testament to her life's work and her botanical and horticultural passion.

Some members of Elisabeth's collection of Hepaticas; there are over 100 species from Japan and Europa, many of them extremely rare.

The working area was filled with amazing plants, temporarily housed in thousands of pots, waiting to find their homes on the slopes of the large garden. 

More information, see Elisabeth C. Miller Botanical Garden.

Holly, thank you for a wonderful tour and congratulations again for your new job as a head gardener!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Garden of Souls in the Utopian Heights Neighborhood

Asked to write about the garden of Seattle artists Nancy Mee and Dennis Evans, I was invited to their home and garden last Friday. The visit has kept my thoughts occupied ever since. Filled with art by themselves, their artist friends and artisans from faraway cultures around the world, Nancy's and Dennis's home, ateliers and garden were a visual and intellectual synthesis that merged their passions, interests and work into one seamless, harmonious whole. 

Nancy and Dennis  have been living and making art in their Utopian Heights Studios in the Bryant-Assumption neighborhood in Seattle since 1976. Both are successful, well-established artists - Nancy a sculptor and Dennis a painter - and their creativity touches everything around them.

Nancy and Dennis believe that art is about sharing. Around their home and ateliers, they have put this belief into practice, transforming their garden, the surrounding parking strips and an adjacent lot into the Utopian Heights Neighborhood, complete with a very official-looking (but unofficial) sign stating the name. Here, forty bright pink Prunus 'Thundercloud' trees, carefully selected stones and sculptures, bronze plaques with philosophical passages and minimalistic benches offer nourishment and rest for the eyes, minds and legs of the occasional passers-by and residents of the area.

On the parking strips, Dennis has placed several, beautiful limestones from North Dakota. These were formed  and partly turned into marble by high pressure under the snow masses during the ice-age. They form contemplative focal points and invite to touching and closer examination, evoking thoughts of petrified trees or waterfalls. A seasonal dial (instead of a sun dial) tells when it is time to celebrate the spring and autumn equinoxes, or summer and winter solstices, and sometimes Nancy and Dennis arrange a celebration together with their neighbors. Along the sidewalks, Dennis's bronze plaques bear messages like "A permanent state of transition is man's most noble condition" or "The wise man changes his mind - the fool, never"; a gentle poke on the minds of even the most hurried walkers.

From the sidewalk, there is an opening into the Garden of Souls, a secluded garden that is open to the public. Here,  in a setting of several small rooms filled with plants and water features, Nancy's large glass and metal sculptures meet the visitors, looking like beautiful hybrids between ancient Japanese Torii-gates and sea marks that radiate both strength and fragility at the same time.

The Garden of Souls was begun - inadvertently, as Nancy and Dennis say - on September 11, 2001, and it was completed within six weeks out of pure frustration with the acts of terror happening that day. It has evolved during the bygone decade, with Dennis planting and shaping the structure and Nancy working with the sculptures, but it still functions as a place for contemplation and reflection, and as a memorial for all souls that were lost - or passed forward, as Dennis and Nancy say - during that single day. 

In their neighborhood park, Nancy and Dennis have even included a small, wooden shrine, where passers-by can leave their thoughts and prayers. These are gathered and burned every six months, and so joined with the universe. Small presents are often left on the little altar, and someone even carried a bright green Buddha here; now, it welcomes visitors with a broad smile among the lush ivy under the altar. The most private and touching little notes filled the shrine when I visited, reminding of the deep need of spirituality in our daily lives. And maybe the park and shrine are especially protected, as they so far have been safe from graffiti and other foul deeds.

As number three of Dennis's bronze plagues by the sidewalk says: "Be happy with what you have and are, be generous with both, and you won't have to hunt for happiness." In my mind, no-one fulfills that better than Nancy and Dennis themselves, who are happily doing what they love and so generously sharing it all with us others.

More about Nancy's and Dennis's art: Utopian Heights Studios.