“How did it get so late so soon? It's night before it's afternoon.” - Dr. Seuss
by Brendan McGarry
- The Capitol Hill Times -
You’ve had a stressful day. Too much time in front of the computer. A myriad of meetings, pounding pavement between them. You need to step away from the city. There’s a place for that, just down the hill, it’s called the Washington Park Arboretum.
The 230-acre jewel has been there since 1934, but tucked away from where most live and work, it’s unfortunately easy to forget. Yet, this beautiful parkland has amazing plants worth year-round exploration. Not every neighborhood get’s such easy access.
This week I needed to alleviate the stress of too many projects, so I headed down. My reasons for visiting weren’t solely medicinal; I wanted to explore a new space. In Oct. 2007 ground was broken on the beginning of installations composing the planned 14-acre Pacific Connections Garden. Planting will represent five eco-geographic regions around the Pacific with climates similar to our own, Chile, China, Australia, New Zealand and of course Cascadia. This is the first major installation in 50 years at the Arboretum and design, procurement, and installation will be lengthy. The introductory Entry Garden for the five regions with showy cultivars of iconic plants, and the Gateway to Chile Garden were completed several years ago. On Sunday, Sept. 15, the arboretum will publicly celebrate the completion of the New Zealand Forest.
Don’t visit expecting towering forests just yet. The display represents species of seven highland habitats, which inherently means not everything is going to be profusely gigantic; the planted trees and shrubs will take time to grow. The forest is situated on a hill, so you will descend as if you are walking downslope in the Southern Alps of New Zealand’s South Island. Starting in the high alpine grass and shrub-dominated plantings, tracing through southern and silver beech forest, you conclude in wet meadow, phormium fen.
I’ve always considered Arboretums static. Permanent, taxonomically organized gardens; maples with maples, oaks with oaks. There’s a reason for this, says Paige Miller executive director of the Arboretum Foundation, the non-profit ensuring the arboretum’s growth and survival. The Pacific Connections Garden is planted eco-geographically – with species that grow together – rather than by family, and on a scale never before done in North America. In this exciting genesis we experience foreign habitat’s growth, for free.
Well, not quite. The Arboretum’s land is owned by the city and managed by the Parks Department. The plants are owned and curated by the University of Washington. In a sense, the Arboretum belongs to the public. In turn, it relies on public support in the form of voting and tax dollars (the 2008 Parks and Green Spaces levy provided $745,000 for the New Zealand Forest) and private contributions.
People have tinkered with plants aside from agriculture for centuries. Egyptians planted trees to honor gods, for burial rights, and for pleasure. The British sent early explorers like David Douglas to our region merely to “discover” plants to grow in British gardens. Obviously plants hold intrinsic value. However, many hold cultural value, like the western red cedar (Thuja plicata) to the Coast Salish or ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) in China, both in the Entry Garden. Planting them provides educational opportunities while celebrating cultural and biological diversity.
Additionally, in our modern world, arboretums that plan eco-geographically are genetic banks. The vast majority of plants in the Pacific Connections Garden are of wild stock; they aren’t developed cultivars or hybrids. Should a plant become scarce or even extinct, they could aid reestablishment.
Designing a garden with exotic plants from another region takes a measured approach. The various Forest areas require alternatively well-drained and moist soils; our climate is slightly wetter than alpine New Zealand. A prominent and pleasant dry, rocky creek bed will deviate excess water and specific topsoil avoids stagnation. Additionally, many of the wild plants have never been grown here. As with any garden, adjustments will be made over the years.
Effectively, the Pacific Connections Garden will be a unity of culture and place. The interpretive shelter beautifully represents the five eco-geographic regions, connecting plants with traditional carvings from each. A bench partway through the new Forest also has carvings, made by a Maori wood carver from outside Christchurch (our sister city), Caine Tauwhare, who will be at the opening celebration.
I sat on Tuawhare’s bench, contemplating the switchbacking trails meant to arrest your rush, not as a parsimonious path. What will grow here is a beautiful contemporary garden, not merely grand plants, but a celebration of culture and biodiversity. Birdsong plied through the trees and I tried to imagine I was in alpine New Zealand and not Urban Seattle. Eyes glazed over grass tussocks, I momentarily convinced myself.
The opening celebration is on Sept 15, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the Pacific Connections Meadow, Washington Park Arboretum.