One year ago I visited the Elisabeth C. Miller Botanical Garden for the first time. The garden’s limited tours were booked when I first found out about the place, so my way in was a fern class, led by the garden’s curator, Richie Steffen. I’d become familiar with Steffen after I visited the Victorian Stumpery at the Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden and was inspired to read the fern guide he co-authored. The class was offered by the Hardy Fern Foundation—which I had joined—and on June 22, 2016, I took the afternoon off from work and stepped into the Highlands garden.
What happened next will… well, it blew my mind. I don’t know what I was expecting and it’s hard to articulate the experience without sounding hyperbolic, but after a couple hours there I felt like parts of my brain were being rearranged. Up till then, my sense of garden design had been overly informed by modernism and perfect angles. Or so I came to understand in the following days and months, as I processed what I saw—and how it made me feel.
The photographs here show some of the sensational density, the texture, color, and variety packed into the sizable, but not enormous property. It was overwhelming but only because my plant vocabulary and time there was limited. Not that any one plant did me in, though the sea holly shown in the first picture demonstrated a kind of contrast and eye-popping zeal I’d never seen up close. Through full sun and shade, every time I stopped my eyes would adjust to a new mix of saturated colors. The more I focused, isolating grasses from evergreen shrubs, spotting tiny purple flowers in a border, counting the overlapping deer ferns, and comparing the dense shadows of the mature trees, the more I was in awe of what was accomplished there. Still, dizzied by the layers upon layers of plants reaching from the ground to the blue sky, it’s a wonder I didn’t lose my balance and tumble down the slope. Or maybe I did. Because for the past twelve months I’ve been heading in one, irresistible direction.
In this time, my appreciation for garden design has grown from a mostly passive admiration to an active engagement. I’ve had big plans for the property my wife and I purchased three years ago, but I started to think of our space in new ways. Can I achieve something remarkable right here, and just how many years will it take? What used to be a hobby—exploring ferns, picking appropriate plants for appropriate locations, forming cursory opinions like I hate variegated leaves—has become a more daring, integral part of my daily life.
The piles of half-read books on my bedside table vouch for that. What was once a healthy mix of fiction-and-non-fiction is now plants-plants-and-plants. The most important book there is one that I actually finished last fall, Michael Pollan’s Second Nature. If my visit to Miller Garden flipped a switch, then Pollan’s book was a flood light. His essays, about his relationship with nature and journey into gardening, were so relatable that it motivated me to meet people in the field and start writing things down.
Seattle, meanwhile, was busy breaking rain records all winter and I was convinced we’d lose spring entirely this year. I can handle long stretches of grey, but the onslaught of impossible days—where almost nothing can be done outside—was truly bleak. Eventually, I decided that neither the weather, nor my day job, would hinder my curiosity. After learning about the horticulture program at Edmonds Community College in January, I enrolled in a deciduous plant identification course. The Spring quarter flew by. The sun finally came out. And even though my friends just shrug when I point out an Aesculus hippocastanum seedling emerging from some Hedera helix, I’m ready for more. A lot more.