The Mountain Gardener: Garden lessons from the snowy northwest corner of the United States
by Jan Nelson
Mar 03, 2011 | 1919 views | 0 0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Everett, Wash., at a local garden. Courtesy photo
Everett, Wash., at a local garden. Courtesy photo
SEATTLE — It was a snowy afternoon in the Seattle area when I attempted to ferry across the Puget Sound to Whidbey Island. Whiteout conditions got the best of us, so we chickened out and decided instead to go to a local arboretum and the garden of one of my sister's friends.

While the snow came down (much like last weekend in the San Lorenzo Valley!), this is what I learned about local gardening in the Pacific Northwest.

Washington state is the home of lily-of-the-valley shrub and heather, which are blooming now. Crocus, Siberian iris and narcissus poked valiantly through the snow. Ornamental grasses, not yet cut back, made me think of the prairie in winter. Japanese maples of every type showed off their exquisite form cloaked with a few inches of snow. Everywhere, tall evergreen trees as well as dwarf forms anchored the landscape, especially in winter.

The owner of this garden turned a weedy easement that stretched along the entire back fence line into curved planting beds created from retaining walls of beautiful dry-stacked local stone. Many low-water-use evergreen and deciduous shrubs help this gardener in the summertime. The Japanese maple marks where a utility pole once stood. Snow covered many of the plantings, but I can just picture how pretty the spirea and viburnums will be when they bloom in spring.

We grow many of the same shrubs in our gardens as I saw in the Pacific Northwest. Water conservation is important in the north, too. Although the area receives lots of winter rain and snow in the mountains, by summer's end, rivers and reservoirs in the Cascades, groundwater levels and collected snowmelt reserves are gone. A little rain falls in the summer, but it's still a Mediterranean climate. Water needs of people compete with those of migrating salmon and other wildlife and vegetation. Climatologists are predicting that climate change might mean less snowpack in the future.

Color in the wintertime is priceless, even if it isn't snowing. It's too early for the flowering cherries, but a few of the plums were starting to show color. Hellebores of every color combination imaginable were blooming in most gardens, although the snow weighted down the foliage. Their flowers stood stiffly upright, like the guards at Buckingham Palace. Bergenia flower clusters braved the weather, too. Some of our common shrubs — ceanothus, abelia, barberry, mahonia, sarcoccoca, hebe, choisya, rockrose and osmanthus — are also grown in the Northwest.

Later, at the Northwest Flower & Garden show in the Emerald City, I was treated to fabulous gardens designed using found materials, water catchment techniques, unique paving materials and slope stabilization ideas. One large display garden featured a high mountain forest setting, complete with a massive waterfall and huge boulders. A 20-foot-tall Japanese maple over 100 years old dominated one corner. They like things big in this part of the country.

Another favorite garden at the show had us wishing we could transport the whole scene to our own homes. Vintage galvanized pails and wooden flats atop repurposed shelves in a shed with windows created a cozy scene, surrounded by roses growing on old wood-and-wire fencing. I guess you had to be there to experience its charm.

As I wrote this, snow was forecast for our own area. Maybe it's following me. I enjoyed my trip to the Pacific Northwest and came back with lots of new ideas, but there's no place like home.

Jan Nelson, a landscape designer and California certified nursery professional at Plant Works in Ben Lomond, will answer questions about gardening in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Contact her at or
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