Fresh from speaking to the Northwest Perennial Alliance’s Hardy Plant Study Weekend in Seattle, Washington last weekend, and seeing the greatest concentration of home gardens (and enthusiastic home gardeners) I have probably ever seen in this country, only to come back to the gnats, humidity, deer ticks and extremes of Virginia, it’s hard not to believe that the grass is not only figuratively greener for a gardener in Washington state — it’s literally greener.


The exquisite garden of Joanne White in Redmond, WA.

I spent much of the three days I was there spewing a constant mantra of either “What is that, and can I grow it?!?” or the more familiar, “Damn I wish I could grow that.” Moss everywhere. Ferns everywhere. Lush, everywhere. Even the nose gets involved in the rapture – pathway mulch is ground from local Douglas fir and cedar which releases a warm smell of Christmas tree lot when you walk through a garden. That’s not playing fair.

Oh and the other thing – Smug. Gardeners. Everywhere.  They know what they’ve got and they’ve got it good.

Like nurseries. Dancing Oaks, Fancy Fronds, Far Reaches Farm, Windcliff Plants, ….ringing any bells folks? Yep. Within driving distance. When I asked the audience how many people were living in their ideal garden, half of them raised their hands.  That’s impressive.

In the back of my mind I have a more than a niggling regret that we didn’t move to this area 20 years ago and just order a couple of Seasonal Affective Disorder visors when winters started to wear.

NPA Symposium

Dr. Ross Bayton and Debby Purser from Heronswood getting ready to speak at the NPA Symposium at the Meydenbauer Center.

What is that and can I grow it?

A few of my take-aways (not literally):


These bergenia leaves were 7-8 inches across and belong (I think) to a cultivar out of Great Dixter – possibly ‘Eden’s Magic Giant’ ?



Pulsillata alpina. While I was admiring this plant in the rock garden of the Bellevue Botanical Garden, a Scottish woman told me that it does very well from seed, and without a thought for ethics, grabbed a seed head and handed it to me with instructions to sow immediately. About 100 gardeners stood just behind me enjoying a drink and probably watching with interest. One of those moments where you are simultaneously horrified and delighted at the same time.



Woodwardia unigemmata – a gorgeous red species of this architectural fern that actually roots itself at the tip of the frond. Stunning. (Bellevue Botanical Garden)


Cornus venus

The silky, sultry petals of Cornus florida ‘Venus’ up against an ‘Ogon’ Metasequoia.


Aesculus hippocastanum 'Wisselink'

Aesculus hippocastanum ‘Wisselink’ growing, coppiced and lovely as a shrub at the Bellevue Botanical Garden. Fellow speaker, Vincent Simeone, (who KNOWS his trees) shrugged and said, “well, you could try it in your heat for a couple years…”


red panda podophyllum

The podophyllum were out of control. Which makes sense since we EastCoasters spend millions of dollars annually on shipping costs bringing these beauties to our gardens. Pictured: ‘Red Panda’ (Garden of Daniel Sparler & Jeff Schouten)



Fairly sure this is Podophyllum pleianthum (though I’m not sure I would know as mine sure as hell doesn’t look like that). (Garden of Daniel Sparler & Jeff Schouten)



Is this ‘Spotty Dotty’ gone mad, or some other wonderful wishlist cultivar? RantReaders, I need an ID. (Bellevue Botanical Garden)

We’ve all got our problems

Big Dreams, Small Garden

Envy is not a good thing. And then you go to Seattle.

I am the first to say that we cannot exist constructively or productively in a mind space of garden envy – nor should we (which, ironically, was the entire theme of my presentation at the Symposium on my first book, Big Dreams, Small Garden).


The gardening was so damn good, and the gardeners so damn happy, that upon landing back at Dulles and breathing deeply of the muggy swamp times, it was critical to my mental health to figure out and focus on the Pacific Northwest’s  weaknesses challenges. Here’s the best I could do:

  • Although I was repeatedly told that there was, apparently, a visible mountain range on the horizon, it remained invisible during my four-day visit – even when the blue sky peaked out on my way back to the airport. Mt. Rainer is there. That’s some impressive cloud cover.

