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Gardening in the Rainy Zone.
Inside the Northwest Flower & Garden Show
by Phil Wood
I felt like a ringmaster working with dozens of staff and volunteers...
SEATTLE — The closest I ever came to running away and joining the circus is when I designed a garden at the Northwest Flower and Garden Show. Each February, eighty thousand people leave the gray Seattle drizzle and step into springtime at the convention center to view two dozen gardens, created by nurseries and landscape companies. Hundreds of booths sell everything from botanical illustrations to garden tools. The crowd hums with energy, drawn together by the love of gardens.
Although I am taking this year off, I have designed 11 gardens over the nearly two-decade history of the show. I feel part of the circus family that gathers every year to put it on. Getting ready for the show is like winding up a giant toy. On the morning of move-in, months of preparation are released all at once—we are allowed only three and half days to create the gardens. A fleet of trucks, including semis, pours into the vast and empty cavern of the convention center. Hundreds of crew members stream onto the floor, along with tons of rock, thousands of yards of sawdust and countless plants. Mini-loaders and forklifts zip around, buzzing and beeping, delivering materials to the gardens.
My first garden at the show, inspired by the South of France, depicted a cobblestone courtyard and a bubbling fountain. It was small, 13 feet by 15 feet, so I was able to stage the pre-construction in my living room. The cat loved it, with lots of places to explore. My wife wasn't so thrilled. She did lend her purple velvet, waterfall, heel shoes—the heel sculpted in ripples like moving water--to put in the garden. The shoes, along with a bottle of champagne and a man's tuxedo tie draped across the table, gave it a hint of a story. One of the judges that year was the late Rosemary Verey, a grande dame of English gardening. When she tottered by after the awards were given, I asked her why I received a gold medal. She liked the way the green lining of the shoes picked up the color of the foliage.
Over the years, I have worked my way up to larger gardens. In 2003 I designed a garden sponsored jointly by the Arboretum Foundation and the Seattle Parks Department. I felt like a ringmaster working with dozens of staff and volunteers to put together the garden that celebrated the centennial of the famed Olmsted Brothers' firm coming to Seattle in 1903 to design our park system. The garden filled the entire skybridge and featured a boulevard lit with street lamps from the 1930's, 35-foot-tall trees, and a 20-foot-diameter reflecting pool. My first garden at the show would have fit inside that pool. My favorite moment during construction came when an enthusiastic parks department crew flung vines over the arbor that made a backdrop to the pool. The vines, as thick as your arm, were cut down from a structure at the arboretum scheduled for destruction. At the show, they looked like they had grown right there, in that garden.
I have had some of the peak experiences of my life building gardens at the show, because the compression of time concentrates my creative juices. The intensity is shared with the other garden builders. I see some of them only at the show, but over the years they have become friends through the common experience.
In 2005 I designed a garden that took inspiration from Italian courtyards. To give it a Northwest flavor, the fountain featured a three-foot-long salmon leaping through an arch, suspended in mid-air and spouting into the pool. Students at Seattle's Roosevelt High School crafted the salmon. A friend teaches art at the school and her students have made pieces for my gardens twice before. The fish was everything a salmon should be, fierce and flashing in its arc, but there was a problem when it blew up in the kiln on final firing. The students glued it back together, and I turned it over to Wade Bartlett, the owner of Rock Solid Landscapes, one of my partners in the creation of the garden, to hang seventy pounds of fragile clay from a single connection in the fountain arch. He pulled it off, and it served as a great foil for the classicism of the garden. A television station featured it on lead-in spots, using it as an icon for the show. The students were very proud. The garden won a gold medal.
The gardens are judged on the afternoon of the last day of show setup, so by noon, we have to be clear of the floor. The final dust is swept away, and the gardens shine like jewels coalesced out of the construction chaos. The theatrical lighting comes on, replacing the fluorescent work lights; the waterfalls and fountains sparkle, and the transformation to springtime fantasy is ready for its audience.
As I spend five days with the garden during the show's run, it becomes real. Plants bloom in the warmth of the air and spiders come alive and spin webs from tree to tree. As the show nears its end, the garden's life ticks away. On the last night of the show, someone spreads the word that there will be champagne in one of the gardens. After the show lights go out, the circus family gathers in exhausted celebration.
The final ritual of the show is move-out. Many people begin to tear their gardens apart immediately after the show closes. I like to wait, to let the garden lie in state for one last night. Taking down the gardens goes more quickly than building them. At the end of the day, nothing is left but piles of sawdust. The tent is struck; the magic waits for another year.
Phil Wood owns and operates Phil Wood Garden Design. He wrote about garden design for the Seattle Times newspaper, appearing every other Saturday in the now defunct DIGS section. Over the years, Phil designed ten gardens for the Northwest Flower and Garden Show, winning many gold medals. He earned his Bachelor of Landscape Architecture from the University of Washington and a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Sculpture from Cornish College of the Arts.
Top two photographs by Debbie Teashon
Bottom photograph by Phil Wood