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Changes go way beyond the seasonal at the Bellevue Botanical Garden

Rich heritage meets big remake. What's the result?

Things change, and gardens are no exception. But I wasn’t expecting the magnitude of change at the Bellevue Botanical Garden when I approached the entrance along Main Street last week. I didn’t recognize it from my last visit in April 2013.

More than 10 years ago my Pacific Northwest gardening mentor introduced me to the Garden, best known for its holiday light display with the corny name Garden d’Lights. A few times a year I’d trek north on the 405 to Bellevue to meet her for a stroll and to gather botanical inspiration. The 53 acres of the Garden, which are part of Bellevue's Wilburton Hill Park, include restored woodlands and wetlands as well as gardens of many themes — Japanese-inspired, ground-cover, alpine rock, native and waterwise.

But the big draw for us in spring and summer was the exuberant 25,000-square-foot mixed perennial border. Designed by Glenn Withey, Charles Price, Bob Lilly and Carrie Becker and installed in 1992, the Northwest Perennial Alliance Border was the embodiment of magical chaos. It teemed with ornamental grasses, roses, Japanese barberry, clematis, deciduous trees and shrubs, salvias, penstemons, flowering bulbs and two ancient apple trees. Wandering through the lush border delighted my inner child — and overwhelmed the practical gardener that I am.

The Yao Japanese Garden at Bellevue Botanical Garden honors the sister-city relationship between Bellevue and Yao in Japan.

The nucleus of the Bellevue Botanical Garden was seven acres donated in 1984 to the City of Bellevue by Cal and Harriet Shorts. In 1946, the Shorts had bought a cabin and cherry orchard in the neighborhood of Wilburton Hill, where they raised farm animals and gardened and lived for almost 30 years. The cabin was replaced in 1957 with a house designed by Northwest architect Paul Hayden Kirk. The mid-century modern house — 2,000 square feet with a low-pitched gable roof, atrium garden, and big windows framing landscape views and beckoning inhabitants outside — became the educational and programming anchor of the Garden, or visitors center, when it opened to the public in 1992. And over time the Garden increased to 53 acres within Wilburton Hill Park.

The Shorts House

With the Bellevue Botanical Garden attracting 300,000 visitors annually, changes had been contemplated with the idea of taking the Garden to the next level. In 2008 a radical renovation of the perennial border began. In 2012, a woodland ravine garden, spanned by a 150-foot suspension bridge and highlighting native plants, opened to the public. And the Bellevue Botanical Garden Society, which runs the Garden in partnership with the City of Bellevue, decided to address the increased demand for educational programs and guest services, which were exceeding the capacity of the Shorts Visitor Center.

A 2008 Bellevue Parks levy raised $6 million, and a capital campaign by the Society almost $5 million for the design and construction of a new visitors and education center with related gardens and facilities. The project broke ground in May 2013 led by a team including Olson Kundig Architects, Swift Company landscape architects, and rock-star plantsman Dan Hinkley as horticultural consultant. It was in the final stage of completion — ahead of schedule — when I visited last week.

I was surprised at the changes but then slowly began to absorb and experience the designers’ vision. The enlarged parking lot has been transformed into a winter garden with sweet-smelling witch hazels (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Pallida,’ ‘Diane,’ ‘Jelena,’ and ‘Arnold Promise’) planted in a succession of color and kept company by sweetbox, sword ferns, Mahonia nervosa, and Taxus x media ‘Everlow,’ to name a few. An allée of katsura trees, underplanted with honeysuckle privet, sweetbox, Japanese forest grass and narcissus, and pedestrian paths lead to the formal portal of the new 8,500-square-foot, L-shaped complex.


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