Americans haven’t done much traveling since last March. Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, vacation plans were scrapped, or never even made. Instead, we rediscovered green spaces closer to home, where we did our exploring and adventuring in fresh air.
By July, my daughter Alison and I had each logged more miles than a city bus on treks in our own familiar ZIP codes. Yearning for new vistas, we took a trip to the Bellevue Botanical Garden.
We weren’t the only ones. Places of “sanctuary, refuge, and calming places to be,” including public parks and botanical gardens, were the top spots visitors turned to last summer in the wake of pandemic closures, according to the American Public Garden Association.
The Bellevue Botanical Garden is a partnership between the city of Bellevue Parks and Community Department and the nonprofit Bellevue Botanical Garden Society. What began as a seven-acre gift to the city in the 1980s is now a 53-acre urban refuge of cultivated gardens, restored woodlands and natural wetlands east of Wilburton Hill Park in downtown Bellevue.
July 17 turned out to be glorious summer day in the Puget Sound area. Alison and I were drawn to the Northwest Perennial Alliance’s Perennial Border, one of the highlights of any visit to Bellevue, like hungry bees to nectar. The NPA created and maintains the border as a gift to the city and thousands of annual visitors. Nationally recognized for its year-round displays of evergreens, trees, shrubs, perennials and bulbs, the NPA Perennial Border is a brilliant example of an American gardening style, and one of the largest public mixed borders maintained by volunteers in the United States.
Borders like these are built on a foundation of woody plants, including conifers and broad-leaf evergreens. A plant palette like this ensures beauty in every season, including the coldest months of winter. The rich textures and contrasting leaf forms of evergreens illustrates how foliage makes as important a contribution to a garden as its flowers do. While spectacular, the blooms of bulbs, perennials, biennials and annuals are considered ephemerals. Their blossoms enjoy fleeting moments in the spotlight, bringing seasonal bursts and waves of color throughout the gardening year.
Because a mixed border is composed of a widely diverse array of plants, it’s healthier and more resistant to disease and pests, while requiring less water, fertilizer, and maintenance.
It seemed like everything in the NPA border was blooming just for us during our visit. Billows of perennials tumbled over each other, with flowering vines threading their way through the froth. Meandering paths revealed something delightful and unexpected around every turn. We wound our way to the Fuchsia Garden, Lost Meadow Trail, Native Discovery Garden, Rhododendron Glen, The Urban Meadow, Water-wise Garden, Yao Garden and a dahlia display. Benches along the way provide a place to pause and relax.
I visited the gardens again on a December day two weeks before Christmas. Temperatures were in the low 20s when I left Yakima, with frozen fog limiting visibility. Hours later, I found the sun rising in a clear Seattle sky, burning off the last of a gauzy haze, and very little of the usual morning rush-hour traffic.
A few steps from the parking lot, I was embraced by seas of dew-dropped leathery- leaved hellebores, their fat flower buds rising from dormancy and ready to unfurl. Nearby, Witch Hazels were in bloom, as well as a few hardy fuchsias and a grove of white camellias. These sights alone were a tonic for a winter-weary gardener’s soul.
The beautiful bones of the Perennial Border offered stunning combinations of bark, berries and bare woody branches in the depths of winter. While the herbaceous perennials slumbered underground, gardeners had been working, getting the beds ready for spring. A blanket of rich compost, looking more like crumbles of the richest dark chocolate cake, had been spread throughout the beds like a blanket.
I revisited the Yao Garden, honoring the friendship between Bellevue and her sister city of Yao, Japan. Japanese gardens are designed to immerse the visitor in nature. A sign at the entrance encouraged visitors to leave their worries outside the garden’s walls as they strolled along a circular path. More than 100 tons of Columbia River basalt and 60 different plant species, including Japanese maples, pines and azaleas, festooned in a thousand shades of green, were placed to make this garden as stunning in December as it is in any summer month.
Before pandemic restrictions, the Bellevue Botanical Garden provided education and hands-on learning opportunities for NPA members, horticulture students and gardeners throughout the Puget Sound area. But to slow the spread of COVID-19, the city of Bellevue has canceled all in-person programming and events, including plant sales, community celebrations, summer concerts, art exhibits and holiday light festivals until further notice.
At this time, the grounds are open daily, including holidays, from dawn to dusk. Masking and social distancing are required. Admission is free, and free parking is available in the garden parking lot, immediately adjacent to the visitor center. Except for service animals, dogs are prohibited.
You may download a “Garden Map and Guide,” a “Children’s Self-Guided Tour” or find directions and additional information from the Garden’s website at www.bellevuebotanical.org
In hard times like these, garden
visitors can’t help but leave feeling more hopeful and optimistic about the uncertain months ahead. That’s the healing power of nature, and you can always depend on it.