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Originally published April 13, 2011 at 5:01 PM | Page modified April 15, 2011 at 12:06 PM

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Popular Bellevue Botanical Garden is at its spring best — and ready to grow

Not yet 20 years old, Bellevue Botanical Garden, with 300,000 visitors a year, is riding a wave of popularity as it readies to add more specialty gardens and a new visitor center.

NW Weekend editor

What's new (or soon to be) at the garden

Fundraising in final stretch

Bellevue Botanical Garden Society is in the final rounds of fundraising for an $11 million upgrade to the garden that will include a new visitor center, new specialty gardens, new parking and renovations to a classic 1950s home on the site.

A new 8,500-square-foot visitor center designed by Jim Olson and a team at Seattle's Olson Kundig Architects will include an outdoor covered orientation space with displays and maps, a gift shop, meeting space, classrooms, offices and restrooms. It will be built near the garden's Main Street entrance, replacing an existing garden office.

The Shorts House, designed in the 1950s by Northwest master architect Paul Kirk and currently serving as the visitor center, will be reconfigured with meeting rooms and a library.

A new parking lot, doubling existing spaces, will be designed around a winter garden. Expansion of specialty gardens includes the new Ravine Garden, spotlighting natural woods around a forest stream, and a wetland garden area bordering Main Street.

The garden society last week announced a $506,000 grant from the PJA Foundation to finance development of the Ravine Garden, expected to be completed by year's end. Another $3.8 million remains to be raised toward the $11 million goal. Some $6 million has come from a 2008 Bellevue parks levy, a challenge grant from the City of Bellevue and other sources.

Famed plant collector and author Dan Hinkley is horticultural consultant on the improvements, collaborating with landscape architect Barbara Swift.

— Brian J. Cantwell

If You Go

Bellevue Botanical Garden

Getting there

The garden is at 12001 Main St., Bellevue. From Interstate 405 at downtown Bellevue, take the Northeast Eighth Street exit and go east to 120th Avenue Northeast. Turn right (south) on 120th, which curves to become Northeast First Street. At the first traffic light, turn left on Main Street. The garden entrance is about three blocks up the hill on the right.

Special event this weekend

The city of Bellevue's Earth Day-Arbor Day Family Festival is from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the garden. Pick up a "passport" and get it stamped at the garden's eco-stations; turn in a full passport for a raffle ticket. Other activities include a native plant workshop, docent-led garden tours and more. A ceremonial tree planting is on the main lawn at 11:30 a.m. The event also celebrates National Volunteer Week, with the garden's volunteer groups available to answer questions.

Weekly tours

Each Saturday and Sunday, April through October, free docent-led tours begin at the visitor center at 2 p.m. No registration is required. To arrange a group tour, call 425-451-3755.

Hours and admission

The garden is open daily, including holidays, from dawn to dusk. The visitor center is open 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Admission is free year-round except evenings during the holiday-season Garden d'Lights display.

More information

425-452-2750 or 425-451-3755; online at www.bellevuebotanical.org.

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Q: How many wild deer live within a mile of downtown Bellevue?

A: Enough to munch the new camellias in the Bellevue Botanical Garden.

Yes, we're talking about that Bellevue — the land of the Freeman (Kemper, who owns a lot of it) and the home of The Bravern (and several other fancy downtown malls). A busy city with wide streets and lots of cars.

But there's also a surprisingly peaceful sanctuary, just out of hearing distance from Interstate 405, that you could drive past for years without guessing it was near.

And it's a beautiful place, even without a lot of camellias.

"We had planted camellias here, but the deer ate them," volunteer guide Elaine Miller told a tour group on a recent Saturday as visitors dodged raindrops to admire the recently reconstructed Perennial Borders, one of seven themed zones within the botanical garden.

Just 19 years old, the Bellevue Botanical Garden has become one of the most heavily visited public gardens in the Northwest, welcoming some 300,000 visitors a year. Best known for its popular holiday-season Garden d'Lights display, the complex is about to broaden its year-round appeal with major additions that will include a new visitor center, more parking and significant new specialty gardens.

