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The Seattle Times | Pacific Northwest

Plant Life Valerie Easton

A Wave, A Wrinkle And A Whirl

In the garden's motion, we're moved

On a good day in the garden, we recall that it's the nature of flora to grow unexpectedly tall and wide. We're prepared for even the most stolid of conifers and carpet-like of groundcovers to change through the seasons.

What we forget is that plants also animate the garden minute to minute. Buds open, petals fall, leaves ripple, trunks and stems bend, straighten and rustle in response to temperature, light and wind, the splat of rain, the buzz of a bee or flurry of bird wings. Plants are in a dance with their environment, and without this tingling level of receptivity and reaction, our gardens would be discouragingly dull.

Think of a late August afternoon so sultry that the air presses in, draping as heavily about your shoulders as a thick velvet cape. The sky is an endlessly clear blue bowl, and you long for clouds to gather on the horizon, for cooling rain. A thunderstorm must be on the way. The mugginess is stifling. All is hushed, silent, waiting. This sense of suspension is how a garden might feel most of the time without plants to animate it. We think we accumulate nursery debt because we must have flowers, but really it's the liveliness of plants that we crave, and then forget to appreciate.

Sure, plenty of plants are as unmoving and unmoved as their human counterparts. Every garden needs a few shrubby bumps and balls to ground it, just like every committee or workplace needs dependable citizens to rely on. If plants had astrological signs, mugo pines and hollies would be the earth signs, while the more lively plants would claim the air signs of Gemini, Libra and Aquarius.

Some plants have such wild and crazy shapes that they enliven the garden just with their presence. A contorted filbert doesn't need a breath of wind to look as if its twisted limbs are perpetually locked in a losing battle with a whirling dervish. You can imagine that twisted Hollywood junipers (Juniperus chinensis 'Torulosa') have spent long years by the seaside buffeted by strong gales, even when growing in a protected garden. It's as if contorted plants, or conifers with whorls of foliage, contain their own perpetual eddy of strong wind. Even low-growing plants can create this welcome illusion of wind and wave. When heaths and heathers are massed they have an undulating quality often described as a "sea of bloom."

Bamboo adds an auditory element as well as movement to the garden. It has long been revered in Asia for the rustle and murmur of its canes and leaves in even the slightest breeze. If its aggressive ways scare you, plant bamboo in a large pot and place it near a window you open often to get the full effect of its sound with a minimum of care. Japanese maples, eucalyptus and katsuras are also responsive to every little gust of wind or drop of rain. On a smaller scale, plants with wand-like blooms, such as Japanese anemones, lavender, sages and salvias are good candidates to liven up the garden. The more you mass these plants, the greater the effect.

Ornamental grasses are the stars of animation as their willowy flower spikes, topped with airy inflorescences, shimmer and quiver in the wind. Or quake violently when visited, as they so often are, by every kind of little bird.

I had a clump of variegated pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana 'Gold Band') at the top of the rockery in my old garden, right outside a large window. Early each spring, we loved to watch the birds ride the wildly waving flower wands. They'd busily pluck away at the winter-weary shreds of flossy flowers to carry triumphantly off to line their nests. Of such moments good gardens, and fond memories, are made.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "A Pattern Garden." Her e-mail address is Jacqueline Koch is a photographer based in Seattle.