Lessons from the 2023 Northwest Flower and Garden Festival

West Seattle Nursery's design with upcycled windows helped the business take gold medal at the Northwest Flower and Garden Festival in February.

West Seattle Nursery's design with upcycled windows helped the business take gold medal at the Northwest Flower and Garden Festival in February.
Erica Browne Grivas

A riot of inspiration, color and activity, the Northwest Flower and Garden Festival is like a circus designed by and for gardeners. From 18 life-sized display gardens created in 72 hours to the marketplaces and dozens of seminars, there hardly seems time to see it all — even in five days.

No matter how outlandish or fantastical, the display gardens alone are full of take-home ideas you can implement in your plot of earth — inside or out.

West Seattle Nursery took home the gold medal, the Founders’ Cup and Garden Communicators’ award for an upcycled artist’s studio in the woods. A wooden shed on stilts stood above a stream, with mosses and shade-loving plants curving under and around it. The exterior is decorated with salvaged windows and a woven screen of leaves, and the rear wall is covered in ferns. Outside, oakleaf primroses are planted in logs at the perimeter of a lushly layered planting.

Many designs showcased greenhouses or structures anchoring the scenes. The plant-centric Flower Growers of Puget Sound display made a faux stepping-stone path of gaultheria alternating with mosses and other small-textured groundcovers. Looking at Nature Perfect Landscaping & Design’s display, inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Falling Water” house, you might not ever build an aquaponic greenhouse with koi on one side feeding plants on the other, but it’s wonderful to see. You could easily be inspired, however, to copy the river of selaginella draping over boulders beautifully echoing the rushing water right next to it.

In Livingroom Landscape’s naturalistic display, a path meandered through a woodland scene with a charming bulb-filled meadow on the sunny side, showing how you can create a peaceful blend in any exposure using simple combinations of repeated plants.

Little Prince of Oregon’s garden was a plant lover’s paradise, giving you permission to play; South African Albuca “Frizzle Sizzle” popped from a river of sempervivums on one side while a carpet of tender begonias and houseplants dazzled on another.

This might be a record — three displays featured putting greens among the plantings.

Because it’s February, you see a limited palette of plants, with spring bulbs and primroses for color, rhododendrons and camelias for heft, and willows and cherries for airy elegance. It’s great to see how the plants are placed with evergreens to see how you might tuck some “Tete a Tete” miniature daffodils between a bare hydrangea and a drift of black mondo grass (Ophiopogon nigrescens), for instance. Of course, you can’t leave without falling for hellebores and witch hazel, which were out in full force. Yes, I bought a hellebore … and two daphne “Eternal Fragrance” and a couple of other things.

I didn’t see as many seminars as usual this year, but the ones I saw were excellent. Pennsylvania-based landscape designer Danilo Maffei spoke on “Designing for Theme,” and what struck me was “Your landscape needs an elevator speech.” His method for designing is to assign a theme, like “meadow with a pool,” which becomes the defining vision. If the palette, materials and plants don’t align with that vision, nix them. You can see how this cuts down on arguments with builders or spouses, impulse buys and generally simplifies things.

Charlie Nardozzi, garden writer and television host, called for ecological gardening as an extension of organic gardening. Instead of considering the garden a static system where you add inputs — even organic ones — to soil, he suggests creating an ecosystem supporting wildlife, pollinators and the soil. Eventually, nature creates the inputs as needed. It’s less work for us and better for the planet. He also discussed science-backed examples of companion planting, like planting mint family plants to mask the scent of Brassicas (cabbages, broccoli, kale, for example) to protect them from cabbageworms.

Kathy Jentz, author of the new book “Groundcover Revolution,” is on a mission to make the humble groundcover sexy. And why not? Groundcovers can reduce mulching, weeding, watering, improve soil health. The right one might help you, as it did Jentz, win the battle against invasive English ivy. She says there’s one for every situation. For a spot in full sun, creeping thyme offers fragrance, flowers, step-ability and is deer-resistant. In the shade of deciduous trees, winter-flowering hellebores are evergreen and will happily hide any fallen leaves, or summer-flowering hostas can be mowed in fall along with those leaves, nourishing the soil. For the darkest spots, try under-evergreen rhodies. Jentz likes perennial geranium m. “Biovoko.”

Even if you didn’t get to attend, you can find handouts for many of the lectures on the show website under Speakers/Resources or go to gardenshow.com/seminars/speaker-pro-tips.

In the marketplace, there was something for everyone — antiques, dahlias, mushrooms, orchids, jewelry, massage chairs and statuary. It’s pretty easy to get overwhelmed, so I like to attend a couple of days at least.  It’s kept me from buying that 6-foot-tall rusty metal Sasquatch — so far.