Despite our latitude, one of the fabulous things about the Pacific Northwest is the mild climate, a gift of the Pacific Ocean we border. Inspired plant lovers have taken advantage of this easygoing weather to create fabulous gardens with world-class collections. Since gardening is a sometimes insatiable fever, Pacific Northwest collections are often expanded by the addition of a greenhouse or conservatory, permitting exotic collections. These gardens deserve a place on every gardener's short list.
Since the most reliable direction in early spring is south, head toward the 47 acre Mendocino Coast Botanical Garden in Fort Bragg, Calif. "This is one of the best situated gardens in the world," says Director Chris Woods. "It probably has the greatest diversity of any garden in this part of the Northwest."
The only public garden that directly fronts the Pacific Ocean, the coastal prairie and bluffs provide visitors with a spectacular view, says Woods. Tender rhododendron species contribute to the garden's fragrance in May. Their entire rhododendron collection is world class, blooming mid March to mid-June.
Situated at the edge of historic Ft. Bragg with good restaurants and places to stay nearby, this garden is far enough south to have perennial plants flowering at all times. "One could spend anywhere from an hour to a lifetime exploring the gardens," says Woods. It's of special interest to model railroad buffs because it has a working model, a representation of the rail system that carried the region's lumber to market.
Birders will also find the site attractive; 150 bird species have been recorded there. Other plant collections include heaths and heathers, spectacular in winter; cacti and succulents and the rare and endangered plants of California. Local gardeners will find plants that meet their needs in the water conservation garden.
Heading north, The Oregon Gardens in Silverton is a vision-child of the Oregon Association of Nurseries. April Purdy, general manager of the garden, says there are 22 specialty gardens, providing more than enough stimulation for any garden lover hungry for inspiration. The Northwest Garden showcases plants that thrive in Oregon, and sections of that garden feature plants that would do well in Southern Oregon, says Purdy.
Pet owners will find this destination especially attractive. Dogs on leashes are allowed in the entire garden and the Pet-Friendly Garden features plants safe for dogs and cultivation practices that make other plants safe from dogs. Hint: trellises might be a pet owning gardener's "second-best" friend.
The Children's Garden includes hands on activities to encourage young gardeners. The Silverton Market Garden is the best example of the produce that can be grown in Oregon, from corn to berries and squash, says Purdy.
In the spring, over 100 varieties of daffodils enchant visitors, and a strong rhododendron and azalea collection competes for attention. June means the roses are in bloom. A tropical greenhouse is in its infancy, but still available if the rain threatens to interrupt your visit. This is a large garden to visit but if you don't want to walk, a tram with six stops and a tour that changes with the bloom season is available.
The average visit is 2-3 hours, longer if you came to find plants or plant combinations that will work in your home garden, says Purdy. If that's your purpose, don't miss the native plants garden.
Portland has many public gardens, including the Rose Garden, best in June. And there's the adjacent Japanese Garden and nearby Leach Gardens, which features a large collection of rhododendron. Garden lovers should not overlook a small and unique downtown gem—the Classical Chinese Garden. In a city block, designers have created a Ming Dynasty scholar's garden, including accurate representations of the architecture, plants and water features. "You get to experience a little bit of Chinese culture," says Jane DeMarco, managing director of the garden. "It's about architecture as well as planting."
The two-story teahouse and scholar's residence are set amid gardens and water features, with paths and bridges achieving the impression of a much larger space. It boasts an amazing plant collection and transports one to another realm with traditional Chinese music concerts and other events.
"Women love the garden and men aren't so sure," says DeMarco. "But once in, they love it, too." With only five similar gardens in the country, it's rare as well as a refuge. "Gardens give people the sense of sanctuary in troubled times," says DeMarco. "I get grounded in these gardens."
Seattle boasts a sanctuary of a different nature: the Volunteer Park Conservatory. "You definitely want to stop here if you are in Seattle," says senior gardener Stephanie Johnson-Toliver. The city's only public conservatory, its five rooms are located in a 1912 Victorian. "You just don't see anything else like it," says Johnson-Toliver. Exotic tropicals, cacti, succulents, ferns, and bromeliads excite the senses on a rainy Seattle day. "It's not what you see in the back yard," she says. It's fun for kids, who especially like the cactus.
For those who want to explore with their lens, the conservatory provides something exciting or in bloom nearly all the time. The orchid collection includes 1200 varieties and is blooming fall, winter and spring. The bromeliad collection is the "nicest collection under glass in the West Coast," says Johnson-Toliver. Everything is grown on the premises, with the exception of those plants "confiscated at the border" that enhance the collection. Registered with customs, the conservatory rescues "illegal" plants without the correct entry papers.
On nearby Bainbridge Island, a ferry ride from Seattle, the impeccable Bloedel Reserve offers a serene garden experience. Richard Brown, executive director of the reserve, recommends you tour the gardens on the web first, and then make a reservation to visit. The Reserve strictly monitors the number of visitors in order to protect the quality of experience of each visitor, he says. That preserves a remarkable experience for each visitor.
The 150-acre Reserve was designed with more than a plant collection in mind, says Brown. Prentice Bloedel recognized the healing power of nature and "intentionally designed a therapeutic landscape," he says. The garden is meant to be a spiritual, psychological and emotional support, so people come to soak in the healing aura of the gardens. Different garden rooms include a reflecting pool, moss garden and Japanese garden with tea house and sand garden—all rejuvenating places.
Bloedel Reserve also includes an English landscape, a woodland garden, birch grove, and water feature with swans. Spring is spectacular with rhodies, azaleas, camellias and flowering plums. Fall color is also stunning, peaking in the second half of October. Download the tour booklet to see if you want to take the ferry to this Shangri-La, including instructions on how to get there, with or without car.
Spring seems to be the season we pay attention to every budding leaf, but gardens are a treasure in every season. Long a metaphor for heaven, these healing spaces deserve a place on your itinerary this year.