Friday, July 29, 2011

Seattle is sunny...

Day one of the fling, and we were up bright and early to board the bus to see our first Seattle gardens. Here are Frances, Gail, Elizabeth and Cindy

And here's Lorene telling us all to siddown and SHUDDUP. (Just kidding. She was really asking if everyone had been to the bathroom.) Thanks, Lorene, for helping to organise a fantastic fling.
The first two gardens we visited were neighbours in NW 116th Street, on the side of a hill. If you craned your neck and peered through the trees, you could see a sliver of ocean in the distance.
Both had big front gardens, and back gardens on different levels. Suzette and Jim Birrell's garden was a plantaholics' paradise, crammed with clematis, geraniums, roses, and a vegetable patch lit up by the rainbow colours of brilliant chard stems. Shelagh Tucker's front garden was inspired by Beth Chatto's dry garden, with grasses and drought-tolerant plants. Her back garden was designed as a series of interlinking spaces, each with its own character, and each offering different vistas of the garden.
Lots of the Flingers asked me if I thought the gardens seemed very English in character. It was a question I found myself pondering throughout the weekend. What is it - beyond the stereotypes - that gives a garden a national characteristic?

Although I was familiar with most of the plants in the Birrell garden (the first plant I saw, pictured above, was Geranium 'Blue Sunrise', which I have in my garden at home), it didn't look to me like a typical English garden. Perhaps it was the tall conifers that surrounded it. In the UK we usually grow conifers either as hedging or as specimen trees. They don't tend to be the background trees in the landscape beyond the garden. (Did you know that only three conifers - yew, juniper and Scots pine - are regarded as native to Britain? America has something like 200.)

Perhaps it was the Adirondack chairs, set invitingly at the rear of a sunny lawn.

Here's Kylee, taking pictures in the front garden.

I loved the plant combinations, such as this cotinus, or smoke bush, with alstroemeria.

I was very envious of this Gloriosa superba 'Rothschildiana', or gloriosa lily

Here's the back of Barbara, a view with which I was to become familiar! Barbara, it was so lovely to meet you face to face (when you weren't taking photographs, that is).

Why don't my zantedeschia look like this?

I went to all the trouble of asking the name of this gorgeous clematis, only to forget it before I had time to write it down. A sign of impending senility, no doubt.
Shelagh Tucker's garden had more of an English feel about it, although at first glance, with its clapboard house and Adirondack chairs in the front garden, it looks typically American.

I think it was the use of the formal terrace, the thyme planted in between the paving stones, the sense of enclosure created by the use of the gate and the "rooms".

I liked the simplicity of the pond, and the grasses set in the gravel courtyard.

A secluded fountain in another, shady courtyard filled with hostas and ferns.

I loved the quirky cast-iron mat with its pattern of frogs ...

... and the way that the garden was designed to offer a vista from every angle. It came as no surprise to learn that Shelagh was not only from England, but also a painter.
It was so kind of Suzette and Jim, and Shelagh, to let us invade their gardens and take pictures. Shelagh also provided cold drinks and pastries to revive us - a gesture repeated by other gardeners who were hosting us on the tour. Standing beneath the blue sky, feeling the warmth of the sun on my bare arms, and with an iced tea in one hand and a palmier in the other, I felt very glad that I'd decided to come to Seattle.

Another view of Shelagh Tucker's front garden, frothing with Stipa tenuissima, Allium sphaerocephalon and Lychnis coronaria

Another view of the back garden ...

... and roses against the grey paint of the house. I loved this combination of colours.

Reluctantly, we gently untwined ourselves from the two gardens and set off for lunch at the Dunn Gardens, designed by Olmsted Brothers, the sons of Frederick Law Olmsted, who created Central Park and designated by some as the Father of American Landscape Architecture (the other claimant to that crown is Andrew Jackson Downing, who designed the grounds of the White House and the Smithsonian Institution).
The sunny lawn was a great place for a picnic, which was followed by a tour of the grounds. I was astonished to see Cornus florida and rhododendrons still in flower at what was nearly the end of July.
As an ignorant Brit, I'd never heard of Olmsted, pere or fils. Reading up on Frederick Law Olmsted's theories of landscape design, I was interested to see that he believed in cherishing "the genius of a place" (retaining its natural essential character, if you like) and in "democratising nature" - providing open, beautiful spaces for the working man and woman to enjoy.
It's a philosophy that is in sympathy with the Arts and Crafts movement. Along with William Morris, roughly a contemporary, Olmsted shared the view that utility should never be subordinate to ornament - as Morris put it: "Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful."

However, Olmsted also believed that the hand of the artist should not be too apparent in landscape design and I think this is where I would stop nodding in agreement with him. I like structure, and formality, and a sense that there is a logical purpose behind any design. I found The Dunn Gardens, erm, parklike. It was a very pleasant park, with mature trees, interesting plants and meandering paths, but it didn't really blow me away.
The next stop on the tour was the Miller Horticultural Library at the Center for Urban Horticulture. This is a fantastic resource for gardeners, with not only books, but an advice line, garden tours and plant sales. The Center is also home to the Soest Garden, which is used to examine how plants grow under different conditions. This is how Barbara looked in sunny Seattle conditions.

I was, quite frankly, exhausted by this stage, so I wandered back to the hotel to put my feet up for five minutes before the evening event at the Ravenna Gardens nursery in the shopping mall next door to the hotel.

Ravenna Gardens is as gorgeous inside as it is outside. I defy any gardener to go in there and not come out with a purchase. I'd almost decided I was too tired to go, but perked up after a glass of wine and a goodie bag.

Cocktails! Is there any other way to start a meal? Here are Robin and Layanee at dinner on the first evening.