Botanically speaking, there is always something going on in Seattle. Even in the depths of winter. As plant and human rhythms slow down, the season is a great time to appreciate what is not so obvious in the showiness of a Seattle spring. Trees stripped of their leaves reveal their shape and branch structure. The persistent red berries of a Japanese barberry, hawthorn, or holly add welcome color against dark skies. But some plants are actually programmed to excel during this season.
Our mild Pacific Northwest climate favors a variety of plants that stand out during the winter months. Two public gardens in Seattle, both with very different themes, are great places to explore the phenomenon of a winter garden.
I first heard about the Witt Winter Garden in the Washington Park Arboretum, not long after settling in Seattle. I am a California girl by wiring, if not by number of years in that sunny state, and the gray Seattle ceiling of late January had gotten me down. So I was thrilled to learn of a small garden composed of trees, shrubs, and ground covers carefully selected for their talent to be most interesting in winter, whether in texture or structure, or for their blossoms, fruits, color, fragrance, or striking leaves.
The first time I entered the garden through the portal of blooming witch hazels (Hamamelis spp.), I was enchanted and uplifted. The scent and sight of all those spider-legged yellow and orange blossoms in the dead of winter struck me as nothing short of miraculous.
Not far from the Graham Visitors Center at the Arboretum, the Joseph A. Witt Winter Garden has roots stretching back to 1949, when it was originally conceived and created. In 1988 Iain Robertson, a landscape architecture professor at the University of Washington and Crosscut contributor, re-imagined the garden as a woodland room. It was named in honor of Joseph A. Witt, devoted and long-time curator of the Arboretum.
As any gardener knows all too well, a garden is not static. Some plants die, some overgrow their space. In spite of the best planning, certain combinations dont work while others, unplanned, do. In 2010 the Winter Garden was revamped to bring it back in line with the 1988 design and to allow more sunlight to reach the beds along its southeastern edge.
Douglas firs and western red cedars serve as native backdrop to the walls of the woodland room, with several beds surrounding a central lawn. In one bed, dogwood stems of yellow Cornus stolonifera "Flaviramea" pop against the arching blades of low-growing black mondo grass. Another dogwood shrub, Cornus sanguinea "Midwinter Fire," shows off its orange stems, as if aflame. Down the path is a small grove of birches and maples (Acer griseum and Acer palmatum "Sango-kaku" with trunks of unusual bark and great winter color. The Chinese red birches (Betula albosinensis var. septentrionalis) are showstoppers with their pink and cinnamon peeling bark.
Others plantings include variegated evergreen shrubs lighting up a shadowy path, winter-blooming rhododendrons and camellias planted back in the 1950s, evergreen silk tassel (Garrya spp.), fragrant daphne, and sweet box (Sarcococca) species, and undergrowths of hellebores and hot pink Cyclamen coum. While something interesting is happening here from late November through March, the garden peaks between late January and mid-February.
Another public garden at its best in mid-winter is the Coenosium Rock Garden at the South Seattle Community College Arboretum in West Seattle. Dwarf conifers are at the heart of this rock garden, where texture, shape, and color reign. These are not your average arborvitae trained as hedges or junipers sculpted into, say, giant gumdrops.
They are unusual dwarf and miniature cone-bearing trees and shrubs of pendulous, upright, prostrate, or rounded habit, of textures prickly, coarse, lacy, and feathery. Colors range from frosty blue to golden-yellow and all shades of green. The garden also features a stream, a pond, and beautiful granite boulders sited as accents. As at the Witt Winter Garden, most plants are labeled.
Conceived in 1999, and developed in phases with work done solely by horticultural students, the Coenosium Rock Garden is the crown jewel of the South Seattle Community College Arboretum. The arboretum serves as the laboratory and display garden for the landscape horticulture program.
Yuki Kato, a landscape design student from Japan, designed the plan for the rock garden along with horticulture instructor Van Bobbit, landscape construction instructor Steve Hilderbrand, and Dianne and Robert Fincham of Coenosium Gardens in Eatonville. The Finchams donated all the dwarf conifers. Rick Lupp of Mount Tahoma Gardens contributed the many alpine plants also planted.
With hundreds of species on display, the garden is one of the largest public collections of dwarf conifers in the Pacific Northwest. What's more, it was inducted into the Gardens for Peace program in October 2011 and is in the process of becoming a "reference garden" for the American Conifer Society.
The Witt Winter Garden and the Coenosium Rock Garden celebrate the botanical wonders of the winter season. When I make the pilgrimage to breathe in the heady aroma of witch hazels or marvel at the many hues of green the dwarf conifers offer, the gray ceiling of winter in Seattle lifts. At least for a moment.