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Changes go way beyond the seasonal at the Bellevue Botanical Garden

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.

The Olson Kundig-designed structure includes a covered gathering and orientation area, a virtual garden tour room, a gift shop, restrooms, administrative offices, and an education center. Replacing the stairs of the former entry is a vine-planted retaining wall with a waterfall and above it, a “tapestry hedge” of evergreens and deciduous shrubs that form part of the Spring Courtyard next to the Shorts House. Plants in the hedgerow include Ruscus bamboo (Shibataea kumasaca), Japanese euonymus (Euonymus japonicus  ‘Grandifolius’), and prickly heath (Pernettya mucronata).

A gathering at the new visitor center

A rain garden featuring Japanese and Siberian irises and water-loving gunnera borders the education center and juxtaposes nicely with the alpine rock garden. In all, the new botanical additions number just shy of a whopping 15,000 plants. Time will tell how these specimens, now just fledglings, will fulfill the designers’ vision.

The new visitors complex both echoes and transforms the aesthetic and intention of the Paul Kirk-designed Shorts House, the former visitor center. This is no coincidence. Early in his career Jim Olson, founder of Olson Kundig Architects, worked with Kirk and still finds inspiration in his “nature-loving architecture.” The one-story L-shaped complex integrates simple, clean lines and a functional layout that plays off the organic nature of the gardens. The education wing, a pavilion-like structure, with flexible spaces, an expansive roof, and a capacity of 300 people, extends out into a courtyard for increased capacity, movement and engagement with the gardens. When opened, its large roll-up doors frame full-size views of the rain, alpine rock and enlarged waterwise gardens. One goal of the overall project is that its residential scale will inspire and encourage visitors to incorporate appealing and appropriate elements into their own homes. Another goal is a LEEDS Gold certification.

But what about the rest of the established Garden? The dreamy perennial border I fondly remember had become a maintenance nightmare. Invasives such as American pokeweed, morning glory and Ranunculus ficaria ran amok. Seedlings of garden plants were no longer true to type. In a nutshell, the mostly volunteer-maintained border was overgrown and a challenge to navigate. In 2008 a renovation by the Northwest Perennial Alliance began, based on a design by Glenn Withey and Charles Price.

Part of the perennial border today

New hardscaping included two staircases, wider paths and teak benches. Hundreds of original plants were saved. But thousands of trees, shrubs, perennials and bulbs were selected and planted for their year-round interest, suitability for the Pacific Northwest, fairly low-maintenance requirements and, of course, beauty — essential criteria for most home gardeners. What ties the enormous border together is the repetition of gold and purple foliage throughout. Now in its fourth year, the new perennial border, still maintained by volunteers and under the oversight of friendly border supervisor George Lasch, is in full swing and will only improve with time. When I visited, smoke trees, dogwoods, foxgloves, lavenders, salvias, sea hollies and lilies were the stars of the border. But the season has really just begun. And the other display gardens hold exquisite treasures, too.

Time will tell how the changes at the Bellevue Botanical Garden will settle, connect and evolve. But gardeners know all about time. We plant seeds and seedlings and trees and wait for the miracle of growth and serendipity. We are not creatures of instant gratification. I fondly remember the Garden of the past but know I will enjoy the evolution of its latest reincarnation.

All photos by Jackie Hiltz

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