The co-president of the NPA, Alison Johnson, took this photo two days ago and sent it just to mess with me. Seems suspiciously Photoshopped.

  • It drizzles there. And sprinkles, and spits, and mists. Seattle region actually gets less rain per year than my region of Virginia (average of 34 as opposed to 41 inches a year), and suffers a dry summer climate. Our wettest month is August.
  • Record breaking spring and summer heat over the last ten years has taxed the patience of the best of gardeners, who can’t escape the heat once they’ve sweltered in the garden because most people don’t have air conditioners. We share only the first part of that problem, as we equip our lemonade stands with A/C, much less our homes.
  • Median cost of a single family house (according to RedFin) is now $890K. Thank you Bill Gates. And you too Elon. (A reader reminds me that Mr. Bezos’ fingerprints are all over that price hike too. – MW)
  • Epic slugs.
  • There’s only so much seafood you can eat before you get iodine poisoning.

Makes me feel so much better.


You know it’s bad when they’re on the amsonia. (In the interests of generosity, I will not divulge this garden’s location.)

Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda

At one point in our lives, a Seattle relocation was very much on the table.

We were planning a move back to the US from a long period in the UK, and were trying to figure out (based on quality of life) where in the US to move our then little family of three.  

Having grown up and lived most of our lives near one coastline or another, we didn’t want to give up being relatively close to the ocean (less than 4 hours); but our massive student loans made it impossible to consider our pricey home state of California, as our priority was getting them paid off as quickly as possible.  Though we wanted to live rurally, we knew that it would take a good amount of paying dues in urban and suburban environments before a country life could be our reality. 

under deck garden

This gorgeous and newly created grotto lives under a deck in the garden of Tanya Bednarksi. I won’t show you a picture of what lives under my deck.

At that time, Seattle and environs had plenty of job opportunities. Frazier was in re-runs on UK television sets, and it felt like a great destination. From all accounts it was flipping gorgeous, and the cost of living was better than that on offer in the Golden State.  Mountains AND oceans. And lakes for that matter.

We started to think seriously about it, the idealism of two 20-somethings trumping all else, including rumors of drizzle and long periods of grey skies.

Then one rainy, grey Sunday, we found ourselves in the East London kitchen of friends Guisi and Oliver, making lunch after a failed BBQ, and talking about plans. Our friends both knew that London’s long grey winters and the [often] lack of a true summer in the UK didn’t have a great effect upon the moods of a couple born and raised in abundant sunshine (especially a couple deficient in the funds to holiday abroad occasionally). They looked at us sideways as we gushed about a new adventure in a new place.

Only in Seattle. Trachycarpus and self sown candelabra primulas share space in the garden of Joanne White at Novelty Creek.

Oliver, who traveled a great deal for work, and who was cleverly in the midst of relocating his family to sun-drenched Italy, pulled out a large atlas that provided a schematic of the world’s regional weather patterns to sober us up a bit.  Over the UK was the light blue overlay of “Maritime Climate.” And there, on the other side of the world, this overlay cast its temperate but rainy shadow over the Pacific Northwest.  He pointed outside to the site of our ruined June BBQ for emphasis.

We sobered. Love was dead. Lunch continued in silence.

Later we went on to mindfully choose a regional weather pattern of “Summer in Jumanji.” An exciting seasonal collaboration between Singapore and Finland.

So much better.

gabion walls

Inspiring gabion walls in the garden of Alison and Andrew Johnson. Inspiring because she and her son put them together over the course of a summer and solved the problem of a difficult slope. Andrew then built the steps.

Next time I visit Seattle, it will be for longer. I look forward to exploring the area – its hiking, its gardens, its nurseries, and maybe even its long-term care homes.  And I’ll definitely bring a bigger suitcase – the nurseries are fabulous. – MW