Photo by Erica Browne Grivas: Full of artistic touches, the garden of Daniel Sparler and Jeff Schouten is carved into a Seward Park hillside.
Photo by Erica Browne Grivas: Full of artistic touches, the garden of Daniel Sparler and Jeff Schouten is carved into a Seward Park hillside.

It’s garden tour season, which means my head has exploded several times from sheer inspiration in recent weeks. 

Nearly every garden group — and a few enterprising non-garden groups — is offering behind-the-scenes looks at beautiful, quirky, personal, jaw-dropping, ethereal, artistic gardens around Puget Sound.

The Northwest Perennial Alliance hosts a kind of mega-tour called the Hardy Plant Study Weekend. They ingeniously share the labor and audiences of the Hardy Plant Society of Oregon, the Vancouver Hardy Plant Group and the Victoria Horticultural Society by rotating the tour locations. Seattle hosted this year, for five days, only one of which was seminars.

I was only able to attend the seminars and one day of tours, but I saw eight gardens in six hours, from Seward Park to Bellevue and north Seattle. There were old and new gardens, romantic and modern gardens and everything in between. What struck me most as I dove into these gardens were two concepts that emerged from a lecture by Washington D.C. columnist and author Marianne Wilburn.

A central theme of her talk was to find takeaways from pictures or other people’s gardens by asking, “What do I like about this?” and distilling and translating the concepts to your garden. Maybe you like the high contrast of gold creeping Jenny (Lysimachia aurea) with blue catmint flowers (Nepeta mussini), or the idea of having an art piece capping a long view.

So, as I flitted about like a hummingbird with a camera, rather than focusing on individual plants, I looked for the ingredients that would give the same feel in any setting. Although, there was no getting around the thirst for specific plants that took hold — how could it not — I made an entire phone note on plants to hunt for. Iris fulva, or cinnamon iris, caught my eye in two gardens — small, elegantly wrought blossoms, but dipped in a striking yet companionable muted raspberry-copper.

I noticed what it felt like to step from under a leafy canopy to a bright open clearing. Where a seat was in just the right spot for resting after a spout of digging. The temperature and energy of color — the optimistic cool of white and green to the brazen magenta, blue and orange.

Planning my route before the tours, reading the garden descriptions, I predicted the most designed gardens would appeal to me the most — since that’s what I crave to elevate my current garden. I made sure to see the ones that had been profiled in magazines and books, or that sounded impressive first.

While I was out, something else Wilburn said came back to me. She said something like,“You can tell when you look at a garden whether a gardener lives there.” Some gardens are designed with only money — these exude a sterile perfection, in the same way that hotels don’t look like home. The ingredients I think these are missing are 1. A love of plants and 2. Personality, preferably a fun kind. When those two things are present, it doesn’t matter so much if that gardener’s personality or sense of fun clashes with yours. You appreciate the authenticity. I have yet to put a bowling ball or pink flamingo in my garden, but they can make me smile in someone else’s space.

I saw a garden that was so formal and buttoned-up you could almost hear the boxwoods gasping for air. Yet it was artful in its combination of plants, color and form, and that order was consistent into the annual borders and even the pockets of woodland. It was like an impeccably tailored tuxedo I’ll never wear, but the love and care put into it made it breathtaking.

On the flip side, there was an unabashedly chaotic garden mixing handcrafted tables and art with a rusty car, but all corralled with a strong structure of pathways, sight lines and thoughtful pruning that made my heart laugh.

One garden amazed with happy collector’s plants, adorned by painted columns and mosaics — a surprise from every angle, and a labor of love over many years. Another had a drop-dead view of Lake Washington and a very cool raised bed, but what I remember are the two swings hanging by the entry for the owners’ grandkids.

One of the last I saw combined elements of all of these — plus decades of time for growth, plenty of money for moving heavy things like funky art and boulders into the garden, a leisurely journey from room to room and a perfectly placed clump of those cinnamon Iris.

So, notice what you love in gardens, art and elsewhere in the big world, and take the leap to make your garden a place you love right now. You can do it.