We travelled to Seattle last May to see this unusual garden at its peak, when the perennials were in bloom. The underplanting feels as if an artist has laid out the plants by magic, with the sweep of a brush.
Underplanting is the idea of planting a garden in layers, with shrubs growing beneath trees, and shorter perennials and bulbs underneath them. The designer thinks about the height and spread of each plant, their colours and textures, then combines them in the most pleasing way. I’ve seen many attempts but rarely seen the effect better realised.
The Garden and Glass Museum in Seattle is able to add an extra ingredient not available to most home gardeners – a very liberal sprinkling of Dale Chihuly’s Art Glass. Surely one of the best-funded gardens in the world, the influence of an artist’s eye is clear throughout.
Like a great supporting actor, the garden has a depth of character that extends the experience, but never detracts from the lead role. You’ll spot many fortunate choices and combinations: ethereal drifts of Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’ with the orange art glass; golden grass (Hakonechloa macro ‘Aureola’) edging the border with the tall yellow installation towards the rear; orchids creating a rainbow effect with their towering glass neighbours; Corydalis flexuosa ‘China Blue’ with, well, anything, in my book.
It is a tribute to the dedication and skill of the garden team that the Art Glass doesn’t overwhelm the planting – each element provides a counterpoise to the other.
For me, professionally installed ground cover should carpet the earth so completely that no patches of soil can peep through. You could say I’m finicky about it. So the black mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’) was a delight, not only because it was immaculately planted and maintained, but also in the way its rich darkness sucked in the light reflected from the yellow art glass, creating a visual metaphor of light and shade. The textures of the mondo grass echoed all that wriggly spikiness above on a much smaller scale.
In a garden like this, your mind can’t help playing a few tricks. After a while, the mondo grass started to look just as artificial as the art glass. Perhaps I should rephrase that: the art glass seemed as organic as the plants.
Flower arrangers will be familiar with the idea of line, mass and filler (or spiky, roundy, frilly as my sweetheart calls it). I wonder if those ideas are at work here, helping to provide order and balance when there might otherwise be chaos? Notice how naturally the slender tree trunks sit with those blue and turquoise javelins of glass and how the yellow plant adds its arching lines; how a large stone counterbalances the glass orbs; and how the serpent-like glass forms are softened by the geraniums and the acer. Nature and art seem in harmony here.
The use of colour is quite masterly, moving from subtle and varied to bold in quick succession, keeping your senses on the alert. The visitor is guaranteed surprises like these golden worm-like grubs that would be scary in an episode of Doctor Who. Here, a diminutive bronze creeping plant – Acaena inermis ‘Purpurea’ – softens the stone and obliterates the earth (in a ground cover way, rather than an intergalactic monster way). The small white flowers are Geranium x cantabrigiense ‘St. Ola’, one of my favourites
It makes me wonder what colour the rhododendron flowers would have been earlier in the season, when they were adding their fleeting, sometimes flashy colours into the mix? Checking the official plant list (a wonderful resource, well worth consulting if you’re a plantsperson), I can see a white rhododendron, a pink, a purple and, intriguingly, a black sport listed. My money, for this position? It’s on the black sport, of course! One can always dream…
And talking of surprises, look what’s just out of shot around the corner… a massive, red, trombone shaped thingy. That just raised the bar for public address systems. I love the natural stone plinth, another confident juxtaposition of artifice and nature.
How many more pictures do you have patience for? Can I squeeze in a few more? I couldn’t miss showing this grand old fallen tree, colonised by ferns and perennials. There is majesty in this kind of planting, yet this garden never has the feeling of a wild place. It’s a created, cultivated, careful abandon. The orchid and the pretty little red veined sorrel (pictured above) are details taken from the foreground of this area.
Acers were providing a starry canopy for the black and white glass, underplanted with more ferns and a collection of hellebores. We were just a week or so too late to catch a large flowered dogwood in full bloom nearby, but could tell it would have been glorious.
I love the way these colours and textures have been woven together, the highlights and lowlights shifting just plain green to a different dimension. The plant selections and positioning throughout the garden had a serendipity I’ve rarely seen. Some parts of it seemed to have a closer link to floristry than to landscaping, the sheer perfection reminding me of watching bouquets of flowers and foliage being hand-tied by talented floral designers. They patiently pull, twist and coax each stem into place to create the perfect finish, then tie the bouquet firmly in place with twine or ribbon. Working to keep live, growing, spreading plants looking this good together in a garden open to the elements must be a challenge on a much larger scale.
The garden stays open till 7 or 8 in the evening (please check the website for details) so visitors can enjoy the transformation as dusk falls and the glass is gradually illuminated by uplighters and spotlights. I imagine the garden team start early before visitors arrive and work deftly like stage hands to keep things perfect for the day’s ‘performance’.
I can’t write with any conviction for this week’s photo challenge about the joy of travelling – I’m often teased for having so little wanderlust, given that I do travel. The nearest I get to wanderlust is taking a pleasure in a sense of place – finding joy in whatever rare or beautiful things you see, rather than how you get there. I hope that counts!
If you’re a gardener with itchy feet, who loves to travel, think about adding Chihuly Garden and Glass to your to-visit list. It’s not cheap to enter but it’s one of those places you’ll always remember, and a very good excuse to visit Seattle in late May or early June, should you need one!