While all that makes it sound like a happening place, it's also a lovely, quiet spot to contemplate nature on a fresh April day.

Relish the Lenten rose

Who needs camellias when you have every color of hellebore in bloom? Also known as the Lenten rose, this species shows off cupped flowers of pink, mahogany and cream in the weeks before Easter.

"Hellebores and daffodils are the queens of the garden now," said Miller, who lives near Coal Creek, as she led us on toward the waterfalls and ponds of the Shorts Ground Cover Garden, named for the site's previous owner.

Started with 7 acres donated by Cal and Harriet Shorts, whose former home is the current visitor center, the botanical garden has grown to encompass 53 acres, only a quarter of which has been developed. Much of the rest is a mossy, 100-year-old forest of maple, cedar and fir.

Besides spring flowers, other factors make this a good April visit. One is the mostly level, graveled pathways, with no mud to navigate this muddy time of year.

Another nice quality of the developed gardens is their small scale, allowing easy exploration by young and old. An hour's visit between rain showers takes in a lot.

"The scale was deliberate, so that visitors could relate to what they might do in their own residential garden and not be overwhelmed," said Nancy Kartes, garden manager for Bellevue's Parks and Community Services Department, which owns and maintains the garden with the assistance of the Bellevue Botanical Garden Society.

But there's a much longer list of cast members.

Making the garden grow

"What makes this garden unique is that the community brought the idea for a botanical garden to the city, and several strong community partnerships contribute to its success," Kartes said.

So in addition to the garden society that helps run everything, a community group volunteers to oversee each specialty garden:

• The Northwest Perennial Alliance created and tends the Perennial Borders, with year-round displays of flowering perennials that thrive in Western Washington's temperate climate.

• The North American Rock Garden Society helps with the Alpine Rock Garden, a display of plant life and landforms found high in the Cascades.

• The Hardy Fern Foundation manages a fern collection throughout the property, with more than 90 varieties in the Rhododendron Glen alone. (Most are just uncurling their first new fronds of the season.)

• Bellevue's Utilities Department sponsors the Waterwise Garden, demonstrating plants that sip rather than slurp.

• East Lake Washington District of Garden Clubs supports the Native Discovery Garden, with hemlocks and dainty trilliums — the garden's emblem — bordering a marshy pond sprouting skunk cabbage that would make Pepe Le Pew proud.

• Eastside Fuchsia Society maintains a garden, and Puget Sound Dahlia Association nurtures a fireworks-bright display of dahlias.

"The garden provides a public place for all of them to exhibit their horticultural passion," Kartes said.

Into the woods

That's not all.

As Miller led the tour through Yao Garden, named for Bellevue's Japanese sister city, she pointed out the mortise-and-tenon gate constructed without hardware from two kinds of cedar. More than 100 tons of Columbia River basalt form giant stones surrounding and bridging a pond.

A short walk on the Lost Meadow Trail took our group into woods where small ferns grow up the side of mossy maples like feathers on a sparrow.

Surveyors' stakes showed the first work toward the garden's next expansion: the Ravine Garden. Starting this summer, workers will span a burbling stream with two bridges, to include a little bit of Indiana Jones-style fun: a 150-foot suspension bridge with a see-through deck. The intent is to immerse the visitor in wild woods.

As our group strolled back along the trail, a sudden percussive chatter sounded at first like a semi truck's compression brakes. Were we that near the freeway? Nope — this was fauna, not Freightliner.

"There's a pileated woodpecker!" cried Terry Thorpe, a docent-in-training, who lives in Somerset.

Sure enough, we all spotted the big bird with the punk-style red hairdo as it launched another round of bongo drumming on a nearby maple. Again, not what you'd expect just a mile from the Bellevue Hyatt.

That oasis quality, nurtured by work-gloved hands from all over the Eastside, sums up the garden, Kartes said.

"If you feel like you're in a well-loved place, it's because you are."

Brian Cantwell: 206-748-5724 or bcantwell@seattletimes.com

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